Second Part in Understanding the Anatomy of a Class Action Certification

In our previous post, we began a discussion of the Union Carbide/Dow Chemical Taft plant chemical leak litigation filed by the Berniard Law Firm. This post continues with a review of the court’s analysis of numerosity in certifying a class. Under this requirement, the class must be so large that joinder of all members is impracticable. La. Code Civ. P. Art. 591(A)(1). Generally, a class action is favored when there are so many plaintiffs that individual suits would unduly burden the court, and so the class action would be more judicially expedient than other available procedures. See Cotton v. Gaylord Container. There is no distinct number of plaintiffs needed to fulfill the numerosity requirement. In this case, the proposed class included all the residents of St. Charles Parish as well as certain residents of Jefferson and Orleans Parishes–clearly a large number. The court found persuasive the fact that “the size of the individual claims of class members is small enough that individual lawsuits are impracticable,” but that that “separate suits would unduly burden the courts.” In the court’s view, a class action would “be more useful and judicially expedient.” Thus, the court concluded that “numerosity exists,” but that “the class is not too numerous to manage effectively.”

The court next examined the issue of commonality, or whether there were questions of law or fact common to the class. To satisfy the commonality requirement, there must exist “as to the totality of the issues a common nucleus of operative facts.” McCastle v. Rollins Environmental Services. of La., Inc. A common question is one that, when resolved for one class member, is resolved for all members. This issue is closely related to the predominance requirement, where the common questions predominate over any individual issues not shared among the class members. The Louisiana Supreme Court has indicated that predominance “entails identifying the substantive issues that will control the outcome, assessing which issues will predominate, and then determining whether the issues are common to the class.” The goal is to “prevent[] the class from degenerating into a series of individual trials. Brooks v. Union Pacific R. Co. The same court has also held that a mass tort can only be brought as class action if it arose from one single cause or disaster; however, this requirement does not mean that the amount or extent of damages must be identical for all class members. “[V]arying degrees of damages … does not preclude class certification.” In order to meet the common cause requirement, each member of the class must be able to show individual causation based on the same set of facts and law that any other class member would use. See Bartlett v. Browning-Ferris Indus. Chem. Services, Inc.

With these considerations in mind, the court analyzed the common threads identified by the Plaintiffs as to their claims. First, all class members were physically located in the identified parishes on the date and time of the chemical release. They all suffered various (but similar) physical injuries and financial losses as a result of the release. Also, common questions of law and fact surrounded the Defendants’ negligence in failing to maintain its plant and prevent the chemical release. The court concluded that it was “satisfied … from the evidence presented that common factual issues predominate with regard to whether Defendants took reasonable steps to prevent the release of [ethyl acrylate] that occurred on July 7, 2009 and whether or not the release could cause the harm as alleged by the Plaintiffs to the members of the class.” The court’s reasoning was based in part on the testimony offered at the hearing by Dr. Patricia Williams, a toxicology expert. Dr. Williams concluded that the symptoms described by the class were consistent with the type of exposure to ethyl acrylate that resulted from the release at the Taft plant. Although the Defendants offered its own expert witness to rebut Dr. Williams’s testimony, the court nevertheless found that “a method of assessing general causation for the whole of the class exist[ed].” This permitted the court to reach the conclusion that common factual issues were present. The court thus identified a “common nucleus of operative facts” that permitted a finding that “uniform allegations of complaints of harm amongst the large number of class members that stem from one central release event” involved common legal issues among all members that superseded any individual concerns.

Having concluded that Plaintiffs met their burden of proof on the issues of numerosity and commonality, the court turned its attention to the third requirement: typicality. We will take up this analysis in the next post in the series.