Defendants in a multidistrict MTBE product liability litigation, including Sedgwick clients Shell Oil Company, Equilon Enterprises LLC and TMR Company, recently obtained a dismissal with prejudice of MTBE product liability claims brought by the city of Fresno, California. Fresno alleged that releases of gasoline containing the oxygenate MTBE at various Fresno-area service stations had impacted or threatened to impact Fresno’s water supply wells. Judge Shira A. Scheindlin ruled that Fresno’s failure to support those claims with evidence that the stations had impacted or threatened to impact Fresno’s wells did not simply mean that Fresno’s claims were not ripe; it meant that Fresno had “failed to prove an essential element of its claims” and therefore required those claims to be dismissed with prejudice. In re MTBE Prods. Liab. Litig. (City of Fresno v. Chevron U.S.A. Inc., et al.), slip op. (S.D.N.Y. March 5, 2014).
In September 2013, Judge Scheindlin held that Fresno had failed to come forward with sufficient expert evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that its production wells were threatened by groundwater or soil contamination at a number of Fresno service stations, and entered summary judgment for defendants at those locations. In re MTBE Prods. Liab. Litig., 2013 WL 4830965 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 10, 2013). Following that decision, Fresno stipulated that its evidence of alleged harm for all of the remaining stations in the case was no different than the insufficient evidence it had submitted in opposing summary judgment. Fresno insisted, however, that any dismissal of its remaining claims should be without prejudice to re-filing them because, Fresno argued, the court had merely ruled that Fresno’s failure to provide evidence of any actual or threatened harm simply meant that Fresno’s claims had not yet ripened.
Judge Scheindlin disagreed, finding that Fresno misconstrued both her earlier decision and the doctrine of ripeness. As Judge Scheindlin observed, she granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment because “Fresno did not have sufficient evidence linking defendants’ MTBE with current or threatened injury to drinking water in its jurisdiction.” Because Fresno’s evidence was “too speculative,” Judge Scheindlin found that the real problem with Fresno’s claims was not a lack of ripeness, but rather the lack of evidence on an essential element of the claims. Therefore, dismissal with prejudice was the appropriate remedy.