In December I posted about Price v. Martin, in which the Louisiana Supreme Court expressly adopted the U.S. Supreme Court's analysis in Wal-Mart v. Dukes to reverse certification of a class of property owners who alleged that they were exposed to certain chemicals by a neighboring wood treatment facility. In Price, the court recognized that there was no real commonality because establishing damages and causation would require individualized analysis.
Just last week, the Louisiana Supreme Court issued a per curiam opinion demonstrating that Price was not an anomaly. In Alexander v. Norfolk Southern Corp., No. 11-C-2793, Slip op. (La. Mar. 9, 2012), the putative class action arose out of a chemical spill from a train in New Orleans in 2001. The Fire Department investigation had established that ethyl acrylic fumes leaked from valves in two cars that were parked for less than an hour waiting for another train. The firefighters tightened the valves, which solved the problem, and sent the trains on their way. No evacuation was called. Twenty people were treated at the scene for exposure and released. Hundreds of other people complained of eye/nose/throat irritation and a noxious smell. Naturally this spawned a class action, which was certified by the trial court and affirmed by the intermediate court of appeal.
The Louisiana Supreme Court, citing Price, reiterated that class certification requires a rigorous analysis and that there must be significant proof of a common question, the determination of which will "'resolve an issue that central to the validity of each one of the claims in one stroke.'" Slip op. (quoting Price quoting Dukes).
The court ultimately premised its reversal on the lack of predominance of common issues, and the need for individual trials:
[T]he district court failed to take into account undisputed evidence in the record demonstrating that any determination of damages will be dependent upon proof of facts individual to each putative class member. In particular, . . . plaintiffs' toxicologist testified that only those individuals with a unique susceptibility to ethyl acrylate would exhibit physical symptoms at the extremely low concentrations involved in the release, that this susceptibility would manifest itself in less than .1 percent of any given population, and determining whether any particular person was within this microcosm of the population would require an entirely individualized understanding of each person's health, medical history, records, and other variables impacting exposure. In addition, [he] testified that the dose of exposure would be impacted by important individual variables, such as the specific location of the plaintiff at the time of exposure, and whether the plaintiff moved from location to location during the exposure. Similarly, the defense toxicologist, . . . testified the symptoms complained of by the plaintiffs, such as irritation of the eyes and nose, respiratory irritation, coughing, nausea, and vomiting, are not specific or unique to ethyl acrylate exposure, but are common symptoms with a myriad of causes.
Given this testimony, it is clear that each member of the proposed class will necessarily have to offer different facts to establish liability and damages. . . . [T]he class would degenerate into a series of individual trials.
The decision in Alexander is a strong reminder that even in state court class actions, expert proof at the class certification stage is important because it can frame how the issues must be tried at trial.