The Fifth Circuit has vacated the decision of the trial court in granting class status to a group of plaintiffs alleging that a refinery exposed them to toxic dust. Madison v. Chalmette Refining LLC, No. 10-30368 (5th Cir. 4/4/11).

Back in 2007, a number of schoolchildren, chaperoned by parents and teachers, participated in a historical reenactment at the Chalmette National Battlefield, the site of the January 8, 1815, Battle of New Orleans, the last great battle of the War of 1812 and “the site along the Mississippi River where Andrew Jackson gave the British their comeuppance.” D. BRINKLEY, The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America,p. 414 (2009). Adjacent to the battlefield is the Chalmette Refinery, which allegedly released an amount of petroleum coke dust that migrated over the battlefield. Plaintiffs sued on behalf of a class of all persons or entities located at the Chalmette National Battlefield in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, in the early afternoon of Friday, January 12, 2007 and who sustained property damage, personal injuries, emotional, mental, or economic damages and/or inconvenience or evacuation as a result of the incident.

The District Court granted the motion to certify, and defendants appealed. The court of appeals reviews the district court's decision to certify a class for an abuse of discretion. See, e.g., McManus v. Fleetwood Enters., Inc., 320 F.3d 545, 548 (5th Cir. 2003). The decision to certify is within the discretion of the trial court, but that discretion must be exercised within the framework of Rule 23. Castano v. Am. Tobacco Co., 84 F.3d 734, 740 (5th Cir. 1996). The Supreme Court requires district courts to conduct a rigorous analysis of Rule 23 prerequisites.

The crux of this appeal was the legal basis for and sufficiency of evidence supporting the district court’s findings of superiority and predominance under Rule 23(b)(3). Before certifying a class under Rule 23(b)(3), a court must determine that questions of law or fact common to the members of the class predominate over any questions affecting only individual members and that a class action is superior to other available methods for fairly and efficiently adjudicating the controversy. Determining whether the plaintiffs can clear the predominance hurdle set by Rule 23(b)(3) requires district courts to consider how a trial on the merits would be conducted if a class were certified.

Chalmette Refining cited the advisory committee note to Rule 23(b)(3), which has been quoted numerous times by the Fifth Circuit as highlighting the “relationship between predominance and superiority in mass torts.” See Castano v. American Tobacco Co., 84 F.3d 734, 745 n.19 (5th Cir. 1996). According to the note, a “mass accident” resulting in injuries to numerous persons is ordinarily not appropriate for a class action because of the likelihood that significant questions, not only of damages but of liability and defenses to liability, would be present, affecting the individuals in different ways. In these circumstances an action conducted nominally as a class action would degenerate in practice into multiple lawsuits separately tried.

Here, the district court abused its discretion by failing to afford its predominance determination the “rigorous analysis” that Rule 23 requires. In particular, the district court did not meaningfully consider how plaintiffs’ claims would be tried. Plaintiffs cited, and the trial court relied on, two cases that are among the very few certifying a tort injury class action. In Watson v. Shell Oil, the court certified a class of over 18,000 plaintiffs seeking damages stemming from an explosion at a Shell plant. 979 F.2d 1014, 1016 (5th Cir. 1992). Notably the court of appeals now clarified that "whether Watson has survived later developments in class action law–embodied in Amchem and its progeny–is an open question." But even in Watson, the district court had a detailed four-phase plan for trial. Similarly, in Turner v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc., the district court granted class certification to a class of plaintiffs who suffered damages resulting from a post-Hurricane Katrina oil storage tank spill. 234 F.R.D. 597, 601 (E.D. La. 2006). Critical to the court’s predominance inquiry was the fact that plaintiffs had submitted a detailed proposed trial plan to the court, calling for bifurcation of certain issues.

In contrast, here there was no analysis or discussion regarding how the court would administer the trial. Robinson v. Tex. Auto. Dealers Ass’n, 387 F.3d 416, 425–26 (5th Cir. 2004). The court failed to identify the substantive issues that would control the outcome, assess which issues will predominate, and then determine whether the issues are common to the class. Absent this analysis, it was impossible for the court to know whether the common issues would be a significant portion of the individual trials, much less whether the common issues predominate. Instead, the trial court appears to have "adopted a figure-it-out-as-we-go-along approach."

Even among the named class representatives, significant disparities existed, in terms of exposure, location, and whether mitigative steps were taken. The primary issues left to be resolved would turn on location, exposure, dose, susceptibility to illness, nature of symptoms, type and cost of medical treatment, and subsequent impact of illnesses on individuals.