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Court Decertifies Class in Petroleum Dust Action

NEW ORLEANS (CN) - The 5th Circuit vacated class certification in a suit that claims a group of children and several adult chaperones were exposed to petroleum coke dust released by a refinery adjacent to a park.

A three-judge panel agreed with Chalmette Refinery that the District Court failed to prove it had seriously considered how the trial would be conducted - a finding it would have to make before ruling in favor of class certification.

"We do not suggest that class treatment is necessarily inappropriate," Judge Edith Brown Clement wrote for the court. "As Chalmette Refining acknowledged at oral argument, class treatment on the common issue of liability may indeed be appropriate. But our precedent demands a far more rigorous analysis than the district court conducted."

On the afternoon of Jan. 12, 2007, a number of school children, their teachers and parents were at the Chalmette National Battlefield participating in an historical reenactment when the Chalmette Refinery released petroleum coke dust into the air.

Five of the adults present filed a lawsuit on behalf of themselves, their children and everyone else at the Chalmette Battlefield who was exposed to the toxic dust.

The suit sought a variety of damages, claiming personal injury, fear, anguish, psychological injury and evacuation, as well as economic and property damages.

The District Court granted the plaintiffs' request for class certification, but the 5th Circuit disagreed, finding the District Court "abused its discretion" by adopting "a figure-it-out-as-we-go-along approach."

Before certifying a class, 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," Clement wrote.

"By failing to adequately analyze and balance the common issues against the individual issues, the district court abused its discretion in determining that common issues predominated and in certifying the class," the ruling states.

The 5th Circuit said the District Court "oversimplifies the issue" in concluding that the plaintiffs were either on the battlefield and exposed to the coke dust, or they were not.

Agreeing with Chalmette Refinery, Clement wrote that "even among the named class representatives, significant disparities exist, in terms of exposure, location, and whether mitigative steps were taken" to prevent harm after the plaintiffs were exposed to the dust.

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