Major Minnesota Manufacturer: Class Action Defeat
In late 2004, residents of the eastern suburbs of Saint Paul, Minnesota, filed a class action lawsuit against a major Minnesota manufacturer, alleging that wastes disposed of decades earlier had contaminated their groundwater. The plaintiffs and their five law firms sought to represent a class of tens of thousands of individuals, asserting claims both for personal injury and diminution in property value. The same plaintiffs' counsel had sued another manufacturer in West Virginia, making similar claims, and had obtained a settlement of more than one hundred million dollars.
Working with the manufacturer's national environmental counsel, a team led by Maslon partners Cooper Ashley, and Mike McCarthy (and later joined by Catherine Ahlin-Halverson) engaged in what proved to be years of pretrial discovery and motion practice, culminating in a six-week jury trial in 2009. Preliminary fact and expert discovery focused on whether the plaintiffs could maintain the action as a class. If plaintiffs’ request had been granted, the lawsuit would have then included the claims of tens of thousands of individuals who had not brought suit.
In 2007, the court denied plaintiffs’ motion to certify the case as a class action. Although that ruling might have been the end of the lawsuit, Plaintiffs' counsel instead sought to take four individuals' claims to trial. If the individual plaintiffs had prevailed, their counsel intended to bring thousands of individual claims against the manufacturer in hundreds of lawsuits.
Cooper, Mike, and Catherine, along with the rest of their team, then engaged in extensive fact and expert discovery on the manufacturer's behalf. Several million pages of documents were produced and numerous current and former employees were deposed. Dozens of expert witnesses addressed toxicology, epidemiology, the history of waste disposal practices, environmental fate and transport, property valuation, and related topics.
In pretrial motion practice, Cooper and Mike persuaded the court to dismiss the plaintiffs’ personal injury claims as unsubtantiated and therefore impermissible under Minnesota law. Cooper, Catherine, and Mike then tried the remaining property damage claims in a six-week trial. The jury returned a verdict for the defendant on all counts, finding that the manufacturer had not been negligent, had not trespassed on the plaintiffs' properties, and had not damaged the plaintiffs' properties. As the prevailing party, the manufacturer was also awarded more than $200,000 in costs, one of the largest such awards to have been made by a Minnesota state court. Plaintiffs did not appeal the jury’s verdict.
In the end, the Maslon team obtained a complete victory for the manufacturer. Not only were plaintiffs unsuccessful in having the case proceed as a class action, but the unqualified jury verdict in favor of the manufacturer resulted in the plaintiffs' counsel declining to bring any additional suits against the manufacturer.
During the five years of litigation, many members of Maslon’s litigation team contributed to the manufacturer’s defense. Particularly significant contributions were made by Julian Zebot and Scott Aberson.