From Mass to Class: Freeman v. Grain Processing Corporation

McGuireWoods LLP

Richard C. Beaulieu reports below on the Iowa Supreme Court’s affirmation of the trial court’s order certifying a class of individuals asserting claims against a corn milling facility based on allegations of air pollution.

Over the past two decades, large agricultural operations have become a popular target for plaintiffs’ attorneys.  Bringing claims under common law causes of action like negligence, trespass, and especially nuisance based on the environmental impacts of these agricultural operations, plaintiffs in these cases have frequently succeeded in winning substantial judgments.  While there have been some class actions based on these theories in the past, most such actions were adjudicated under a mass tort rubric.

A recent decision of the Iowa Supreme Court, however, may help swing the trend of this litigation toward a more class-based structure, however.  In Freeman, et al. v. Grain Processing Corporation, the court upheld a trial court’s decision to certify a class of individuals who lived within 1.5 miles of a corn milling facility in Muscatine, Iowa.  The trial court divided this nearly 4000-member class into two subclasses—those who lived in “close proximity,” and those in “peripheral proximity”—largely on the basis of plaintiffs’ expert testimony.   The class members’ claims were based on their allegations that air pollution from the facility interfered with their use of their property, and was founded on nuisance, trespass, and negligence theories.

While the Iowa Supreme Court’s certification decision was based on Iowa law, Iowa standards for certification are close enough to federal standards to give the decision wider applicability.  The defendant did not contest that the class was sufficiently numerous nor that the class representatives were adequate.  Instead, it focused on the more common battlegrounds of commonality and predominance.   On the commonality front, the court focused on recent environmental class action cases to find that all of the nearby residents had suffered the same injury (environmental contamination) instead of the U.S. Supreme Court’s more restrictive commonality analysis in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes.  On the predominance issue, the court relied primarily on two points: the favorable standard of review (abuse of discretion) and the objective nature of the inquiry into a defendant’s conduct occasioned by a negligence claim.  The court also dispensed with a due process argument raised by the defendant.

Class actions based on common law environmental theories are on the rise, and courts addressing them are ruling in several directions.  One key takeaway from the Freeman decision for litigants and lawyers alike is that a distinct body of law has developed for the adjudication of environmental class actions, and it is evolving at a rapid pace.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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