Toxic Spill Creates Range of Plaintiffs, No Clear Limit on Class

A Louisiana Court of Appeals remanded a class action case back to the trial court for further determination on the size of a class of plaintiffs affected by a Livingston Parish hazardous waste dump. The case, while unfortunate in subject matter, is an excellent overview of the appeals process.

In this case, the trial court had decided to certify a class of all people living within 2.5 miles of a dump site of Combustion, Inc., that had released toxic chemicals into the air and water. Initially, over 14 lawsuits had been filed by 1200 people, but the trial judge had consolidated the cases to a single class action case. The defendants in the case appealed the trial judge’s decision on two grounds: first, that a class action lawsuit was not the appropriate means of deciding the matter because separate lawsuits would be better; and second, that the judge incorrectly set the eligible class of plaintiffs at all those people living within 2.5 miles of the site.

The Court of Appeals sided with the plaintiffs on the first issue. The Court noted that, under Louisiana civil procedure, a case is appropriately decided by class action if the plaintiffs are numerous enough, the named plaintiffs will adequately represent all plaintiffs in the class, and if there is a common character between the claims of all plaintiffs. The Court reasoned that, there being over 1200 plaintiffs in the initial class, there were clearly enough plaintiffs for the trial court to decide that a class action was fair. Also, the Court reasoned that the plaintiffs would likely all have similar damage from the toxic chemicals—namely, bodily injury and property damage—that would make the named plaintiffs adequate representatives of everyone in the class. Finally, the Court reasoned that the legal issues encountered by the plaintiffs were similar enough that there was a common character between them. For these reasons, the Court held that class action was appropriate to resolve the issues in the case.

Since class action was appropriate, the Court was left to decide whether the trial judge correctly named the class of people who were eligible to participate in the class action. Here, the Court sided with the defendants. The Court noted that the trial judge had not credited the expert witnesses of either side, who had testified to the way in which the toxic chemicals had been dispersed through the air, with correctly identifying how big the geographic area covered should be. Having decided each expert was wrong, the trial judge then visited the site of the dump, which was comprised of two separate facilities. The trial judge set the area affected as anywhere within 2.5 miles of the center of the two facilities. Having decided on the area affected, the trial judge opened the class of plaintiffs to anyone living within that 2.5 mile area.

The Court deemed that the trial judge made an error in using his own observations about the site of the dump. A judge’s own observations cannot be used to decide disputed issues of fact. Here, since the size of the area affected by the dump site was one of the facts disputed in the case, the judge should not have made personal observations about the site. Since the trial judge deemed the two experts who testified were not credible witnesses, the Court determined that there had been no valid evidence on the size of the dump site. Because of this, the Court sent the case back to the trial judge to make a factual determination—based on new witnesses and evidence—on the size of the site.

This case helps highlight the need for proper representation in a case. The need for competent counsel is crucial as an attorney must review a ruling, whether for or against his or her client(s), find potential errors in the original judgment and use those in their appeal to get proper results.