Pennsylvania: Class Action—Federal Court Denies Class Certification

02/10/20

Rawle & Henderson LLP recently obtained a favorable opinion and order from the United States District Court of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denying plaintiffs’ motion for a class certification against our clients, in which plaintiffs alleged they, along with thousands of other property owners in Philadelphia County, sustained property damage as the result of the spraying of a herbicide by our clients.

In this matter, plaintiffs filed a putative class action alleging nuisance, trespass and negligence claims against our clients.  Plaintiffs alleged they sustained damage to the backyard of their home in Philadelphia, which borders a rail line, as a result of our clients’ application of a well-known herbicide along the rail lines in Philadelphia County. Plaintiffs alleged plaintiffs’ property, and alleged similarly situated properties along the rail lines, were exposed to a well-known herbicide, thereby causing property damage, including death of vegetation.  Our clients provided vegetation management services along the rail lines. Central to our defense was the herbicide was applied on a very limited number of occasions and in a targeted manner.

Under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (“Rule 23”), a plaintiff seeking class certification must satisfy all requirements of Rule 23(a) and at least one of the requirements of Rule 23(b).  Rule 23(a) requires the plaintiffs to establish (1) the class is so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable; (2) there are questions of law or fact common to the class; (3) the claims or defenses of the representative parties are typical of the claims or defenses of the class; and (4) the representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class.

In their motion for class certification, plaintiffs relied on two experts to establish both the numerosity and commonality requirements under Rule 23(a). Plaintiffs relied on their two experts to establish the potential number of members of the class action, as well as the common questions of fact/law regarding the alleged exposure amongst the potential members of the class.

Rawle & Henderson LLP argued that both of plaintiffs’ experts’ reports were speculative and unreliable and, thus, could not be considered because they did not meet the requirements for expert testimony set forth in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993).  With respect to the numerosity requirement, we argued plaintiffs’ experts failed to provide any basis for their methodology and relied on research literature which was inapposite to the methods of application used in this case.  With respect to commonality, we argued plaintiffs’ claims of nuisance, trespass and negligence required individual determinations to establish liability and, thus, could not meet the commonality requirement of Rule 23. Specifically, there had to be an individual analysis into the particular circumstances of each herbicide application, each potential class member’s property location, and each property owner’s individual use and enjoyment of their property, which plaintiffs’ experts failed to conduct. 

We argued that since both experts’ reports were speculative and unreliable, the motion for class certification should be denied. The Court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania agreed with our position. The Court found plaintiffs’ experts unreliable since the experts did not provide any methodology, testable theory or explanation of exactly what from the reviewed literature gave rise to their conclusions.  Since plaintiffs could not meet the Rule 23 elements, the Court denied motion for class certification.