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Proposed Class Action Against ArcellorMittal’s Coke Plant in Pennsylvania Kept Alive

Last week, in the case of Maroz v. Arcelormittal Monessen LLC, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 140660 (W.D. Pa. Oct. 15, 2015), a judge of the Western District of Pennsylvania declined to dismiss a proposed class action in which residents living near ArcellorMittal’s coke plant in Monessen, Pennsylvania alleged that noxious odors and air particulates from the plant polluted their properties.  After allowing the residents to amend their original complaint, U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab found that the residents adequately pled the state common law tort claims for private nuisance, negligence, and trespass, despite the judge’s acknowledgement that there was “not a large number of detailed facts” set forth in the amended complaint.   However, the Court did dismiss claims for public nuisance and punitive damages.

In the case, Judge Schwab found that the residents sufficiently pled a claim for trespass by alleging that particulate matter physically invaded their properties and interfered with their use and enjoyment of their respective properties. The opinion also notes the residents’ allegations that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection had cited ArcelorMittal six times since April 2014 for illegal air emissions, and that one of the citations indicated ArcelorMittal “was not taking all reasonable action to prevent particulate matter from becoming airborne from the coal-handling area.”

While the trespass claim survived, the judge did throw out the residents’ public nuisance and punitive damages claims. The opinion notes that a claim for public nuisance requires that an alleged nuisance affect “the community at large and not merely the complaining parties.” Because the residents failed to identify what harm the community-at-large suffered and instead alleged their own harms, the public nuisance claim was dismissed. Finally, the judge dismissed the claim for punitive damages because the residents failed to allege sufficient facts that ArcelorMittal acted with “outrageous conduct” and “had an evil motive or was recklessly indifferent” to the residents’ rights, as required by the standard for punitive damages.   

This class action lawsuit, which alleges various state common law tort claims, comes several years after the Third Circuit held in a precedential case that the federal Clean Air Act does not preempt such claims. In Bell v. Cheswick Generating Station, which we reported on here, a three-judge panel reversed the Western District of Pennsylvania’s dismissal of a similar complaint for nuisance, negligence, and trespass related to alleged odors and fly ash at an electric generation plant in Springdale, Pennsylvania. 734 F.3d 188 (3d Cir. Pa. 2013).