The recent decision in Boyd v. Allied Signal, Inc., 2008 WL 4603401 (La.App. 1st Cir., October 17, 2008), illustrates a distressingly common feature of class actions, particularly those in the toxic tort context. Class representatives who are not injured, and not even members of the class.
The basic facts: a compressed gas trailer owned by Allied Signal, Inc. and loaded with boron trifluoride developed a leak from one of its tubes while being transported as a tractor-trailer unit. After the leak was discovered, the tractor-trailer unit stopped around noon on the westbound shoulder of I-12 on or near its overpass for Cedarcrest Avenue in Baton Rouge, where the tube continued to leak and dispersed BF3 in the air. Mitigation efforts ensued, and were completed approximately eighteen hours later.
A number of civil actions seeking class action status were subsequently filed by those allegedly impacted by the leak. The trial court consolidated the various actions and ultimately certified a class action as to the issue of liability, establishing geographic boundaries approximately corresponding to those of an emergency “shelter in place” plan for nearby residents and to various gas dispersion plumes or isopleths estimated on a successive hourly basis by the plaintiffs’ expert in atmospheric dispersion. The Louisiana court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision to certify the class action. Boyd v. Allied Signal, Inc., 898 So.2d 450, 453-54 (La.App. 1st Cir.12/30/04), writ denied, 897 So.2d 606 (La.4/1/05).
One of the class reps claimed she had entered the westbound portion of Interstate Highway 12, and about five to ten minutes later encountered stalled traffic and observed a police officer some distance ahead, standing outside his unit. After pulling her vehicle onto the shoulder, she and her husband allegedly exited the vehicle and walked to the side of the highway, where she observed a truck ahead, surrounded by a haze. Ms. Smith claimed that she experienced eye irritation and coughing during the course of events, and washed her eyes with eyewash after arriving at her destination. She did not seek medical treatment for those claimed symptoms.
Ms. Smith was confirmed as a class representative. But identification of members of the class based upon their claims of physical presence in its geographic and temporal limits is an issue separate from proof of the veracity of such claims. Ms. Smith was not thereby relieved of her burden of proof on the issues of causation and damages by virtue of her status as a class representative. Defendants appealed the judgment in favor of Ms. Smith.
Under cross-examination, Ms. Smith had acknowledged there was nothing that prevented her from using an exit to get off I-12, rather than remain on the shoulder. Her husband admitted they were told to get back in their vehicle. In deposition he admitted that they never drove past the leaking tractor-trailer. Thus, during the time she was on I-12, she never closely approached the class geographic boundaries. The geographic boundaries of the class were carefully drawn to coincide as closely as practicable with a circle defined by the quarter-mile “shelter-in-place” radius centered on “ground zero” and the BF3 dispersion plumes postulated by the plaintiffs’ expert in air dispersion in his air modeling.
At the conclusion of Ms. Smith’s presentation of evidence, the defendants moved for involuntary dismissal of Ms. Smith’s cause of action on the grounds that she failed to prove any symptomatic exposure to BF3. The defendants emphasized that the plaintiffs’ own expert testified that the exit plaintiff used was outside the area of his air modeling, and that any concentration at that location “was so low that it would not have any significance from the point of view of a toxicologist.”
The trial court clearly erred in finding that Ms. Smith sustained symptomatic BF3 exposure while traveling on I-12. There was no testimony or other evidence supporting that finding. The court of appeals carefully reviewed the maps, diagrams, and aerial photographs showing the geographic boundaries of the class. That review leads to the inescapable conclusion that Ms. Smith failed to prove that she was within the class geographic boundaries and that she suffered any exposure to airborne BF3 sufficient to cause any symptoms.
It is amazing that the claim was handled properly only on appeal, for a plaintiff who was not exposed, not injured, should never have been a class rep, was not a class member, and had no business obtaining a judgment at trial.