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3 Hastings W.-Nw. J. Envt'l L. & Pol'y 435 (1995-1996)
Effective Use of Class Action Procedures in California Toxic Tort Litigation

handle is hein.journals/haswnw3 and id is 449 raw text is: I. Introduction

Effective Use of Class Action
Procedures in California
Toxic Tort Litigation
Donald C. Arbitblit and
William Bernstein

In recent years. Northern California has been the site of
several catastrophic industrial incidents that exposed large
numbers of people to toxic chemicals, resulting in complex
class action litigation. These events have included the
release of a chemical mixture from a processing tower at the
Unocal Refinery in Rodeo, California, between August 22,
1994 and September 6. 1994:1 the discharge of sulfuric acid
mist from a rail car at the General Chemical Corporation
(GCC) plant in Richmond, California, on July 26. 19932: and
the Sacramento River spill of July 14, 1991. in which a train
derailed near the Northern California town of Dunsmuir.3
California courts, like those of many other states, have
recognized that the class action device provides a superior
method of resolving the enormous number of claims that can
anse from a mass toxic disaster. The class procedure has per-
mitted resolution of such incidents within two to three
years-from the date of the disaster until claims are paid. In
the GCC and Sacramento River Spill cases, the class mechanism
was applied to effectively resolve the litigation by defining
the class of persons entitled to recover damages, and pro-
viding for fair, equitable and prompt distribution of settle-
ment funds. The principal benefits of the class device are: (1)
elimination of the need for hundreds or thousands of plain-
tiffs to repeat the same proof as to common issues, thereby
resulting in significant savings of time and moneyforthe par-
ties and the courts: (2) achievement of global resolution by
encompassing all claims (except for those of opt outs) with-
in a single proceeding; and (3) court supervised distribution
of both compensatory and punitive damages to all class
members, thereby eliminating the race to the courthouse.
This article summarizes applicable California law con-
ceming the use of the class action device in mass toxic disas-
ters, discusses some of the factors that make the class action
device superior in these cases, and provides useful informa-
tion to practitioners concerning the factual and legal issues
that commonly arise in these important and complex matters.
0 Mr. Bernstein (l.D.. University of San Francisco Law School. 1975)
and Mr. Arbitblit (J.D.. Boalt Hall School of Law 1979) are members of the
firm of Ueff. Cabraser. Heimann & Bernstein. a San Francisco law firm that
has served as court-appointed lead counsel andor class counsel in numer-
ous toxic tort class actions. including the Unocal. GCC and Sacramento Rier
Spill cases referenced herein.
1. In re Unocal Refinerjy Litigation: No. C-94-04141 (Contra Costa
County Super. CL Jan. 10. 1996). Approxmately 40 complaints have been
consolidated and are pending. In January 1996. the Court issued an Order
denying defendants demurrer to class action allegations.
2. In re GCC Richmond Works Cases. No. 2906 (Contra Costa County
Super. CL Nov. 22. 1995). On No. ember 22. 1995. the Court (Hon. Richard L
Patsey) Issued an Order Granting Motion for Final Approval of Class
Settlement and implementing Pretrial Orders. The Courts Order has been
appealed, and appeals are pending.
3. in reSacramento RiverSpill Cases No. I & ii. Nos. 2617 and 2620 (S.F
Super. CL Sept. 20. 1993). On September 20. 1993. the Court issued an Order
of Final Approval of Settlement on a dasswide basis. Appeals from that
Order were voluntarily dismissed prior to any appellate decisions, and the
Order of Final Approval as the subject of a final judgment.

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