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.

Fear about dangers in the vicinity of property insufficient to constitute nuisance

by Andrea Vaage

Smith & Wunderlich v Conoco Phillips Pipe Line Company
Federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, September 15, 2015

Conoco Phillips owns a pipeline constructed in 1930 that runs through part of West Alton, a small town in Missouri. A leak was discovered near the town in 1963. The source of leak was repaired, but no remediation efforts were made to clean up the spill. Contaminants from the spill were discovered at a residence near the spill in 2002. Phillips purchased that residence and two others. Under supervision of the Missouri DNR, the buildings were demolished; 4,000 cubic yards of soil was removed; and monitoring wells were set up to test for chemicals of concern (COCs) such as benzene, toluene, ethyle benzene, xylenes, and lead.

Plaintiffs, the Smiths and Wunderlichs, property owners within 1.1 mile radius of contamination site, filed a class action suit in district court October 2011. Their complaint identified two separate classes, each including property owners within a 1.1 mile radius of the contamination site. The first class sought injunctive relief and monetary damages for creation of a nuisance and negligence for remediation. The second class sought compensation for ongoing expenses of medical monitoring due to potential exposure to pollutants from the pipeline leak. The district court certified the first class, but not the second. In certifying the first class the court relied on evidence and expert testimony that contaminants were found in the monitoring wells, that pollutants could continually shift, and that MTBE, a gasoline additive, had been found at one residence one quarter mile away from the contamination site. Phillips appealed the court’s decision to certify the first class.

In cases of certification, the district court is granted broad discretion. A higher court will only reverse a certification where there has been an abuse of discretion or an error of law. Four standards must be met to certify a class: numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation.

In order for commonality to be met, the plaintiff’s must show that all class members suffered the same injury. The plaintiff’s demonstrated contamination by citing the MBTE found on the Wunderlichs’ property. However, there was no MBTE found at the contamination site. None of the chemicals found at the contamination site were detected at any of the class members’ property; however, plaintiffs’ claim that physical invasion is not required for the contamination site to be a nuisance, because the fear of contamination depressed their property values. The Court cited recent cases that establish that fear alone is not enough to meet the requirement that a nuisance be visible or capable of physical detection. “Negative publicity resulting in unfounded fear about dangers in the vicinity of the property does not constitute a significant interference with the use and enjoyment of land:  The potential for contamination does not amount to sufficient proof of a nuisance. Since plaintiff’s were unable to establish contamination on the class land, the nuisance claim fails.

The Court determined the fear of contamination without sufficient supporting proof was not enough to establish a claim for common law nuisance. The Court found the district court ruling certifying the class was an abuse of discretion. The case was reversed and remanded.

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