Chemical Release at Chalmette Refinery Results in Battle Over Class Action Certification

In this post, we will explore the basic concepts of a class action lawsuit. In particular, we will examine the rules that govern the process by which the court decides whether to recognize a class and permit a group of plaintiffs to litigate under one single action. In a subsequent post, we will examine a recent case from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in which the defendant, a petroleum refinery, challenged the district court’s certification of a class of plaintiffs following a chemical release in Chalmette, Louisiana.

A class action is appropriate when numerous plaintiffs who have experienced similar harm collectively bring a suit against the defendant. For actions filed in federal court, Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure sets out the requirements for a court to certify, or recognize, a class in a particular case. The four central prerequisites include:

(1) numerosity–a sufficient number of plaintiffs that for each to bring a unique suit is impracticable; (2) commonality–questions of law or fact are common to each plaintiff; (3) typicality–the named parties’ claims are representative of those of all plaintiffs; and (4) adequacy of representation–the class representatives will fairly and adequately protect the interests of all plaintiffs.

If each of these requirements is met, the plaintiffs must then meet two additional burdens. First, they must show that questions common to all the plaintiffs predominate over questions that affect only certain individuals. Also, the plaintiffs must demonstrate that the class action is better than alternative methods for resolving the controversy. Feder v. Elec. Data Sys. Corp. The district court is responsible for determining whether the class will be certified. “The decision to certify is within the broad discretion of the court, but that discretion must be exercised within the framework of Rule 23.” Castano v. American Tobacco Co. The court’s “rigorous analysis” of the class question means “going beyond the pleadings … [to] understand the claims, defenses, relevant facts, and applicable substantive law in order to make a meaningful determination of the certification issues.” This typically involves the court’s allowing the parties to conduct discovery specifically on the issue of class certification before rendering the decision.

Given that class certification involves “important due process concerns of both plaintiffs and defendants,” the district court’s proper handling of the certification petition is essential. For this reason, Federal Rule 23(f) provides that the parties may file an interlocutory appeal to challenge the court’s grant or denial of class certification. The appellate court is charged with ensuring that the district court conducted a sufficiently rigorous analysis if a party challenges the class certification, such as in the recent case of Madison v. Chalmette Refining LLC, which we will take up in a future post.

If you have been injured due to someone’s negligence, call the Berniard Law Firm at 1-866-574-8005 to speak with an attorney who can help you obtain the recovery you deserve.