The Fourth Circuit recently issued an opinion reflecting the conservative approach that is required when federal courts sitting in diversity are called upon to predict how the state supreme court would rule on controlling issues of state tort law.
In Rhodes v. E.I.DuPont de Nemours & Co., 2011 WL 1335799 (4th Cir. Apr. 8, 2011), customers of the Parkersburg, West Virginia City Water Department sued the defendant in a putative class action for contaminating the public water supply with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Thankfully, none of the class representatives had become ill, but their blood did reflect higher-than-normal levels of PFOA, which they alleged had been associated with an increased risk of liver disease, cholesterol abnormalities, and certain cancers.
The plaintiffs originally asserted a variety of causes of action: negligence, gross negligence, battery, trespass, private nuisance, and the separate tort of medical monitoring. The district court held that the medical monitoring claim was not susceptible to classwide proof. It also denied class certification under the traditional common law tort claims. Plaintiffs then amended their complaint to add a public nuisance claim.
Subsequently, the district court granted summary judgment to the defendant on all of the traditional tort claims for lack of injury. But it denied summary judgment on the individual claims for the "new" tort of medical monitoring. So that they could appeal immediately, without having to wait for their remaining individual claims to be litigated, the plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed their individual medical monitoring claims.
On appeal, the Fourth Circuit dealt first with the class claims for negligence and gross negligence. It concluded that they must be dismissed because they require a plaintiff to produce evidence of a health detriment that actually has occurred or "is reasonably certain to occur due to a present harm." 2011 WL 1335799 at *3 (citation omitted).
With respect to the claim for battery, the Fourth Circuit held that the mere presence of PFOA in the plaintiffs' blood was not a battery because it did not cause any "physical impairment." Id. Plaintiffs argued that the West Virginia Supreme Court would waive any impairment requirement in such a situation, but the Fourth Circuit refused to engage in such speculation:
The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has not adopted this view and, in fact, expressly has required that a plaintiff alleging battery demonstrate "actual physical impairment." Also, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has not embraced the alternative definition of battery embraced by the plaintiffs, battery based on "offensive contact," as provided in Section 18 of the Restatement.
In the absence of such action by the highest state court in West Virginia, our role in the exercise of our diversity jurisdiction is limited. A federal court acting under its diversity jurisdiction should respond conservatively when asked to discern governing principles of state law. Therefore, in a diversity case, a federal court should not interpret state law in a manner that may appear desirable to the federal court, but has not been approved by the state whose law is at issue.
Id. at *4 (citations omitted; emphasis added).
Analyzing the trespass claim, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the plaintiffs had failed to produce evidence showing the PFOA in the water had damaged or interfered with the plaintiffs' possession, use or enjoyment of the property.
The court also rejected the private nuisance claim, understanding that the legal interest asserted -- public access to clean drinking water -- was a pubic one, not a private one, and thus incapable of supporting a private nuisance claim. Id. at *4-*5.
As for the public nuisance claim, the court held that plaintiffs lacked standing because they did not have a "special" injury that was different in both character and degree from the general public. (Traditionally, the right to assert public nuisance claims was left to the sovereign. Over time, it developed that individuals also could assert such claims on the public's behalf, but only where they had a "special" injury that could ensure that they would vigorously prosecute the claim.) Plaintiffs argued that West Virginia would follow the Restatement, which would create an exception to the "special injury" requirement for class action plaintiffs. The Fourth Circuit held that it was enough for them that the West Virginia Supreme Court had not adopted this approach: "We decline to recognize such an exception in the first instance because, as we have stated, a federal court in the exercise of its diversity jurisdiction should act conservatively when asked to predict how a state court would proceed on a novel issue of state law." 2011 WL 1335799 at *6 (citation omitted).
The Fourth Circuit next considered the plaintiffs' arguments that they could obtain medical monitoring as an element of relief on their traditional tort claims even if they did not meet the "injury" requirement. The Fourth Circuit rejected this approach outright, pointing to the West Virginia Supreme Court's decision that created a separate tort of medical monitoring. In that decision, the court had held that the "injury" necessary to support an independent medical monitoring claim was "a 'significantly increased risk of contracting a particular disease relative to what would be the case in the absence of exposure.'" Id. at *7 (citation omitted). It did not re-define "injury" as something less for the traditional torts and, in fact, if it had done so, it would not have needed to create a separate, independent tort of "medical monitoring" in the first place.
The Fourth Circuit then dealt with the final issue on appeal: whether the plaintiffs' voluntary dismissal of their individual medical monitoring claims precluded them from challenging the district court's decision that the independent "medical monitoring" claim could not be certified as a class action. After surveying the variety of approaches courts have taken to the question of voluntary dismissals designed to elude the problem of interlocutory appeals, the court followed basic standing principles to hold that voluntary dismissal of a cause of action barred appeal of the decision not to certify a class on that cause of action:
Applying the principles set forth by the Supreme Court, we conclude that when a putative class plaintiff voluntarily dimsisses the individual claims underlying a request for class certification, as happened in this case, there is no longer a "self-interested party advocating" for class treatment in the manner necessary to satisfy Article III standing requirements. Thus, we hold that we lack jurisdiction to decide the issue whether the district court abused its discretion in denying the plaintiff's request for class certification of their medical monitoring claims.
Id. at *9 (citation omitted).
The Fourth Circuit's decision in Rhodes is a strong example of a federal court showing deference to state sovereignty by refusing to invent new tort rules and causes of action that have not been recognized by the state's high court, and by declining to allow people who have surrendered their claims for strategic reasons to continue to assert the aggregated claims of a large number of the state's citizens.