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Exxon Mobil Class Action Defense Case-Steering Committee v. Exxon Mobil: District Court Properly Refused To Certify Class Action Based On Personal Injuries Arising From Chemical Fire Fifth Circuit Holds

Louisiana Federal Court did not Abuse its Discretion in Refusing to Certify Class Action Against Exxon Because Individual Issues Predominated over Common Issues and Superiority Requirement was not Met

In 1994, smoke from an oil fire at an Exxon Mobil chemical plant drifted into neighboring communities: “Hundreds of suits were filed against Exxon Mobil, alleging various causes of action including personal injury, personal discomfort and annoyance, emotional distress resulting from knowledge of exposure to hazardous substances, fear of future unauthorized exposures, and economic harm including damage to business and property, among others.” Steering Committee v. Exxon Mobil Corp., 461 F.3d 598, 600 (5th Cir. 2006). The lawsuits were consolidated in a Louisiana federal court, and plaintiffs proposed that the action proceed as a class action and moved for class certification. Defense attorneys opposed the motion, and filed summary judgment motions as to certain categories of claims against Exxon. Id. The district court first decided the summary judgment motions, granting summary judgment “on all claims for physical injuries and non-intentional emotional distress brought by individual plaintiffs who were located outside the geographic area that the air modeling experts agreed was affected by the [smoke] plume,” and “on all claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress.” Id., at 600-01. The court then denied the motion to proceed as a class action, concluding that plaintiffs failed to establish typicality or adequacy of representation under Rule 23(a), and predominance and superiority under Rule 23(b)(3). Id., at 601. The Fifth Circuit affirmed.

The appellate court first addressed the predominance requirement of Rule 23(b)(3) which, “although similar to the commonality requirement of Rule 23(a), is ‘far more demanding’ because it ‘tests whether proposed classes are sufficiently cohesive to warrant adjudication by representation.’” Id., at 601-02 (citation omitted). The district court believed that “each plaintiff’s claims will be highly individualized with respect to causation, including individual issues of exposure, susceptibility to illness, and types of physical injuries,” and that individual issues would predominate over common issues. Id., at 602. The Fifth Circuit agreed, explaining at page 602,

It is clear from the record that the damages claims in this case are not subject to any sort of formulaic calculation. Instead, each individual plaintiff suffered different alleged periods and magnitudes of exposure and suffered different alleged symptoms as a result. Some plaintiffs allege both personal and property injuries, while others allege only one or the other. Moreover, many plaintiffs allege as part of their claim for compensatory damages emotional and other intangible injuries. “The very nature of these damages, compensating plaintiffs for emotional and other intangible injuries, necessarily implicates the subjective differences of each plaintiff’s circumstances; they are an individual, not class-wide, remedy. The amount of compensatory damages to which any individual class member might be entitled cannot be calculated by objective standards.” [Citation.]

The Circuit Court also held that the class action device was not the superior method for resolving these disputes because of the individual issues relating to compensatory and punitive damages. Id., at 604-05. Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court order denying class certification.

NOTE: Because the Circuit Court agreed with the district court’s findings under Rule 23(b)(3), it did not address the court’s findings under Rule 23(a). Id., at 601.

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