July 13, 2020 — Last year, Robin and Dexter Baptiste sued the Bethlehem Landfill Company on behalf of themselves and other residents of Freemansburg, PA, which had faced uncontained noxious odors from a landfill site. They asserted claims of public nuisance, private nuisance, and negligence. The District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania dismissed the suit, holding that the Baptistes and their neighbors could not file a private nuisance claim because the odors affected a widespread area and a large group of people.
On July 13, in a precedential decision, the Third Circuit Court of appeals reversed the District Court decision, ruling that the private nuisance claim was valid under Pennsylvania law and sending the case back to District Court.
In its decision, the Court cited an amicus brief we filed in the case, detailing the importance of private nuisance for communities that have faced environmental racism.
We filed an amicus brief along with Philly Thrive, an environmental justice organization, represented by pro bono counsel from Miner, Barnhill & Galland, P. C. We supported the residents’ request that the District Court Decision be reversed. In our brief, we detailed the ways that Black, Hispanic, and low-income communities face a disproportionate impact from environmental pollution.
One study, cited in our brief and referenced by the Court in its ruling, notes that Black and Hispanic Americans are exposed to much more pollution—56% more and 63% more respectively—relative to the share of total pollution they produce.
“The nuisance class action is a crucial mechanism for relief from environmental harms suffered by communities facing discrimination, inequality, and poverty.”
Private nuisance claims, we argued in our brief, have for centuries given homeowners and renters a tool for resisting pollution generated within their communities, allowing them to address pollution and find solutions that federal regulation and public nuisance law cannot provide.
“Communities that suffer most from pollution are disproportionately poor,” our brief reads. “Without the ability to pursue private nuisance as a class, individual members of those communities often lack the knowledge and resources to vindicate their rights against polluters. Consequently, the nuisance class action is a crucial mechanism for relief from environmental harms suffered by the communities we serve: communities facing discrimination, inequality, and poverty.”
This Third Circuit decision clarified important facts about nuisance law in Pennsylvania: private and public nuisance claims are not mutually exclusive, and private nuisance claims can be filed by large groups of people. An environmental hazard can affect a large class of individuals in a way that limits their private and individual right–in this case, the right of Freemansburg residents to use and enjoy their homes and yards.
“The critical difference between these two theories of liability is not the number of persons harmed but the nature of the right affected,” the decision reads. “A public nuisance requires interference with common or public rights, while a private nuisance requires only inference with personal or private rights.”
In its decision, the Court cited our brief in support of the importance of the right to make private nuisance claims in environmental justice communities:
“Their supporting amici emphasize that this private right is of greater importance to historically underrepresented communities whose interests are not always fully addressed by public agencies or through the political process. For instance, recent studies have shown that environmental pollution, including from landfills, has a disparate impact on racial-ethnic minorities and low-income communities…Yet environmental laws remain underenforced in those communities.”