MIAMI — Tens of thousands of residents living in The Acreage, a residential community near Palm Beach that for years has been the focus of industrial contamination litigation, won't get to join a class action following a federal judge's decision early last month to deny class certification.

Judge Kenneth A. Marra of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, Miami Division, denied certification in the $1 billion case filed by residents of The Acreage who claim the community's property values and residents' cancer was caused by pollution released by the nearby Pratt & Whitney plant. Marra didn't agree.

U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth A. Marra
U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth A. Marra

"Plaintiffs have not met their burden proving a class action is appropriate," Marra wrote in his 42-page opinion, in which he also described plaintiff's proposed class definition as "overbroad."

The putative class action named as its defendant United Technologies (UTC), of which Pratt & Whitney Group is a subsidiary. Pratt & Whitney own the rocket and aerospace testing and manufacturing plant north of The Acreage. Another defendant in the case was Palm Beach Aggregates.

Marra denied the plaintiffs' joint motion to certify a litigation class against UTC and denied plaintiff and defendant Palm Beach Aggregates' motion to certify a settlement class. Marra previously ruled that class certification issues in the matter would be determined simultaneously.

Marra's decision followed a five-day evidentiary hearing "on all relevant motions" in January.

The decision affects an estimated 50,000 residents living in about 18,000 properties in "a 60-square-mile class area" commonly referred to as "The Acreage," according to the opinion and order and estimates by a plaintiff's attorney in January.

Allegations in the case go back decades. 

"In the early 1990s, UTC began shipping tons of soil from its Pratt & Whitney campus to soil recycling companies," Marra wrote in a footnote in his opinion. "This process continued for roughly ten years and involved the removal of over 50,000 tons of soil. The bulk of the soil was shipped by rail to a treatment facility in Michigan, while the remainder was slated for shipment by truck to thermal treatment centers in West Palm Beach and Pompano Beach, Florida."

The plaintiffs in the case claim that the Florida soil transports "were either not properly treated, or were diverted from the soil treatment recycling facilities and instead delivered directly to landfills," Marra wrote. "In this fashion, plaintiffs allege there is a 'possibility' that some soil removed from Pratt & Whitney's campus ended up untreated as residential landfill at the Acreage."

Marra wrote a class action "is not the superior method to adjudicate the claims" in the matter.

"A class action could be desirable because the legal theories at hand are not particularly novel, and proving liability could require complex proof regarding transport mechanisms," Marra continued. "These issues are common to the proposed class, suggesting it should be beneficial to plaintiffs to join as a class to prosecute this action. Yet, plaintiffs must individually prove causation and damages after establishing liability, and varying kinds and amounts of 'stigma' will attach to any given property, depending on the presence of actual or threatened contamination, varying kinds and amounts of contamination and proximity to it, making a class action a particularly inappropriate vehicle for this litigation."

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