U.S. Steel objects to class action lawsuit alleging medical issues, property damage from Clairton coke plant emissions

By Nicholas Malfitano | Aug 25, 2017

PITTSBURGH – U.S. Steel is facing a consolidated class action lawsuit filed earlier this year resulting from alleged health issues and property damage from pollution related to its Clairton Coke Works plant, but have offered objections to the litigation and believe the plaintiffs’ case is an “over-reaching” one.

Initially, plaintiffs Cheryl Hurt of Clairton and John Macus of Jefferson Hills filed their class action litigation in the Allegheny Court of Common Pleas on May 25, while plaintiff Cindy Ross, also of Clairton, filed a similar-styled suit in the same court on June 13.

Both suits were leveled against USX Company (doing business as “U.S. Steel Corporation”) of Pittsburgh, which were later consolidated through an order from Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Robert J. Colville on Aug. 4.

Hurt and Macus’s lawsuit alleged the Clairton Coke Works, located approximately 20 miles south of Pittsburgh, has permitted toxic substances like sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and other contaminant chemicals to enter the air and negatively affect the surrounding community.

The lawsuit labels such substances as resulting from the production of coke, a material used in making steel. Coke is made by heating coal in ovens at extreme temperatures, a process meant to remove impurities from the coal, with those same impurities being released into the air after heating.  

Hurt and Macus say these emissions have harmed citizens by causing serious medical issues like “heart and respiratory diseases, asthma and cancer,” among others, in addition to property damage in the surrounding area.

Hurt and Macus’s lawsuit contained claims for private nuisance, strict liability and negligence.

Ross’s lawsuit alleged similar claims, and contained counts for private nuisance, negligence, gross negligence and trespass by air particulates.

Emission-control violations have resulted in U.S. Steel paying nearly $4 million in punitive fines to Allegheny County since 2009.

It was reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last year that the Clairton Coke Works was nailed for 6,700 violations for hazardous and toxic air pollution releases, over a period spanning Jan. 1, 2012 to May 31, 2015.

Though the corporation pledged to make improvements with regards to the safety of the coke ovens and pollution control in 2016, the plaintiffs believe these promises have gone unfulfilled.

Meanwhile, U.S. Steel have strongly opposed the plaintiffs’ claims, seeking their dismissal as well as the dismissal of requests for punitive damages and injunctive relief, through preliminary objections filed July 31 which specifically addressed Ross’s lawsuit, just prior to its consolidation with that of Hurt and Macus.

“Plaintiff Cindy Ross, despite having lived in Clairton for years, now alleges that the Clairton Plant’s operations have interfered with the use and enjoyment of her property and caused her unspecified property damages. At this stage, plaintiff’s allegations amount solely to a claim for private nuisance. Despite this, plaintiff has freighted her complaint with additional, unnecessary causes of action and requested relief to which she is not entitled as a matter of law. This is a classic case of over-pleading,” the defendant’s attorney, Mary J. Hackett, said.

Hackett continued that the substance of the allegations is based on a private nuisance claim only, and the action should proceed strictly as such. Hackett believed Ross’s claims for negligence, gross negligence and trespass are all connected from the very same allegations as the nuisance claim, and thus barred by Pennsylvania law.

Hackett’s rationale for the corporation’s objections to the lawsuit continued.

“Second, plaintiff attempts to bring separate claims for ‘negligence’ and ‘gross negligence’ despite the fact that Pennsylvania law does not recognize separate causes of action for different types of negligence. Third, plaintiff’s request for punitive damages fails as a matter of law, as she has fallen far short of pleading facts that establish the type of outrageous and malicious conduct which would warrant the imposition of punitive damages. Finally, plaintiff seeks certain unspecified injunctive relief through her complaint, in effect asking this Court to issue an order setting forth the manner in which U.S. Steel must operate the Clairton plant. But, U.S. Steel is already subject to comprehensive regulation and oversight, including the consent judgment entered into with the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD),” Hackett said.

Hackett also believed Ross was vague in her allegations against U.S. Steel.

“Plaintiff does not detail any specific damages that she has suffered, nor does she explain how any damages to her property can be traced to the Clairton plant as opposed to other sources of air particulates in the Monongahela River Valley. Instead, she vaguely contends that ‘noxious odors and air particulates’ resulting from Clairton plant operations have ‘interfered with plaintiff’s use and enjoyment of her property, resulting in substantial damages,” Hackett said.

Through its attorneys, U.S. Steel respectfully requests that the Court sustain its preliminary objections and dismiss the non-private nuisance claims from the complaint with prejudice, strike Ross’s requests for punitive damages and injunctive relief.

The plaintiffs are currently represented by James DePasquale, D. Aaron Rihn and Robert N. Peirce III of Robert Peirce & Associates, both in Pittsburgh.

Plaintiffs' attorneys seeking to enter the litigation on a pro hac vice basis are Steven D. Liddle, Nicholas A. Coulson and Brandon T. Brown of Liddle & Dubin in Detroit, Mich., plus Nicholas A. Migliaccio and Jason S. Rathod of Migliaccio & Rathod and Christopher T. Nidel and Jonathan B. Nace of Nidel & Nace, all of Washington, D.C.

The defendants are represented by Hackett, Paul K. Stockman, K. Issac deVyver and Alexander M. Madrid, all of McGuire Woods, also in Pittsburgh.

Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas case GD-17-008663

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nickpennrecord@gmail.com

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