Federal Court Rejects Toxic Tort Class Action

A federal district court has declined to certify a proposed class action involving as many as 33,000 residents living near a Kentucky manufacturing plant. Cochran v. Oxy Vinyls, 2008 WL 4146383 (W.D. Ky. Sept. 2, 2008). For readers of MassTortDefense, an interesting feature of this proposed toxic tort class action was the court’s focus on the proposed class definition.

Plaintiffs, residents of neighborhoods surrounding an industrial area known as “Rubbertown,” alleged that emissions from defendant's operations in its nearby plant invaded their property in the form of particulate matter fallout and noxious odors. Defendant operated a plant in the Rubbertown area, at which it manufactured polyvinyl chloride resins (“PVC”); but defendant's plant is only one of several industrial facilities in the Rubbertown area.

Plaintiffs filed their complaint in 2006, alleging nuisance, negligence and/or gross negligence, strict liability for ultrahazardous activities, and trespass. Plaintiffs moved for class certification under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 23(b)(2) and 23(b)(3), for a class defined as including owners or residents of single family residences within two miles of the Oxy Vinyls facility, who allege the invasion of their property….a circular and largely geographic-based definition.

The court rejected this proposed definition. Although not specifically mentioned in Rule 23, the proper definition of the class is an essential prerequisite to maintaining a class action. The class must be sufficiently definite that it is administratively feasible for the court to determine whether a particular individual is a member. Courts have rejected certifying proposed classes where plaintiffs failed to identify any logical reason for drawing the class boundaries where they did. See, e.g., Daigle v. Shell Oil Co., 133 F.R.D. 600, 602-03 (D .Colo.1990) (holding that the plaintiffs had “failed to identify a class” where the proposed boundaries did not appear to “relate to the defendants' activities,” but were instead “arbitrarily ... drawn lines on a map”).

After an initial failed stab at certification, plaintiffs supplemented their effort with the expert report of an industrial hygienist, Roger Wabeke, who spent two days collecting air and settled dust samples in the neighborhoods immediately around the plant operated by Oxy Vinyls in an effort to tie the plant's alleged particulate pollution to the proposed class. The court's review of the record, even as supplemented by Mr. Wabeke's report, revealed an insufficient relationship between the proposed class definition and the evidence provided regarding the alleged emissions of the facility. The court concluded that Mr. Wabeke's report utterly failed to substantiate any sort of evidentiary relationship among the proposed class members that would justify certification of the proposed class.

The Wabeke report had numerous infirmities, but the most significant to the court was that the dust and air samples he collected were "virtually meaningless." The court noted that its rigorous review of the scientific evidence was not an inquiry into the merits, but rather a careful analysis of the Rule 23 prerequisites. Mr. Wabeke's report was “stunningly inadequate.” Far from a proposed class definition that was “objectively reasonable,” plaintiffs had offered no meaningful evidence that airborne contaminants from Oxy Vinyls spread in a uniform fashion in all directions from defendants' facility for a distance of up to two miles, or really that they spread that far from Oxy Vinyls at all. Therefore, the court was left without a basis upon which it could properly conclude that the members of the proposed class were distinguishable from the general public. For example, plaintiffs offered no way in which the proposed class members would be distinguished from those whose property may have been damaged by similar emissions from other facilities.

The faulty class definition also infected other elements of the Rule 23 analysis. Numerosity is inextricably bound up in the question of class definition. Thus, a flawed class definition can make it difficult to determine whether a class defined by geographical boundaries satisfies the numerosity requirement; indeed, courts faced with overbroad proposed classes have rejected plaintiffs' numerosity arguments due to this difficulty.

Similarly, the court was unable to conclude that named plaintiffs represented an adequate cross-section of the proposed class. For example, a proposed class member's lesser proximity to defendant's facility or closer proximity to one of the other facilities in the area may completely eliminate defendant's liability for the alleged harm they experienced. Mr. Wabeke's report provided no assurance of typicality, since the samples taken of settled dust were clearly and admittedly not “typical” of anything.

As for Rule 23(b)(3), the critical evidence of causation would be based upon highly individualized testimony. Thus, the Court was not at all convinced that defendant's liability to the class would involve predominating common issues or that a class action would be the superior method of adjudicating plaintiffs' claims.

The court concluded that Rule 23 and the vast majority of other mass tort cases “do not support the idea that simply by demanding a class and filing a document styled as an expert report a group of plaintiffs are thereby entitled to certification of whatever class they propose.”