Recent Decision Illustrates Need for Legal Understanding When Filing Health Damages

A recent Louisiana 1st Circuit Court of Appeal decision has raised many eyebrows by overturning a large portion of a lower courts award of $1 million to a group of residents in Baton Rouge’s University Place subdivision. The 360 plaintiffs joined in alleging that the nearby Sewage Treatment Plant was causing them numerous problems. Specifically, the plaintiffs were alleging that the “operation and maintenance of the waste treatment facility caused petitioners personal inconvenience, mental suffering, embarrassment, and personal injuries. Plaintiffs also alleged a grave threat to health and safety by exposure to contaminated air and increased risk of serious disease to themselves, their family, and their progeny.” The plaintiffs further contended that their property value had been permanently damaged by the presence of the sewage treatment plant. The court ultimately held that only one plaintiff out of the 360 plaintiffs initially named in the suit deserved compensation. The court came to this decision after the plaintiffs did not pass procedural requirements and/or missed vital legal requirements in order to remain in the suit. Exploring this case will illustrate that if proper procedural steps are taken and legal requirements understood and applied then case decisions are more likely to be affirmed and not overturned.

One of the major issues the court explored was the issue of prescription. The law governing the prescriptive period in this matter is La. R.S. 9:5624, which provides, “When private property is damaged for public purposes any and all actions for such damages are prescribed by the prescription of two years, which shall begin to fun after the completion and acceptance of the public works.” This affected the plaintiff group’s case due to the fact that the treatment plant had been originally built in 1960, yet, had been expanded several times, the last expansion began in 1997 and was completed in 1998. Thus, the time period of the last expansion to the filing of the suit would be the determined to be the legal time period in which plaintiffs would be allowed to complain and allege damages. This led the lower court to find that the last expansion of the sewage plant must be viewed as a new public work event for purposes of La. R.S. 9:5624, stating, “After all, it would neither be equitable nor just to hold parties responsible for filing a suit within two years of the plant’s original completion date (i.e. 1960) when their property was not damaged until the plant was expanded in 1998.” Thus, damages had not prescribed when the suit was filed; however, only the time period in which the last expansion was completed to the time the plaintiffs filed their claim would count towards calculating any potential damages.

The number of plaintiffs steadily declined as the lower court progressed due to the fact that they either did not follow legal requirements or they were not legally recognizable. The first 148 plaintiffs who testified gave conflicting testimony or testified that the expansion of the sewage treatment facility produced little or no change in their prior circumstances. Thus, most of these class members failed to establish that the action taken by the City-Parish in so far as expanding the treatment plant had caused them any health problems or defects that did not exist prior to the expansion. Essentially, the plaintiff’s needed to allege that the expansion, which was what was legally at issue, was the main source of their problems, problems which did not exist prior to the expansion. A further dilemma the plaintiffs faced was that their expert testimony further supported the Court’s conclusion that the plaintiffs had not proven by a preponderance of the evidence that they had suffered any legal damages caused by the sewage treatment plant. One expert even stated that it was hard to have a sewage treatment plant without an odor. Additionally, many plaintiffs lived in the area prior to the expansion without bringing suit. As a result, these individuals were aware of the various odors and impacts the sewage plant had upon the neighborhood. Therefore, the court held that since the plaintiffs gave conflicting testimony, did not prove their claims, and did not have supporting expert testimony, the 148 testifying plaintiffs should be dismissed from the case.

Additionally, more plaintiffs were dismissed based on legal requirements in which they failed to satisfy. Specifically, 209 plaintiffs were dismissed for failure to appear at trial and an additional 38 plaintiffs were dismissed because they were renters and not home owners. The reason renters were not allowed to bring a claim against the sewage treatment plant was because the court found that the renters “knew or should have known that a waste treatment facility was situated in close proximity to the apartments they chose to rent and that problems such as odor could be associated with this type of plant.” Thus, at this point in the case, 247 plaintiffs had been dismissed for a lack of legal standing or for missing key procedural steps in order to “stay alive” in the suit.

Moreover, the appellate court held that damages should be awarded only for the time period after the treatment facility’s last expansion and only awarded to those actually harmed and/or effected by the presence of the expanded facility. This factor gave many plaintiffs problems, for the court held that the majority of plaintiffs did not live in close enough proximity to actually be harmed or impacted in any major way. Further, the plaintiff group’s complaint that their property values had been significantly impacted by the facility also failed legally. Instead of calculating the property values for the time period right after the facility’s last expansion, the plaintiff group’s experts were adding the total effect of the sewage treatment plant, which had existed since 1960. Thus, the court could not award the expert’s suggested amount because it was not appropriate for the case. Only one plaintiff ultimately was held to have suffered any actual harm by the expansion of the treatment plant and that person was Greg Mitchell.

Mr. Mitchell suffered actual damage because of his home’s close proximity to the plant. His damages were legally cognizable because his property was impacted as a direct result of the plant’s expansion. In fact, the sewage plant’s expert in real estate valuation acknowledged that “the Mitchell home had been damaged by the expansion of the treatment plant because prior to 1997, his residence was directly across the street from BREC park, whereas after the expansion, there were trickling filters (large tank structures) facing his home. It was his opinion that only the Mitchell home had been damaged by the expansion.” Therefore, out of initially 360 named plaintiffs, only one ultimately prevailed because he satisfied legal requirements and procedural steps necessary for the court to recognize his allegations and ultimately find for him.

This case illustrates that were the 359 plaintiffs alleging the appropriate damages for the legal time period necessary to have a case, they might have been awarded damages like Mr. Mitchell. The fact that they were alleging damages for merely living near the treatment plant did not hold water legally, missing key legal requirements in making claims may cause the entire case to fail for a plaintiff. Thus, if the plaintiffs alleged that they had been impacted directly after the treatment plant’s last expansion, they might have remained in the case. However, many plaintiffs failed to even show up when required for trial, thus, pulling themselves out of the case without any force whatsoever by the court. If a plaintiff is properly guided and advised by a legal representative as to what legal rights they have, what steps they should take, and what requirements they need to satisfy, a plaintiff will be much more likely to remain in the case and possibly be awarded.

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