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In groundbreaking opinion, Third Circuit sends mass environmental tort back to Virgin Islands court

In groundbreaking opinion, Third Circuit sends mass environmental tort back to Virgin Islands court

By Leah Nicholls, Kazan-Budd Attorney

Before last week, no federal court of appeals had addressed the question of whether defendants could remove mass environmental torts alleging an ongoing harm to federal court under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA). But that changed on Friday when the Third Circuit held that a suit filed by a group of over 400 residents of St. Croix, Virgin Islands, against a local polluter could stay in Virgin Islands court.

This sound ruling properly respects the right of injury victims to have local courts decide local controversies.

We first told you about Abraham v. St. Croix Renaissance Group last month when I blogged about the oral argument. The plaintiffs were alleging that a local bauxite refinery site has continuously spewed toxins since the defendant purchased the site in 2002, and that the defendant has done nothing to prevent the harmful particles from blowing onto the plaintiffs’ property and into their water supply.

After the plaintiffs brought state-law claims in Virgin Islands court, the defendant owner, St. Croix Renaissance Group (SCRG), removed the case to federal court under the “mass action” provisions of CAFA. The plaintiffs moved to remand the suit to state court, and the federal district court agreed, finding that the complaint alleged a local event or occurrence. Under CAFA, mass actions in which “all of 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” stay in state court.

We represented the plaintiffs on appeal to the Third Circuit, which has now affirmed the district court in its published opinion. The court of appeals reasoned that, contrary to SCRG’s arguments, “an event or occurrence” does not necessarily mean a discrete instance; rather, a single event or occurrence could happen over a long period of time and encompass the kind of ongoing and continuous release of toxins alleged here.

The Third Circuit further reasoned that the result — that this dispute between local residents and a local toxic site is litigated in state court — is consistent with “Congress’s intent, which recognized that some aggregate actions are inherently local in nature and better suited to adjudication by a State court.”

The Third Circuit made the right call. When local residents bring state-law claims against a local polluter, there’s no good reason for already overloaded federal courts to get involved. The opinion correctly recognizes that CAFA doesn’t mean that every piece of aggregate litigation is automatically in federal court. There are limits, limits that come into play when the controversy is a local one. And it would be completely arbitrary for local environmental torts to get kicked to federal court just because the defendant polluted for a long time instead of a short time.

Here’s to hoping that the rest of the circuits follow the Third’s lead in ensuring that when plaintiffs choose to litigate a local environmental dispute in state court, it stays there.

[Photo: Bauxite, on right, is refined to create alumina, on left.]