Iowa Court Reinstates Neighbors' Suit Against Corn Plant

Iowa Court Reinstates Neighbors' Suit Against Corn Plant Photo: Branex/iStockphoto.com

The Supreme Court of Iowa has breathed new life into a proposed class action that has pit environmentalists against business interests over particulate matter spewed by a plant onto nearby homes.

Iowa’s highest court on June 13 reversed the Iowa District Court’s dismissal of Freeman v. Grain Processing Corp. and remanded the case, ruling the eight Muscatine, Iowa, residents’ common-law and statutory claims were not pre-empted by the federal Clean Air Act or by Iowa’s corollary clean air state.

In their complaint for nuisance, trespass and negligence, the residents claimed the corn wet-milling plant, which produces grain ethanol, corn syrup and other products, emits noxious odors and volatile organic chemicals that corrode metal and befoul yards. The emissions, they argued, diminish their use and enjoyment of their properties, and they asked for damages for lost use, punitive damages and injunctive relief.

The corn-processing company contended the Clean Air Act’s regulatory process displaced state law, and that Congress had given the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and parallel state agencies the power to regulate air emissions with a process for citizen input. A jury trial would “invade” the authority Congress gave the EPA and states, and the courts are ill-equipped to decide complicated technical and scientific questions, the company argued.

Iowa District Court Judge Mark Smith sided with the company, and granted summary judgment in March 2013.

In a unanimous ruling, the state Supreme Court reinstated the plaintiffs’ suit. Justice Brent Appel wrote that a distinction exists between the purpose of regulations and a private action for individual injury.

“The nuisance and common-law actions in this case are based on specific harms to the use and enjoyment of real property that are different from the public interest generally in controlling air pollution,” Appel wrote.

Lisa Hoffman contributes to law.com.

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