Anatomy of a Class Action Certification

Early in the morning of July 7, 2009, a 640,000 gallon chemical storage tank at Union Carbide/Dow Chemical’s Taft plant began to rupture. The tank contained ethyl acrylate, a foul-smelling chemical used in making various products including industrial flavorings, fabric finishes, pigments and dyes, floor polishes, adhesives, and caulk. The substance is listed as a possible carcinogen by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, and is known to cause a number of significant heath issues such as burning of the mucous membranes and eyes as well as respiratory irritation and nausea upon contact through the air. Westerly winds gusting as high as 20 miles per hour carried the chemical vapor into the neighboring communities. St. Charles Parish sheriff’s deputies began evacuating residents while officals from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality were summoned to perform air testing. Numerous residents in St. Charles Parish and surrounding parishes experienced extremely unpleasant physical symptoms as they came into contact with the chemical vapor.

The Berniard Law Firm filed a lawsuit on July 29, 2009 on behalf of those who suffered effects from the Taft plant chemical leak. On December 15, 2011, Judge Herbert Cade of the Civil District Court of the Parish of Orleans granted the Plaintiffs’ Motion for Class Certification. The class is defined as persons living or located in St. Charles Parish and certain areas of Orleans and Jefferson Parishes on July 7-8, 2009 who experienced “eyes, nose, or throat irritation, coughing, choking or gagging, or nausea, or headaches, dizziness, trouble breathing or other respiratory issues” as a result of their exposure to the ethyl acrylate that escaped the Taft facility. The court’s order contains an illustrative description of the process by which it analyzed the Plaintiffs’ argument for class certification, and an exploration of that analysis will serve as the basis for this and a series of subsequent blog posts.

Previously on this blog, we have examined the requirements for class certification in a federal case according to Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Louisiana’s Code of Civil Procedure, in Article 591, sets forth a similar set of standards for certification. Specifically, a plaintiff who seeks to represent a class must show:

(1) the class is so numerous that joinder of all members is [impracticable]; (2) there are questions of law or fact common to the class; (3) the claims or defenses of the representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class; and (5) the class is or may be defined objectively in terms of ascertainable criteria, such that the court may determine the constituency of the class for purposes of conclusiveness of any judgment that may be rendered in the case.

Additional criteria, such as whether the common questions of law or fact predominate over issues pertaining only to individual members, and the practical ability of individual class members to pursue their claims without class certification must also be considered by the court. Only once the court is satisfied that these various factors resolve in favor of class certification can it grant the plaintiff’s motion to represent the class.

In the Taft plant litigation, three proposed class members were presented to the court in support of the motion for class certification: Ramona Alexander, a resident of St. Charles Parish; Vanessa Wilson, a resident of Jefferson Parish, and Melissa Berniard, a resident of Orleans Parish. In the next post, we will begin our review of the court’s analysis of the five certification requirements under the Louisiana Code.