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Schumacher v. Sterigenics U.S., LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

August 15, 2019




         Plaintiffs are Illinois residents who lived, at various times, in close proximity to a sterilization facility owned and operated by Defendant Sterigenics U.S., LLC ("Sterigenics") in Willowbrook, Illinois.[1] This facility, Plaintiffs assert, released harmful emissions into the air, causing Plaintiffs to develop various types of cancer. In 2018, Plaintiffs filed eleven separate complaints in the Circuit Court of Cook County, asserting various state law causes of action related to the release of emissions from the Sterigenics facility.[2] The Defendants in all of these cases are (1) Sterigenics; (2) Bob Novak, a manager at the Sterigenics facility; (3) Roger Clark, a former supervisor at the Sterigenics facility; and (4) GTCR, LLC ("GTCR"), a private equity firm that holds an ownership stake in Sterigenics. Defendants removed these cases to the Northern District of Illinois, asserting federal jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1332, 1441, and 1446. Now before the court is Plaintiffs' Omnibus Motion to Remand. For the reasons stated herein, Plaintiffs' motion is granted.


         The parties agree that the actions addressed in this opinion "have substantially similar pleadings and all removal petitions raise the same arguments." (Defs.' Opp. Mot. Remand [41] at 1 n.1 (quoting Mot. Remand [37] at 1).) The parties, moreover, appear to agree that "the substantive allegations in the complaints are the same," but neither party has prepared a consolidated statement of those allegations which bear on the jurisdictional issue. (Mot. Remand at 1.)[3] In preparing the summary of allegations set forth below, the court has relied on the complaint filed in Kamuda, et al. v. Novak et al., No. 18-cv-07313, Exhibit A to Motion to Remand (hereinafter "Kamuda Complaint"), recognizing that "allegations differ slightly" across complaints. (Mot. Remand at 1.) Because the parties have not identified any disparities significant to the jurisdictional question, the court assumes that the Kamuda Complaint fairly represents the others for purposes of this motion, and deems waived any argument based on individual factual disparities.

         I. Factual Background

         Sterigenics is a limited liability company which, in 1984, began operating a sterilization facility in Willowbrook, Illinois (the "Sterigenics facility"). (Id. ¶ 1.) As part of its sterilization procedures, the Sterigenics facility makes use of a gas known as ethylene oxide. (Id.) Referring to various governmental and non-governmental reports dating back to 1977, Plaintiffs contend that "for more than 40 years" ethylene oxide "has been consistently recognized as dangerous, toxic, and carcinogenic." (Id. ¶ 41-50.) Despite the known risk, Plaintiffs assert, the Sterigenics facility has emitted "excessive, unnecessary, and/or dangerous volumes" of ethylene oxide into the air "on a routine and constant basis for 34 years." (Id. ¶¶ 66, 77.) In doing so, Sterigenics allegedly caused nearby residents to "unknowingly inhal[e] [ethylene oxide] in the air they breathe . . . ." (Id. ¶¶ 1-2.) This effect was worsened, Plaintiffs contend, by a series of decisions made by Sterigenics in managing the Willowbrook facility, including "failing to employ safe methods to adequately control, reduce, minimize, and/or mitigate [ethylene oxide] emissions from its Willowbrook facility" and "failing to adequately study and test the effect of its [ethylene oxide] emissions from its Willowbrook facility on the quality of air." (Id. ¶ 77.)

         Plaintiffs' complaints describe incidents that, they allege, evince "a pattern of Sterigenics consistently failing to implement company-wide safety measures across all its facilities." (Id. ¶ 71.) These include fines paid to OSHA for safety violations at the Willowbrook facility, an accident investigated by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board at a California facility, a prosecution for exceeding the local "Maximum Permissible Risk concentration" of ethylene oxide in the Netherlands, and anonymous employee reports of lax safety procedures. (Id. ¶¶ 67-70.) Additionally, Plaintiffs allege that Sterigenics failed to warn residents of nearby communities that it was emitting ethylene oxide into the air, and failed to adequately train its employees to control and dispose of ethylene oxide. (Id. ¶¶ 77, 81.)

         Plaintiffs identify two Sterigenics employees allegedly involved in the use of ethylene oxide: Bob Novak and Roger Clark. Defendant Novak, a current resident of Illinois, allegedly began working as the Operations Manager of the Willowbrook facility in August 2003. (Id. ¶ 30.) In this capacity, Plaintiffs allege, Novak has been and remains responsible for "the operation of the facility, coordinating and overseeing all activities in plant operations, and overall plant safety," including "testing and analysis to determine the nature and extent of "ethylene oxide" emissions. (Id. ¶¶ 30, 122.) According to Plaintiffs, Novak was responsible for a series of lapses in safety, including, inter alia, "[p]ermitting chamber doors to remain open during and/or after the sterilization process and thereby allowing dangerous amounts of ethylene oxide to escape the chamber area," "[f]ailing to timely order and/or replace filters for the dry system and thereby allowing excess amounts of ethylene oxide" to escape, and "failing to employee safe methods to adequately control, reduce, minimize, and/or mitigate [ethylene oxide] emissions" from the facility. (Id. ¶ 125.)

         Defendant Clark, also a resident of Illinois, was allegedly the Maintenance Supervisor at the Willowbrook facility from the late 1980s until approximately 2015. (Id. ¶ 31.) In this capacity, according to Plaintiffs, Clark "was responsible for calibrating the internal [ethylene oxide] monitors and overseeing the maintenance activities at the Sterigenics facility." (Id.) Plaintiffs charge that Clark was also responsible for several lapses in safety including, inter alia, "[i]naccurately calibrating internal [ethylene oxide] monitors to allow for erroneous monitoring results." (Id. ¶ 139.)

         The final Defendant is GTCR, a Chicago-based private equity firm that purchased Sterigenics in 2011. (Id. ¶ 21.) Plaintiffs allege that, since this acquisition, GTCR has been actively involved in managing Sterigenics's business, including the operation of the Willowbrook facility. (Id. ¶¶ 150, 153.) Plaintiffs thus attribute Sterigenics' alleged acts and omissions during and after 2011, related to the release of ethylene oxide, to GTCR as well. (Id. ¶ 153.)

         II. Procedural History

         Plaintiffs are current and former residents of Willowbrook and other areas situated within several miles of the Sterigenics facility; all are citizens of Illinois. (Complaints ¶ 16, Ex.'s A-K to Mot. Remand.) Each has been diagnosed with some form of cancer. (Id. ¶ 16-17.) In 2018, Plaintiffs individually filed lawsuits against Defendants in the Circuit Court of Cook County, raising state law claims for negligence, negligent training, negligent supervision, willful and wanton conduct, strict liability for ultrahazardous activity, civil battery, and public nuisance. (See, e.g., Kamuda Complaint ¶¶ 72-187.)

         Defendants thereafter removed all eleven cases to the Northern District of Illinois, asserting diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a) and federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. (See, e.g., Notice of Removal [1] ¶ 2; see also Mot. Remand at 1 (stating that "all removal petitions raise the same arguments"); Defs.' Opp. Mot. Remand at 1 n.1 (same)). On December 18, 2018, this court ordered the matters reassigned for the limited purpose of ruling on Plaintiffs' Omnibus Motion to Remand. (Order Granting Motion to Reassign [34].) Plaintiffs filed that motion two days later, on December 20, 2018. (Mot. Remand.)


         Federal district courts "may not exercise jurisdiction absent a statutory basis." Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Allapattah Servs., Inc., 545 U.S. 546, 552 (2005). By statute, Congress grants federal courts jurisdiction over two types of cases: those that "arise under" federal law, 28 U.S.C. § 1331, and those in which there is diversity of citizenship and an amount-in-controversy requirement is met, 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). Home Depot U.S.A., Inc. v. ...

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