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West Virginia Supreme Court vacates class ruling in IEI fire suit

PARKERSBURG — The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals rejected a circuit judge’s certification of the class in a lawsuit over the 2017 fire at IEI Plastics.

Snider v. Surnaik Holdings of WV LLC was filed in the wake of the fire that destroyed the former Ames shovel plant off Camden Avenue just outside the city limits of Parkersburg.

The facility was used as a warehouse for various plastics and other materials by International Export and Import Plastics, part of the Naik family of companies, which includes Surnaik Holdings.

No cause has been determined for the fire, which began in the early morning hours of Oct. 21, 2017, and burned for more than a week, sending a noxious plume of black smoke into the air.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Parkersburg resident Paul Snider and others before the fire was completely extinguished. It alleges the owners of the facility failed to provide an adequate fire protection system and the resulting fire led to respiratory ailments, exacerbation of existing medical conditions, property damage and loss of enjoyment of property.

In the majority opinion, Justice Evan Jenkins writes that Judge Thomas A. Bedell — appointed to preside over the case after the three Wood County Circuit Court judges recused themselves — “failed to conduct an appropriate and thorough analysis” of the requirements for certifying the class.

Among the standards for class certification are that members face largely the same legal issues, that those common criteria are the predominant issues in the case and that a class action is the most fair and efficient means of addressing the matters. Attorneys for Surnaik Holdings argued that approximately 90 percent of the estimated 57,000 potential class members within 8.5 square miles of the warehouse suffered no health injury and the lead plaintiff did not suffer property damage or loss of revenue, which were listed as potential impacts on others in the class.

The opinion points to precedent in federal court cases in evaluating class certification. It says the state Supreme Court’s 17-year-old decision in the In Re West Virginia Rezulin case on such topics resulted in the use of “a vague, all things considered test that does not give the circuit courts any real guidance” in assessing the predominance and superiority aspects

“Accordingly, we conclude that to the extent Rezulin simply suggests that there is not much difference between commonality and predominance and that no rigid test is necessary, it must now be modified,” Jenkins wrote.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Margaret Workman says her fellow justices are trying to “fix something that isn’t broken,” replacing the criteria from the Rezulin case with “a bureaucratic mountain of factfinding and legal analysis which a circuit court must climb prior to certifying a class, all for the benefit of corporate defendants, while completely ignoring the other side of the equation.”

Workman said she agrees failure to conduct a thorough analysis would constitute error on the part of a judge.

“I part company with the majority, however, in its conclusion that the experienced circuit court judge handling this litigation did not undertake a thorough analysis of the evidence and the governing law in crafting his decision,” she said.

The ruling vacates the class certification. Options for the plaintiffs include asking the court to reconsider within 30 days, attempting to have the class certified again at the circuit level or pursuing the case based on Snider’s claims, rather than a class action.

In a statement received after deadline for the print edition, Surnaik attorney Ryan Donavan said the court made the right decision.

“A class action resolution in this case would mean three things: a few dollars for each class member, a massive windfall for the plaintiff’s lawyers, and a terrible precedent for the small businesses that power our local economy,” he said. “Our clients are pleased that the Supreme Court put a stop to it.”

Evan Bevins can be reached at ebevins@newsandsentinel.com.

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