Certification of class action appropriate in suit for nuisance, trespass and negligence against grain processor

by Gary Taylor

Freeman, et al., v. Grain Processing Corp.
Iowa Supreme Court, May 12, 2017

Residents who live near Grain Processing Corporation’s (GPC) corn wet milling plant in Muscatine brought an action for nuisance, trespass and negligence against GPC for its manner of operation of the plant and the resulting “haze, odor, and smoke” emanating from the plant.  The residents moved to treat the claim as a class action suit on behalf of all residents suffering the effects of the plant’s operation.  GPC resisted the motion to certify the case as a class action, arguing that the claims of the residents were “inherently individual, and as such, individual issues predominated over those common to the class.”  The district court granted class certification.  Noting its authority to modify or decertify the class at any time, the court divided the class into two subclasses: one for members in close proximity to GPC, and the other for those in peripheral proximity.  GPC appealed.  Certification of the class action suit was the sole issue before the Iowa Supreme Court (in an earlier case, posted here, these same parties litigated the applicability of the Clean Air Act to local claims for nuisance).

Under Iowa Rules of Civil Procedure 1.261 – 1.263 a district court may certify a class action if “the class is so numerous…that joinder of all members…is impracticable” and “there is a question of law or fact common to the class.”  In addition, a class action should be permitted for the “fair and efficient adjudication of the controversy” and “the representative parties fairly and adequately will protect the interests of the class.”  The Court of Appeals first noted that caselaw requires that “a failure of proof on any one of the prerequisites is fatal to class certification,” but also that, at this stage, “the proponent’s burden is light.”  The Court of Appeals does not review the decision to certify the class itself, but simply whether the district court abused its discretion in doing so.

GPC argued that the district court erred because the requirement of commonality was not met, and that in this case individual issues predominate over common questions of law or fact.

Commonality.  It is not sufficient that class members have all suffered a violation of the same provision of law.  Rather, claims must depend on a common contention of an issue that central to the validity of each one of the claims.  GPC argued that the named plaintiffs did not suffer the same injury of other class members; particularly in the types of harm suffered and the degree of proof needed to prove causation.  The district court initially agreed, noting that two of the plaintiffs –the one closest to GPC and the one furthest – suffered significantly different “concentration totals” of particulates tested in the air.  The Court resolved this disparity, however, by creating the two subclasses and grouping the plaintiffs accordingly.  Thus the plaintiffs within each subclass had identified common questions of extensiveness of emissions, what caused them, what precautions were taken, and economic impact.

Predominance.  A common question does not end the inquiry.  Courts consider class actions appropriate “only where class members have common complaints that can be presented by designated representatives in the unified proceeding.”  It “necessitates a close look at the difficulties likely to be encountered in the management of a class action.”  The district court spent considerable time addressing the predominance question in its ruling.  It concluded “While variations in the individual damage claims are likely to occur and other sources of emissions may pose unusual difficulties, common questions of law and fact regarding defendant’s liability predominate over questions affecting only individual class members such that the subclasses should be permitted for the fair and efficient adjudication of the controversy.”  After going through the standards of proof for negligence, trespass, and nuisance claims, the Court of Appeals agreed with the district court that common questions of law, with common evidentiary findings required of each, will predominate the action, and that therefore class action treatment is appropriate.

Class action certification was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

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