Class Action Involving Plant Releases Demonstrates How Certification Occurs

Creating laminated veneer lumber and I-Joists, which are used in residential and commercial construction, require toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, phenol, and methanol. The chemicals also end up in the waste products of plants that produce these goods. In the Parish of Natchitoches, hundreds of individuals discovered the damage that these chemicals could cause. These individuals stated “that sawdust from the plant fell like snowflakes upon them, their children, their homes and their cars.” The plant admitted that accidental release of admissions were fairly common, and they were all observed and recorded.

As a result of this exposure, hundreds of plaintiffs joined to form a class action lawsuit. A class action lawsuit involves numerous individuals who have suffered in a similar manner, usually resulting from the same incident or series of incidents. Class action lawsuits allow individual people to get compensation for damages where they may not have been able to if they just sued by themselves.

The damages in this case not only included the obvious mess that sawdust would create in a home, but also included an array of medical issues. Some examples include conjunctivitis, difficulty breathing, wheezing, coughing, bronchial pneumonia, and asthma. The side effects of exposure to the chemicals in the plant were relatively the same as those claimed by hundreds of nearby residents.

The parties in this case were instructed to have a class certification hearing in order to determine whether the suit is actually a class action lawsuit. Louisiana law requires this type of hearing. Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure 591 requires five major elements to be satisfied if the action is going to be considered a class action lawsuit: (1) The number of people is so great that joinder of all of the members is impracticable, (2) there are questions of law or fact common to the class, (3) the claims or defenses of the representatives are typical of the claims or defenses of the class, (4) the representative party will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class, and (5) the class can be defined objectively so that a definite conclusion can occur.

The plant argued that the plaintiffs did not meet these requirements. They stated that they did not have enough people to warrant the class certification, there was not enough in common to be considered a class, and that every class member was not identified, so it could not be a full class of those affected. The requirements assume that there will be a representative of the class that will actually go to court and take the place of the hundreds of injured individuals in this case. The plant argued that the class did not have an adequate representative.

The plaintiffs are responsible for establishing that they are a class and fulfill all of the requirements. However, the court will consider a number of practical implicates of the class certification such as how feasible it would be for each member of this class to sue on their own or the difficulties in handling the large number of plaintiffs in the case. Essentially, the court tries to keep the interests of the plaintiffs in mind while still maintaining order in their courtroom. Normally, the court will err on the side of creating a class, because the court is allowed to break the class up later if needed.

The court first determined that even though every potential class member was not included in the suit, that did not make the class certification invalid. There were over 300 plaintiffs in this case, so the court found that the class definitely satisfied the first requirement.

Second, the court determined that because the issue was the same for each plaintiff, the fact that they had varying levels of injuries did not make the class certification invalid. The issue in this case is whether the plant released saw dust that contained harmful chemicals and once that issue was decided, then it would be decided for all of the plaintiffs. Therefore, the second requirement was satisfied.

Third, the court stated that the representatives did not have to be one of each type of claim or “Noah-like” in that regard. Instead, a representative sample that “typically” and “adequately” represents the class is enough. The representative has to have sufficient interest in the outcome to be adequate and that the counsel will be of good quality. These factors are important because there are so many people that will be effected by the court’s final decision. Therefore, the third and fourth requirements are satisfied.

Lastly, the court seemed concerned about the final requirement because the plaintiffs need to be within a geographical boundary and that issue was not addressed in the certification hearing. The court asked that the lower court reconsider this issue.

The plant also argued that the plaintiffs did not have the air tested and they have no real evidence that anything other than sawdust affected the plaintiffs. However, the court disregards this argument because in a class certification, the court will not consider substantive arguments and will only determine whether the class meets the requirements to become a class. Instead, the court states that determining class is a “procedural device” and arguing substantive things, including defenses, is inappropriate at this point in the proceedings.

Because the court decided that the class satisfied most of the requirement and public policy dictated that it would be difficult for these plaintiffs to bring separate actions, the court decided that the class certification was fitting.

Class action suits are a great way for the “little guy” to have his “day in court” even when his damages seem like they are very small.

If you have a legal issue, no matter how small, contact the Berniard Law Firm toll free at 1-866-574-8005 and we will be happy to assist you.

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