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What happens on the island should stay on the island: Abraham v. St. Croix Renaissance Group argument recap

What happens on the island should stay on the island: Abraham v. St. Croix Renaissance Group argument recap

By Leah Nicholls, Kazan-Budd Attorney

Yesterday, we had oral argument in the Third Circuit on an important Class Action Fairness Act question. The question — when toxic tort cases limited to locations within a single state can be removed to federal court under CAFA — has not previously been heard by any federal court of appeals, but is likely to be an issue of growing interest around the country. The underlying concern, in our view, is ensuring that local controversies involving state-law claims stay in state court.

This case was brought in Virgin Islands court by over 450 residents of the island of St. Croix against the owner of a defunct alumina refinery located on the island. The plaintiffs, who live downwind of the site, allege that the owner’s failure to properly store and secure the piles of toxic industrial byproduct on the site over a period of 10 years resulted in personal injury and property damage. The owner had sought to remove the case to federal court as a “mass action” under CAFA. The federal district court remanded the case to local court, and the owner appealed.

The question on appeal is whether “all the claims in the action arise from an event or occurrence in the State in which the action was filed, and that allegedly resulted in injuries in that State.” If this case fits that description, it will be heard in state court, but if it does not, it will be heard in federal court.

There’s no question that all the events and injuries here were local; as one of the members of the Third Circuit panel commented, all the events happened on an island, and it doesn’t get any more local than that. The only question, then, is whether the allegations in the complaint describe a single event or occurrence.

On behalf of the plaintiffs, we argued that the ongoing emission of toxic particles is a single event or occurrence. Amidst jokes about Georgetown’s poor performance during March Madness, the panel asked many probing questions about both the legal definitions of the terms and the specific facts of the case. Because all the particles came from the same site and were the result of the owner’s same failure to do anything about the toxic site, we argued, the emissions at issue were best viewed as a single event or occurrence.

There was also a fair amount of discussion about the purpose of the statute. We argued that sending this case back to state court was most consistent with the purpose and structure of CAFA, which was designed to send interstate class actions to federal court, but keep truly local controversies in state court.

The Third Circuit panel had thought a great deal about the issues prior to the argument and had a sophisticated understanding of the statute. Frankly, that made it a pleasure to argue and, we hope, can only help our side. Of course, anything could happen, but it was exciting to be in front of such a thoughtful and informed trio of federal appellate judges.

For those interested in listening to the argument, it is available here.

Because CAFA appeals are heard and resolved on an expedited basis, we expect a decision by mid-May. I argued on behalf of the plaintiffs, and our co-counsel and trial counsel is Lee J. Rohn of the Law Offices of Lee J. Rohn & Associates, LLC, of Christiansted, St. Croix, Virgin Islands.