In Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 133 S. Ct. 1426 (2013), and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 133 S. Ct. 2541 (2011), the United States Supreme Court issued two opinions that instructed federal trial courts to rigorously apply the standards for deciding whether or not to certify a class action. In Georgia-Pacific Consumer Products, L.P. v. Ratner, Case No. S13G1723 (decided July 11, 2014), the Georgia Supreme Court cited Comcast and Dukes in issuing its own call for the rigorous application of the standards for certifying a class action.
The plaintiffs in Ratner had sought the certification of a class of the owners of property near a mill operated by Georgia-Pacific. The class members claimed that they had been injured by hydrogen sulfide gas released from sludge fields near the mill. The trial court had certified a class consisting of the owners of 67 parcels of properties. The Georgia Court of Appeals had affirmed the certification of the class. However, the Georgia Supreme Court concluded that the trial court had abused its discretion in certifying a class.
The Georgia Supreme Court focused on the requirement that the proponents of a class action establish “commonality.” Establishing commonality requires a showing that there are questions of law and fact common to the class members. Opinion, p. 7. The Georgia Supreme Court noted that “commonality” required more than showing that the class members made a “common contention” that they had suffered from the same wrongful conduct. Opinion p. 8. What the plaintiffs also needed to show was that the common contention was “capable of class-wide resolution.” Opinion, p. 9-10. Although the record contained evidence showing that individual class members might have been injured by the release of hydrogen sulfide gas, the Court that the record contained no evidence that the injuries to all of the class members could be proven on a class-wide basis. The Court left open the possibility that, after the case was returned to the trial court, the plaintiffs could develop additional evidence that could satisfy the commonality requirement. Opinion, p. 15.
The Ratner decision should strengthen the hands of defendants resisting the certification of a class. Like Comcast and Dukes, the Ratner case does not change the substance of the standards for certifying a class action. Instead, it requires a more rigorous application of those standards by requiring a hard look at the evidence that would be offered to prove the claims of the class.
For more information on Comcast v. Behrend and class action suits, contact your Appellate Counsel at Smith, Gambrell & Russell.