Closing Overview of Class Action Certification for Chemical Leaks, Other Disasters

In this, our final post of the Union Carbide/Dow Taft plant chemical leak series, we will consider the fifth requirement for class certification under Louisiana law: that the class is “defined objectively in terms of ascertainable criteria, such that the court may determine the constituency of the class for purposes of the conclusiveness of any judgment that may be rendered in the case.”Chalona v. La. Citizens Property Ins. Corp. The intent of this requirement is to ensure that the class is not “amorphous, indeterminate, or vague,” such that any potential class members are challenged to determine whether they are actual members of the class. Plaintiffs initially submitted a class definition that included “[p]ersons throughout Louisiana” who were exposed to the ethyl acrylate that escaped the Taft plant and who suffered injury or loss as a result. The court desired a more precise definition, however. It reviewed the zip code maps, weather data, and expert testimony in evidence and incorporated Dr. Williams’s method in describing the symptoms suffered by people who were exposed to craft its own definition. This action on the court’s part was specifically permitted by Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure Art. 592(A)(3)(c), which envisions that the court may, prior to a final decision on the merits, enlarge, restrict, or otherwise redefine the constituency of the class. The court determined that its sharpened definition would mean that members “only need to determine if they were present in the geographically defined area on July 7, 2009, and if so, whether they experienced any of the symptoms commonly associated with the offending chemicals released.” This meant, in the court’s view, that its ultimate ruling as to whether the chemical released by the Taft plant caused the Plaintiffs’ injuries and losses would resolve the claims of all class members.

The court summarized its conclusions by reiterating that the substantive issue that will control the outcome of the case is whether ethyl acrylate “in the amount released can cause the damages as alleged by plaintiffs. This issue, along with the legal issues of duty of the defendants to the class … will predominate.” Accordingly, the court held that the Plaintiffs successfully demonstrated that certifying the class would not result in the action “degenerating into a series of individual trials.”

As we observed previously in the class certification litigation related to the Chalmette Refinery leak in 2007, the court’s task in determining whether to certify a class is an extraordinarily fact-intensive one. In many cases, the certification process is just as complex and involved as the trial on the merits of the ultimate issue. In fact, the class certification in the Taft plant case has not yet been finalized. Subsequent to the issuance of Judge Cade’s Order on December 15, 2011, the Defendants filed a motion to appeal the class certification.

Please stay tuned to this blog for updates as they become available.