The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has reversed class certification in a case involving claims of alleged environmental contamination. In Ebert v. General Mills, Inc., 823 F.3d 472 (8th Cir. 2016), residential property owners in a Minneapolis neighborhood sued General Mills, alleging that the company had caused trichloroethylene (TCE) to be released from its former industrial facility and that TCE vapors had migrated into the surrounding area, threatening the value of neighboring properties. The Eighth Circuit held that the district court had abused its discretion in certifying a class, because resolving General Mills’ liability would require a “highly individualized,” case-by-case determination as to whether there was actual or threatened TCE contamination on any particular property, and if so, whether that contamination was caused by General Mills.
The Ebert decision is significant not only because a federal appellate court has reversed class certification in a property damage environmental contamination case, but also because it rejected a technique that plaintiffs’ class action lawyers have increasingly employed in an attempt to limit the individualized issues inherent in these types of cases: “hybrid” class certification and “bifurcation” of issues. The district court certified a hybrid class in which General Mills’ “liability” would first be determined for purposes of injunctive relief, and then, if General Mills were found liable, “damages” would be determined. The Eighth Circuit held that this “deliberate limiting of issues” was problematic here because it “essentially manufactured a case” to satisfy federal class action requirements. Ebert should pose a significant obstacle for class certification in future environmental contamination cases.