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Smith v. Illinois Central Railroad Co.

December 27, 2005

MARVIN SMITH, ROBERTA SMITH, PAM RUNNELLS, MARK CHANEY, TEDDIE MAXTON, MAX DEARMAN, THOMAS TRIGG, CHERYL TRIGG, KLAUDINE KWIATAKOWSKI, LARRY GALBRAITH, AND SHIRLEY GALBRAITH, ALL INDIVIDUALLY AND AS REPRESENTATIVES OF ALL PERSONS AND ENTITIES WHO ARE MEMBERS OF THE CLASS DESCRIBED HEREIN, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES,
v.
ILLINOIS CENTRAL RAILROAD COMPANY, D/B/A CANADIAN NATIONAL/ ILLINOIS CENTRAL RAILROAD, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Perry County. No. 04-L-27, Honorable Michael J. O'Malley,Judge, presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Donovan

The plaintiffs filed a negligence action against the defendant, Illinois Central Railroad Company, doing business as Canadian National/Illinois Central Railroad (the railroad), in the circuit court of Perry County, Illinois, on behalf of themselves and those persons and businesses who sustained personal injuries and property damages as a result of the derailment of the railroad's freight train in Tamaroa, Illinois, on February 9, 2003. The plaintiffs moved to certify the case as a class action. The circuit court granted the motion and the railroad appealed. On appeal, the railroad contends that the circuit court applied an erroneous legal standard or abused its discretion in finding that the class satisfied the commonality and numerosity requirements for class certification, and it further contends that the order certifying the class must be reversed because the class definition does not specify the conditions for class membership in clear and objective terms.

I. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

According to the record, 11 plaintiffs sought to bring an action against the railroad in the circuit court of Perry County on behalf of themselves and those persons and businesses who sustained injuries and damages as a result of the derailment of the railroad's freight train in Tamaroa, Illinois. The complaint contains counts for negligence, res ipsa loquitur, nuisance, abnormally dangerous activity, and trespass. It includes the following factual allegations. On Sunday, February 9, 2003, 21 cars on the railroad's northbound freight train derailed in Tamaroa, Illinois. Tank cars carrying hydrochloric acid, vinyl chloride, methanol, and a methanol/formaldehyde mixture ruptured, and the contents thereof were spilled into the surrounding environment, including the ground, water, and air. Some of the cars containing methanol caught fire and burned. As a result of the chemical spill, the area within a three-mile radius of the derailment was subject to a mandatory evacuation and more than 1,000 Tamaroa residents were evacuated. Additional discharges or leaks occurred at the derailment site subsequent to February 9, 2003, including on February 20, 2003, and May 7, 2003.

The plaintiffs moved for class status and the railroad objected. Following a hearing, the circuit court granted the motion to certify the class. The certification order identified the class as follows: "All persons, firms, and legal entities residing, maintaining a place of business, owning property, employed or attending school, or otherwise present in or in the vicinity of Tamaroa, Illinois, or its environs on or after February 9, February 20, or May 7, 2003, and who or which have sustained legally cognizable compensatory or punitive damages or may incur or may claim to have incurred legally cognizable compensatory or punitive damages as a proximate result of the Canadian National train derailment which occurred on February 9, 2003, in Tamaroa, Illinois." The railroad sought interlocutory review. We initially denied the railroad's petition for leave to appeal on August 12, 2004. The railroad then petitioned for leave to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court. The Illinois Supreme Court denied the petition but issued a supervisory order directing this court to vacate the order denying interlocutory review and to consider the class certification issue on the merits. Smith v. Illinois Central R.R. Co., 212 Ill. 2d 554, 817 N.E.2d 893 (2004) (supervisory order).

II. ANALYSIS

A. The Class Certification Requirements

Created in the English courts of chancery as a convenient tool to afford partial justice to parties unable to join under the then- compulsory joinder rules, class action suits have been recognized as an acceptable method in appropriate cases to advance the efficiency and economy of litigation, which is a principal purpose of the procedure. See Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32, 41-42, 85 L. Ed 2d 22, 27, 61 S.Ct. 115, 118 (1940); 1 A. Conte & H. Newberg, Newberg on Class Actions §1:6, at 25 (4th ed. 2002). The recognized objectives of class actions include judicial economy and efficiency, the protection of defendants from inconsistent obligations, the protection of the interests of absentees, access to judicial relief for small claimants, and enhanced means for private attorney general suits to enforce laws and deter wrongdoing. 1 Newberg on Class Actions §1:6, at 27-28.

In Illinois, class certification is governed by section 2-801 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-801 (West 1998)). Under section 2-801, a class may be certified only if the proponent establishes the following: (1) the class is so numerous that a joinder of all members is impracticable, (2) there are questions of fact or law common to the class that predominate over any questions affecting only individual members, (3) the representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interest of the class, and (4) the class action is an appropriate method for the fair and efficient adjudication of the controversy. 735 ILCS 5/2-801 (West 1998). Section 2-801 is patterned after Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Fed. R. Civ. P. 23), and the federal decisions interpreting Rule 23 constitute persuasive authority for class certification issues in Illinois. Avery v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., 216 Ill. 2d 100, 125, 835 N.E.2d 801, 819 (2005); Steinberg v. Chicago Medical School, 69 Ill. 2d 320, 341, 371 N.E.2d 634, 644-45 (1977). Decisions regarding class certification are within the sound discretion of the trial court and should be overturned only where the court clearly abused its discretion or applied impermissible legal criteria. McCabe v. Burgess, 75 Ill. 2d 457, 464-65, 389 N.E.2d 565, 568 (1979).

B. The Commonality Requirement

"Commonality" requires that there be questions of fact or law common to the class that predominate over other questions affecting only individual class members. 735 ILCS 5/2-801 (West 1998); Steinberg, 69 Ill. 2d at 338, 371 N.E.2d at 643. A single issue common to all members of the class will satisfy the requirement if it predominates. 1 Newberg on Class Actions §3:10, at 273-74; 5 Newberg on Class Actions §17:10, at 321. Factual differences will not render a claim atypical if the claim arises from the same event or practice or course of conduct that gives rise to the claims of the class members and if it is based on the same legal theory. 1 Newberg on Class Actions §3:15, at 335-56. A class action can properly be prosecuted where the defendant allegedly acted in the same basic manner with respect to an entire class, and it will not be defeated solely because of some factual variations among the grievances of class members. Steinberg, 69 Ill. 2d at 340-41, 371 N.E.2d at 644; Saldana v. American Mutual Corp., 97 Ill. App. 3d 334, 337, 422 N.E.2d 860, 862 (1981). In order to satisfy the commonality requirement of section 2-801, it must be shown that " 'successful adjudication of the purported class representatives' individual claims will establish a right of recovery in other class members.' " Avery, 216 Ill. 2d at 128, 835 N.E.2d at 821 (quoting Goetz v. Village of Hoffman Estates, 62 Ill. App. 3d 233, 236, 378 N.E.2d 1276, 1279 (1978)).

On appeal, the railroad contends that the circuit court applied an "unprecedented and erroneous legal standard" in determining that there are questions of fact or law common to the class which predominate over questions affecting the individual class members. In support of its contention, the railroad suggests that personal injury actions should not be certified as class actions because those actions would trigger an unworkable array of factually-intensive-and-claimant-specific questions and would "inexorably devolve" into hundreds of minitrials that defy class treatment.

We reject the contention that the circuit court employed an "unprecedented and erroneous legal standard" in determining the commonality issue, for a number of reasons. First, the record clearly illustrates that the circuit court carefully considered whether the factual issues and the elements of the legal theories alleged were subject to class-wide proofs versus individual proofs and whether the class-wide questions were predominant. Next, we are unaware of any blanket declaration by any court, state or federal, stating that class certification may be denied simply because an action may be classified as a mass tort.

Historically, the courts were reluctant to employ class certification in mass tort cases on the grounds that plaintiffs who assert personal injuries or wrongful death should be permitted to control their own actions and that significant questions regarding damages and affirmative defenses would require multiple minitrials, but that no longer appears to be the prevailing view. See 5 Newberg on Class Actions §17:5, at 309-10. In fact, we have reviewed a number of state and federal decisions wherein the reviewing court found the class action suit to be the most appropriate procedural vehicle for the management of an action based on a single catastrophic incident such as a train derailment. For a representative, but admittedly noncomprehensive, sample of such decisions, see Sala v. National R.R. Passenger Corp., 120 F.R.D. 494 (E.D. Pa. 1988) (an Amtrak train derailment); Summons v. Missouri Pacific R.R., 306 Ark. 116, 813 S.W.2d 240 (1991) (an overturned chemical tank car); Louisville & Nashville R.R. Co. v. Wollenmann, 180 Ind. App. 588, 390 N.E.2d 669 (1979) (overturned tanker cars filled with liquid propane); Livingston Parish Police Jury v. Illinois Central Gulf R.R. Co., 432 So. 2d 1027 (La. App. 1983) (a train derailment); Reynolds v. CSX Transportation, Inc., 55 Ohio App. 3d 19, 561 N.E.2d 1047 (1989) (a train derailment with phosphorous fire).

In the Reynolds v. CSX Transportation, Inc., case, the Ohio Court of Appeals affirmed the circuit court's decision to grant certification in an action for money damages instituted on behalf of persons evacuated from their homes and businesses after a tanker car containing phosphorous derailed and its contents caught fire, sending a thick cloud of smoke through a number of residential and commercial districts beyond the site of the derailment. Reynolds, 55 Ohio App. 3d 19, 561 N.E.2d 1047. The appellate court found that all the prerequisites for class action status had been satisfied for five subclasses and that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining that the ...


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