Memphis Airport Authority Votes to Settle Class-Action Noise Lawsuit

JUNE 27, 1998

The Commercial Appeal (Business, page B3) reports the Memphis/Shelby County Airport Authority unanimously approved a proposed $ 22 million payment to area homeowners Friday designed to settle a nine-year-old airport noise suit.

According to the article, if approved by U.S. District Court Judge Odell Horton and area residents, homeowners will receive payments ranging from $525 to $4,200, depending on how long they have lived in the area. Lawyers for the Airport Authority and property owners worked out the deal during 18 months of talks. However, if a significant percentage of area residents reject the deal, the Airport Authority can cancel it. "We want 100 percent participation from property owners," said R. Grattan Brown Jr., a lawyer for the Airport Authority. "[T]he more participation we get, the more protection the Airport Authority will have."

Airport area residents say they will not decide whether to accept payments until they see details of the proposed settlement. Technically, residents will be paid for granting navigation easements or permanent permission for airplanes to overfly their property.

The article reports the noise suit began in 1987 when a group of 27 area residents sued the airport, claiming loud jets and pollution were harming property values and their quality of life. That same year the Airport Authority began a $140 million plan to purchase 1,400 surrounding properties to make way for airport expansion. Most of money for land acquisitions came from federal grants. Money for the current proposed noise suit settlement will come from the Airport Authority through increased landing fees.

In 1993 airport property owners won a major legal victory in this current action when U.S. District Court Judge Robert McRae allowed them to bring a class-action lawsuit against the Airport Authority. As McRae defined it, the class included more than 12,000 property owners who lived near the airport. The Airport Authority opposed the class-action, arguing that each homeowner was affected differently. But on Friday, airport officials said the move could make the settlement easier by defining membership. "In some ways, having a class has been helpful for purposes of coming to this agreement," Airport Authority chairman Arnold Perl said.

The article states Judge Horton has scheduled a Sept. 3 meeting to discuss the proposed resolution. If he tentatively approves the settlement, he will instruct the Airport Authority to notify all 12,441 homeowners. Later, Horton will hold a fairness hearing where residents can speak for or against the deal. After the fairness hearing, property owners will have five days to decide whether to remain part of the class or exclude themselves from it. Those who opt out of the agreement can bring separate civil suits against the Airport Authority.

But if a large number of residents opt out, the Airport Authority may cancel the agreement and go to trial. "The Airport Authority can terminate the settlement if more than an acceptable number of participants opt out," Brown told the board during a meeting Friday. That acceptable number of participants will be given to Horton and held under seal, Brown said.