11th Circuit Discusses Pleading Standards for Toxic Tort Claims

Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP
Anthony B. Cavender

October 11, 2014

On October 6, 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued its ruling in the case of Adinolfe, et. at. v. United Technologies Corporation. The Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the lower court to dismiss, with prejudice, two toxic tort cases, involving hundreds of homeowners, at the pleading stage. United Technologies Corporation (UTC) is responsible for the operations of Pratt & Whitney, which operated an aircraft and rocket engine manufacturing plant that the plaintiffs allege released large quantities of toxic materials that migrated through groundwater to the properties of the plaintiffs, damaging their properties and even causing personal injuries.

The District Court presiding judge used a “Lone Pine” order which is used to manage discovery to require the plaintiffs in mass tort cases to provide prima facie factual support, including expert testimony, for their claims or run the risk of having those claims dismissed. See Lore v. Lone Pine Corp., No. L-33606-85, 1986 WL 637507, at *3-4 (N.J. Sup. Ct. Law Div. Nov. 18, 1986). The Court of Appeals decided that a Lone Pine order should not be used as a pre-discovery case management tool before the District Court judge rules on the legal sufficiency of a complaint, and therefore the decision to dismiss must be reversed.

Among the matters reviewed by the Court of Appeals was the District Court’s conclusion that the plaintiffs could not state a claim without alleging that the contamination on their property exceeds the Florida numerical regulatory safe drinking water standard. UTC argued that under Florida law, only contamination above the applicable regulatory standard is actionable, and cited a 2005 decision of a Florida intermediate state appeals court. However, the Court of Appeals held this was an erroneous statement of Florida law: “In sum, while the applicable regulatory standard may be instructive for a trier of fact as evidence of what the government deems safe for the public, it does not amount to an all-purpose benchmark for determining as a matter of law how much one can reasonably contaminate another’s private property, much less a threshold issue that plaintiffs must preemptively address at the pleading stage to state tort claims under Florida law”. The Court of Appeals noted that several courts have ruled that pollution must exceed the relevant regulatory levels to be actionable, but many others have not.

This article is being provided for informational purposes only and not for the purposes of providing legal advice or creating an attorney-client relationship. You should contact an attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem you may have. In addition, the opinions expressed herein are the opinions of Mr. Cavender and may not reflect the opinions of Synergy Environmental, Inc., Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP or either of those firms’ clients.

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