A federal judge in Alabama has refused to certify a class in a lawsuit seeking to hold the owner of a paper mill liable for pollution near its facility in Prattville, Alabama. Benefield v. Int’l Paper Co., No. 09-232 (M.D. Ala. 10/20/10). Filed by two residents living near the facility, the complaint alleges that the mill discharged hazardous substances into the environment for several years, resulting in personal injury and property damage within a two-mile radius.
The lawsuit is one of three companion cases involving personal injury and property damage claims by hundreds of plaintiffs against defendant. One of the cases is a wrongful death suit brought on behalf of people who allegedly died due to pollution from the mill. Neither of the other two cases are putative class actions. The putative class action was originally filed with six named plaintiffs and included class claims for personal injury and nuisance in addition to property damage. Defendant succeeded in dismissing four of the named plaintiffs during class discovery, and the remaining two plaintiffs sought certification of a property damage class only. The putative class would include owners of contaminated residential property within two miles of the mill and sustaining damage of at least $100. The putative class was defined to exclude (i) property owners who also suffered personal injury from the pollution, (ii) defendant’s employees and officers, (iii) all plaintiffs in the other cases, and (iv) people who acquired the property within 10 years of the filing of a second amended complaint.
Refusing to certify a class, the court ruled that the two named plaintiffs would be inappropriate class representatives. As to named plaintiff Benefield, the court found that there was no evidence he actually had an ownership interest in the allegedly contaminated property. As to the other named plaintiff, there was no evidence that his property was typical of the class because the class area encompassed a variety of uses, including vacant residential lots, multi-family residences, mobile home park properties, and mobile home/site properties. The court also opined that the existence of the overlapping non-class actions indicated that a class action was not a superior means of proceeding against defendant.