Smelly Pennsylvania Landfill Must Face Class Suit

PHILADELPHIA (CN) — The Third Circuit revived a federal class action Monday over the stench of a Pennsylvania landfill affecting some 20,000 people. 

Robin and Dexter Baptiste brought the suit two years against the Bethlehem Landfill Co., seeking $5 million in damages for the 8,400 households that live within a 2.5-mile radius of the landfill. 

Bringing both private and public nuisance claims against the 224-acre waste-management site, the couple argued that the odor interfered with residents’ ability to enjoy their homes while also decreasing property values. 

A federal judge dismissed the suit last year, however, finding that too many residents were similarly affected to file a private claim for a public nuisance, and that the landfill was too far away to constitute a private nuisance claim.

Reversing Monday in a 31-page ruling, the Third Circuit said private and public nuisance claims are not mutually exclusive.

“Because the Baptistes have alleged that their private property rights are being significantly and unreasonably infringed by the presence of noxious odors and air contaminants released by the Bethlehem landfill, they have stated both a private claim for public nuisance and a private nuisance claim,” U.S. Circuit Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo wrote for a three-judge panel in Philadelphia. 

Pointing specifically to the public nuisance claims, Restrepo stressed that the couple is able to file a claim on behalf of their neighbors because the odor is interfering with residents being able to enjoy their private property. 

“While everyone in the community — including visitors, commuters and residents alike — may suffer from the discomfort of having to breathe polluted air in public spaces, the Baptistes have identified cumulative harms that are unique to them and their fellow residents as homeowner-occupants or renters, such as the inability to use and enjoy their swimming pools, porches, and yards,” said Restrepo (emphasis in original).

An Obama appointee, Restrepo cut through the landfill’s position, put forward at December oral arguments, that there are too many people complaining about the same nuisance to bring a private claim. 

“We have not been presented with any Pennsylvania authority for the proposition that an individual’s right to recover private property damages on a nuisance theory turns on the size of the nuisance or the number of persons harmed, as opposed to the nature of the rights affected or the degree of the harm suffered,” Restrepo wrote. 

While both parties agree that the landfill owes the residents a common-law duty to operate in a way that does not harm the residents, Restrepo remanded the negligence claims back to the lower court to determine if the residents have sufficiently pleaded physical damage by the odor to their properties. 

Liddle and Dubin attorney Nicholas Coulson, representing the Baptistes, was pleased with the decision and looks forward to continuing to hold the landfill accountable.

“It reaffirms that civil litigation, including through class actions, remains an essential tool for the protection of private property rights against corporate polluters,” Coulson said in an email. “We are glad the Third Circuit agreed and rejected the landfill’s request for special treatment because of the broad scope of the pollution we allege it’s caused.”

At oral arguments, the landfill was represented by attorneys at Beveridge and Diamond. They did not respond to an email seeking comment.

U.S. Circuit Judges Jane Roth, a Reagan appointee, and Michael Fisher, a George W. Bush appointee, joined Restrepo on the decision.

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