Widening the Power Gap: The Eighth Circuit's Stringent Requirements for Class Actions in Environmental Contamination Cases

By Holtzman, Emily | Missouri Law Review, Spring 2019 | Go to article overview

Widening the Power Gap: The Eighth Circuit's Stringent Requirements for Class Actions in Environmental Contamination Cases


Holtzman, Emily, Missouri Law Review


I. INTRODUCTION

Pipeline construction is booming in the United States, yet it remains a polarizing topic for many because of environmental concerns. On the one hand, pipelines bring increased energy independence for the United States and are one of the safest ways to transport oil and gas. (1) At the same time, fears of environmental damage have led to a growing and fierce opposition to pipeline construction. (2) After the massive offshore rig spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, resistance to new projects like the Keystone Pipeline has received widespread media coverage. The protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Reservation, in particular, portrayed how high tensions have risen over pipeline construction. (3) As quieter protests continue across the country against various new and old pipeline constructions and spills, questions about liability and accountability of the oil industry in the future of environmental degradation have largely been left unanswered. (4)

In 2013, a portion of the Pegasus Pipeline (5) (the "Pipeline") ruptured near Mayflower, Arkansas, spilling about 134,000 gallons of heavy crude oil and forcing nearby residents to evacuate their homes. (6) The Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") classified the leak as a "major spill." (7) Twenty-two homes were evacuated, and nearby wildlife was majorly affected for years following the spill. (8) Property owners with land subject to the easement contracts with Exxon ("Plaintiffs") brought a class action lawsuit against Exxon Mobil Corporation, ExxonMobil Pipeline Company, and Mobil Pipe Line Company (collectively, "Exxon") for breach of contract, alleging Exxon operated the Pipeline in an unsafe and defective condition. (9) In 2014, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas certified the class action; however, on reconsideration in 2015, the court decertified the class. (10) The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed this decision in 2017. (11)

This Note argues this class should have been able to proceed to adjudicate its claims under either Rule 23(b)(2) or Rule 23(b)(3) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The Eighth Circuit's decision to decertify the class in Webb v. Exxon Mobil Corp. will deprive property owners of control and agency over their land when faced with environmental contamination or disaster resulting from the conduct of a large and powerful corporation. In light of the massively uneven power dynamic that exists between pipeline operators and individual property owners across the country, removing class adjudication as a possibility to hold these operators liable for potential mistakes further widens this power gap. Landowners, towns, municipalities, and residents should be aware of the repercussions of this decision in making future agreements with pipeline owners and operators, as well as any industries or facilities that carry major risks of environmental contamination.

Part II of this Note provides the facts and holding of Webb. Part III discusses the requirements of class action lawsuits under Rule 23(a) and Rule 23(b) in light of Wal-Mart v. Dukes and other class action suits involving environmental contamination claims. Part IV reviews the instant decision of the Eighth Circuit in Webb. Part V explains why the Eighth Circuit adopted a standard for certifying classes that is too stringent, even after Dukes, and further explains why the court erred in decertifying the class in Webb. Part VI concludes this Note by explaining the impact this case will have on landowners and casement holders in the future.

II. FACTS AND HOLDING

The Pipeline was constructed in 1947 and spans more than 650 miles through Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, and Illinois. (12) Magnolia, the corporate predecessor of Exxon Mobil and the first owner of the Pipeline, entered into easement contracts with property owners in these four states to build the Pipeline alongside or across their properties. …

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