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Class Certification Upheld for Louisiana Toxic Train Derailment Near Prison

On August 21, 2008, a Louisiana appellate court affirmed class certification in a lawsuit involving prisoners and guards who were exposed to toxic chemicals following a train derailment.

The train derailed near Eunice, Louisiana on May 27, 2000, and seventeen of the derailed cars contained hazardous chemicals. Seven were torn open and two exploded. Two other cars were intentionally breached during the clean-up process.

Sixty-nine cars that were not derailed were moved to a siding about a mile from the South Louisiana Correctional Center (SLCC) in Basil, a private prison operated by LCS Corrections Services, Inc. (LCS). One of those train cars, owned by Union Tank Car Company (UTC) and leased to Dow Chemical, began to leak, releasing ethylene oxide for several days. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that inspection procedures by Union Pacific Railroad (UPR) failed to detect defective track joint bars, leading to the train accident.

Anthony Crooks and John Spellman were Louisiana state prisoners housed at SLCC at the time of the derailment. They filed separate lawsuits against LCS, UTC, Phillips Petroleum, Huntsman Petrochemicals, UPR, Dow and the State of Louisiana in state district court, alleging among other claims that LCS neither evacuated them nor allowed them to “shelter in place,” and denied them medical treatment after they were exposed to toxic chemicals.

Crooks was denied class certification, so he had many prisoners join his lawsuit, ending up with about 450 plaintiffs. Spellman then filed for class certification. The suits were consolidated and the certification motion granted, with both guards and prisoners present at SLCC during the derailment and cleanup included as separate subclasses. All of the claims against the defendants except UTC and LCS were settled. UTC and LCS appealed the granting of class-action status in the consolidated cases.

The Court of Appeals held the plaintiffs had proven the five prerequisites for class certification set forth in Article 59l(A), Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure: numerosity, commonality, typicality, adequate representation and an objectively definable class. It did not matter that Crooks had been made the sole class representative and had been previously denied class certification, or that he had been released from prison, as he still had the same interest as the prisoners and guards at SLCC in winning the case.

Further, the class was represented by competent counsel, both the district court and class counsel had extensive class-action litigation experience, and the class-action forum was the most appropriate way to litigate the claims. Therefore, the Court of Appeals held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in granting the motion to certify the class.
The case was returned to the trial court for further proceedings with costs taxed against UTC and LCS. The plaintiffs were represented by Baton Rouge attorney Andre P. LaPlace, Plaquemine attorney Patrick W. Pendley and Gretna attorneys Michelle H. Hesni, George Hesni II and Davidson S. Ehle III. See: Crooks v. LCS Corrections Services, Inc., 994 So.2d 101 (La.App.1 Cir. 2008), appeal denied.

Following remand the case settled, with final approval of the settlement being entered in September 2010. PLN was unable to learn the terms of the settlement as none of the lawyers involved in the case would respond to requests for details nor would the court disclose the terms of the settlement. If any of our readers have a copy of the settlement, please send it to us so PLN can report the details.

In a separate action related to the May 2000 train derailment, over 10,000 non-prisoner residents in Eunice filed a federal class-action suit against UPR and other defendants that resulted in a $65 million settlement in May 2004.

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Related legal case

Crooks v. LCS Corrections Services, Inc.