Dismissal of Bellwether Case in FEMA MDL Upheld

The plaintiff who at one time had been the first-in-line bellwether plaintiff in the FEMA Trailer MDL has lost her appeal of the dismissal of her claims. In Re: Fema Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litigation (Alana Alexander, plaintiff), No. 10-30451(5th Cir. June 24, 2011).

Plaintiffs sued the government, alleging exposure to potentially dangerous, high levels of formaldehyde in their Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided emergency housing unit. Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, FEMA provided EHUs to the displaced victims of the storms. The hurricanes’ destruction created an urgent and immediate need for an unprecedented number of EHUs. In response, FEMA purchased more than 140,000 new EHUs from manufacturers and dealers. Alexander and her children were among the Louisiana residents who received an EHU. The Alexander family moved into their EHU in May 2006 and almost immediately noticed a “chemical smell” in the unit that caused the children's asthma to worsen. Other physical manifestations allegedly  included  irritation, burning, and tearing of the eyes; irritation and burning of nasal membranes; eczema; headaches; difficulty breathing; wheezing; shortness of breath; and new allergies and worsening allergies.

Alexander admitted that she knew the smell came from the EHU. Shortly after moving in, Alexander claimed, she asked an unidentified Government representative or contractor about  the smell. She claimed that he told her that that the smell was “nothing to worry about.”

In July, 2008, Alexander submitted an administrative claim with FEMA and in early 2009 filed a complaint in the district court, alleging under the Federal Tort Claims Act that the Government was careless, reckless, grossly negligent, and acted with deliberate indifference by failing to disclose the exposure to potentially dangerous and high levels of formaldehyde in the trailers.

Defendant moved to dismiss the complaint as untimely (in cases where the government has waived sovereign immunity, the statute of limitations issue is jurisdictional). Although the FTCA does not define when a claim accrues, it is well-settled that a tort action under the FTCA accrues when the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the alleged injury that is the basis of the action. The trial court dismissed the case, and plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, Alexander argued that the accrual of her claim was delayed or tolled pursuant to either: (1) the discovery rule, (2) equitable estoppel, or (3) the continuing tort doctrine. The 5th Circuit found these arguments were without merit.

There was no dispute that Alexander was aware of the injuries by May 2006. When the family moved into the trailer in May 2006, almost immediately, the asthma worsened, and the kids
experienced a plethora of other health issues. The primary dispute was thus whether  Alexander knew or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should have discovered the cause of the  injuries such that her claim accrued at that time.

Plaintiff claimed she did not discover the Government’s role in the alleged injuries until July 2007, when FEMA issued its second round of flyers about formaldehyde emissions in the EHUs. This argument was "not convincing."  The court of appeals held that plaintiff had enough information regarding the injury and its cause by May 2006 that would lead a reasonable person in plaintiff's  position to further investigate the specific cause of that injury. All the facts were not in the control of the putative defendant, unavailable to the plaintiff or at least very difficult to obtain. Plaintiff could have established FEMA’s connection to the EHU, from which the “chemical smell” was emanating.

Second, plaintiff argued that because she reasonably relied on the claims of the representative that there was “nothing to worry about,” the limitations period should be equitably tolled. Because the limitations periods in statutes waiving sovereign immunity are jurisdictional, the district court properly held that equitable tolling did not apply to this case. 

Finally, Plaintiff could not cite any Fifth Circuit case law indicating that accrual should be delayed when the plaintiff knows about the injury and could have discovered, with a reasonable inquiry, the putative defendant’s, here the Government’s, potential liability. The court thus declined the invitation to apply the continuing tort doctrine to the facts presented in this case.

Alleged Damages in Hurricane Katrina from Dredging Operations Not Forseeable

A court of appeals has affirmed the dismissal of multiple claims alleging that negligent dredging operations before Hurricane Katrina led to the failure of levee systems in Louisiana.  See In Re: In the Matter of the Complaint of Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. LLC, No. 08-30738 (5th Cir. Oct. 14, 2010). Claimants were Hurricane Katrina flood victims who filed claims alleging negligence on the part of operators of dredging vessels along the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. Plaintiffs argued that they suffered damages from the flooding of Orleans and St. Bernard Parishes when several levee systems failed as a result of the erosion of protective wetlands allegedly caused by the defendants’ negligent dredging operations.

The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet  (“MRGO”) is a 76-mile navigational channel that connects the Gulf of Mexico with the Industrial Canal in New Orleans, bisecting the marshy wetlands of St. Bernard Parish and Chandeleur Sound. It was built between 1958 and 1965 by the United States Army Corps of Engineers.  Beginning in 1993, the Corps of Engineers contracted with numerous private dredging companies, including the defendants, to assist the Corps of Engineers in maintenance dredging along the MRGO. From 1999 to 2004, the Corps of Engineers awarded more than 150
contracts to private dredging companies to dredge the length of the MRGO channel.

Plaintiffs, who numbered in the tens of thousands, were individuals, businesses, and other entities who owned property that was damaged due to flooding after Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005. (BTW, for readers, there is a fascinating new exhibit at the Newseum in Washington, DC, on the media coverage of Katrina.)  Plaintiffs contend that the defendants'  maintenance dredging operations caused severe damage to the Louisiana wetlands, which had been providing a natural barrier against tidal surge from storms and hurricanes. This damage to the wetlands allegedly caused an amplification of the storm surge in the New Orleans region
during Hurricane Katrina, which increased the pressure on the levees and flood walls along the MRGO, leading eventually, they alleged, to levee breaches and the subsequent flooding of St. Bernard Parish and Orleans Parish.

These allegations were different from some earlier Katrina claims, adding that their injuries resulted from the erosion to the wetlands caused by the negligent dredging, performed in breach of the standards set out in their Corps of Engineers contracts and various rules and regulations
alleged to apply to their operations, to try to defeat the dredgers’ government contractor immunity defenses, as well as the dredgers’ entitlement to exoneration from or limitation of liability under the Limitation of Liability Act.

Defendants moved to dismiss.  The district court dismissed the claims, and plaintiffs appealed. The 5th Circuit noted that to avoid dismissal, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter,
accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.  Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 554, 570 (2007)). To be plausible, the complaint’s factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level. In deciding whether the complaint states a valid claim for relief, we accept all well-pleaded facts as true and construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.

Defendants argued that they could not have foreseen that discrete acts of negligent dredging could have resulted in the absolutely devastating and cataclysmic damages that occurred to St.
Bernard and Orleans Parishes.  Plaintiffs asserted that it is well known, as a matter of general knowledge, that the wetlands provide storm surge mitigation; that the levees protecting cities and towns in the coastal areas were designed with the assumption that the buffering action provided by the wetlands would remain intact; and that dredging activities cause damage to the wetlands.

Duty and forseeability were the key concepts here, and maritime law on this issue mirrored general negligence law.  Determination of the tortfeasor’s duty is a question of law.  A duty may be owed only with respect to the interest that is forseeably jeopardized by the negligent conduct. Thus, if the injuries suffered allegedly as a result of the negligent dredging were not foreseeable, the defendants owed no duty; to show a duty, plaintiffs had to show that each dredger reasonably should have foreseen that the sequence of events leading to their damages—the amplification of the storm surge during Hurricane Katrina, the failure of the levee systems, and the subsequent flooding of Orleans and St. Bernard Parishes—would be a probable result of its negligent acts and the marginal erosion to the wetlands caused thereby.

The 5th Circuit agreed with the trial court that the defendants in this case had no knowledge of an immediate and pending natural disaster that would affect how they conducted their dredging operations. Furthermore, it cannot be said that any dredger could have foreseen that performing its dredging activities negligently—as opposed to in conformity with the Corps of Engineers’ specifications— would probably result in the series of events culminating in the catastrophic damages that occurred during Hurricane Katrina. No reasonable dredger could have anticipated that its negligence would make the difference between the levee systems holding or failing in the event of a hurricane. The damages alleged here were beyond the pale of general harm which reasonably might have been anticipated by negligent dredgers.

The court cautioned that that was not to say that it could never be foreseen that dredging could create conditions that would result in flooding after a hurricane. Rather, it was not foreseeable that the marginal erosion caused by any act of negligence by a defendant here would substantially affect the impact of the hurricane such that the failure of the levee systems and subsequent flooding would be the probable result. The causal sequence alleged in the present case was just far too attenuated.

 

Climate Change Litigation Update

Latest round in the "global warming" litigation -- Coming as no surprise, a group of property owners asked the U.S. Supreme Court last week to address issues arising in the appeal of their climate change tort lawsuit.  The suit seeks to hold a group of energy companies liable for alleged hurricane damage to their properties.  See In re: Comer, No. 10-294 (U.S. petition for writ of mandamus filed 8/26/10). The causation allegation in this particular case is arguably even more attenuated than the long, convoluted causation chain in many other global warming cases; plaintiffs asserted that defendants' greenhouse gases didn't cause but contributed to global warming, which made the waters in the Gulf of Mexico warmer, which didn't create but made Hurricane Katrina more intense, which then caused their alleged property damage to be worse. That stands as perhaps the most attenuated, least supportable, causal link in tort history. 

The procedural history is fascinating.  The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi dismissed the complaint in August, 2007 for lack of standing and as a non-justiciable political question. See Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc., 2007 WL 6942285 (S.D.Miss. 2007). The district court correctly held that tort suits against electric power companies and other alleged large greenhouse gas emitters should not proceed in federal court because, among many reasons,  climate change, and tort claims based on alleged climate change, is fraught with national political and policy considerations.

Plaintiffs appealed, and a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit reversed that decision in October, 2009.  But the defendants petitioned for a rehearing en banc, and the Circuit ordered en banc rehearing of the case. Comer et al. v. Murphy Oil USA et al., No. 07-60756 (5th Cir.). That vacated the panel opinion.

Then came a letter from the clerk noting the cancellation of en banc oral arguments. Apparently, since the en banc court was constituted, new circumstances had arisen that made it necessary for various judges to recuse, leaving only eight members of the court able to participate in the case. Consequently, said the clerk, the en banc court had lost its quorum. (Several members of the court had previously recused themselves from the case.)  The court then asked for supplemental briefing on what should happen next.

Following the briefing, in an opinion of the majority of the remaining judges, the 5th Circuit held that it could not give the climate-related lawsuit full court review because of the recusal issues. See Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, 607 F.3d 1049 (5th Cir. 2010).  As a result, the court let stand the lower court's dismissal of the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs in this case have now filed a petition seeking a writ of mandamus that would overturn the dismissal of their appeal. They raise not the merits of their convoluted causation theory, but the procedural questions about when an en banc court loses its quorum after granting rehearing but before hearing argument en banc, what happens to the appeal? And when an en banc court loses its quorum before deciding an appeal on rehearing en banc, does the original panel somehow still maintain control over the case?

Thus, the case is not positioned like the Second Circuit appeal in which the federal government (Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal on behalf of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a government-owned company), recently urged the Supreme Court to overturn a court of appeals decision that allowed Connecticut and several other states to move forward in their suit seeking greenhouse gas emissions reductions under a federal common law nuisance theory. American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, No. 10-174 (U.S., brief filed 8/24/10).

Readers know that writs of mandamus are rarely granted by the Supreme Court,  and the rule has traditionally been that once a court of appeals takes a case for en banc decision, the original panel decision is vacated, null and void, regardless of whatever happens next.  The 5th Circuit cannot legally reinstate a decision that no longer has any legal effect.  But stay tuned.

 

Drywall Litigation Update

The Georgia Superior Court has preliminarily approved a $6.5 million settlement between the Lowe's home improvement stores and a nationwide proposed class of drywall purchasers. Vereen v. Lowe's Home Centers Inc., SU10-CV-2267B (Ga. Super. Ct., Muscogee Cty.).

The proposed resolution of this piece of the drywall litigation would provide Lowe's gift certificates ranging from $50 to $2,000 to any consumer who purchased drywall (not just from China), as well as cash awards of up to $2,500, if the claimant can provide documentation of damages and proof of purchase. That is, plaintiffs who provide proof of purchase of drywall from Lowe's but have no proof of actual damages would receive gift cards valued up to $250. Class members unable to provide a proof of purchase would receive $50 gift cards.

Under the settlement, Lowe's also agreed to pay attorneys' fees and expenses up to 30% of the class fund, as well as $1 million to the plaintiff attorneys for administration of claims. The settlement purports to release Lowe's from all drywall claims.The Georgia court conditionally certified a settlement class and set a final fairness hearing for November 19th.

But the proposed settlement has apparently drawn objections from participants in the federal Chinese drywall multidistrict litigation, who are arguing that the settlement fund is too small and that the settlement would interfere with federal jurisdiction.  The plaintiffs' steering committee for the Chinese drywall multidistrict litigation in the Eastern District of Louisiana went so far as to move to enjoin the state court from moving ahead with the settlement, arguing that the benefit to the class is too small, and the attorneys' fees too large. Ironically, these plaintiff attorneys assert that the form of the class benefit, i.e.,  a gift card, is also improper.

The MDL lawyers assert that the parties involved in the MDL have been negotiating towards a global settlement, and allowing the state court, one-defendant settlement to go forward would simply undermine those efforts.  They called on the federal court, pursuant to the Anti-Injunction Act, to enjoin state court proceedings where, as here, it is allegedly necessary in aid of its jurisdiction or to protect or effectuate its judgments.

Readers will recall that after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, drywall was imported from China to address a shortage of drywall required for repairs and new construction. After the drywall was installed, homeowners began to complain of smells, gas emanations, corrosion of appliances and electrical fixtures, and other alleged property damage. The lawsuits typically allege that sulfur compound levels in the drywall are too high, causing issues with air conditioning systems, electrical appliances, internal wiring, and other electrical systems in homes. Plaintiffs also allege the drywall produces a rotten egg-like stench and causes a variety of respiratory and other health problems for those who live in the affected homes.

So far, a few bench or jury bellwether trials have been completed, with mixed results.