Federal Court Dismisses Consumer Fraud Class Action on Washers

A federal court has dismissed a putative class action alleging that Sears Roebuck & Co. and Whirlpool Corp. engaged in unfair business practices and misleadingly marketed thousands of supposedly defective washing machines. Tietsworth et al. v. Sears, Roebuck & Co. et al., No. 09-cv-288 (N.D. Calif.)(dismissal without prejudice).

Plaintiffs alleged that  Whirlpool manufactured top-loading Kenmore Elite Oasis automatic washing machines, and Sears marketed, advertised, distributed, warranted, and offered repair services for the machines. Plaintiffs alleged that thousands of the machines contained a defect that causes them to stop in mid-cycle and display a variety of error codes.  Plaintiffs claimed that these electrical control system problems began within the first year after they purchased their washers. Plaintiffs alleged that virtually everything the defendants said about the machines in marketing was false because all such statements related directly to the functioning and performance of the Machine’s Electronic Control Board and, in turn, the Electronic Control Board controls the laundry cycles, the water levels and spin speed.

Defendants moved to dismiss. A complaint may be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted if a plaintiff fails to proffer enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). Allegations of material fact must be taken as true and construed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, but the court need not accept as true allegations that are conclusory, unwarranted deductions of fact, or unreasonable inferences. Here, although their claims arose under state law, plaintiffs' allegations were subject to the pleading requirements of the Federal Rules. Accordingly, the claims alleging fraud were subject to the heightened pleading requirements of Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b). See Vess v. Ciba-Geigy Corp. USA, 317 F.3d 1097, 1103-04 (9th Cir. 2003) (if “the claim is said to be “grounded in fraud” or to “sound in fraud,” [then] the pleading of that claim as a whole must satisfy the particularity requirement of Rule 9(b).”)

The principal element of fraudulent concealment at issue here was whether plaintiffs pled with sufficient particularity that defendants had a duty of disclosure with respect to the allegedly defective Electronic Control Boards. Plaintiffs argue that defendants had such a duty because they allegedly made "partial disclosures" about the Machines,and  were in a “superior
position" to know the truth.  These arguments were not persuasive to the court. There was no allegation at all, let alone an allegation with Rule 9 specificity, that defendants made any representations directly about the allegedly defective Electronic Control Boards. Nor could plaintiffs establish a duty by pleading, in purely conclusory fashion, that defendants were in a “superior position to know the truth;"  plaintiffs’ general allegations of “exclusive knowledge as the
manufacturer” and active concealment of a defect, if accepted, would mean that any unsatisfied customer could make a similar claim every time any product malfunctioned.

The district court then confirmed that Rule 9(b)’s heightened pleading standards apply to claims for violations of this state consumer act (CLRA ) and unfair competition act (UCL),  where such claims are based on a fraudulent course of conduct.  It was clear that the claims were entirely dependent upon allegations that defendants made misrepresentations, failed to disclose material facts, and concealed known information regarding the allegedly defective Electronic Control Boards.  So such claims failed for the same reasons.

Next, plaintiffs claimed that defendants  violated California’s Business and Professions Code by making misleading representations in informational placards on the floor models of the machines and in owners’ manuals. However, the court held that statements that the machines are “designed and manufactured for years of dependable operation” and that the machines “save you time by allowing you to do fewer, larger loads” are not statements about specific or absolute characteristics of a product, and properly are considered non-actionable puffery. See Anunziato v. eMachines Inc., 402 F. Supp. 2d 1133, 1139 (C.D. Cal. 2005) (holding that the representations concerning the “outstanding quality, reliability, and performance” of a product were non-actionable puffery”).

Regarding the unfair business act claim, an act or practice is unfair if the consumer injury is substantial, is not outweighed by any countervailing benefit to consumers or to competition, and is not an injury the consumers themselves could reasonably have avoided. Plaintiffs failed to plead adequately the second and third elements of their claim.  Plaintiffs failed to allege that they could not reasonably have avoided their claimed injuries, for example by purchasing an extended warranty. To the extent that plaintiffs based their claim on defendants’ alleged failure to disclose a
known defect in the machines, a mere failure to disclose a latent defect does not constitute a
fraudulent business practice.

One other highlight.  Plaintiffs contended that defendants’ warranties were procedurally and substantively unconscionable because defendants limited the warranties and allegedly actively concealed a known defect. However, any such claim of oppression may be defeated if the
complaining party had reasonably available alternative sources of supply from which to obtain
the desired goods or services free of the terms claimed to be unconscionable.  Here, plaintiffs failed to allege facts demonstrating that there were no alternative manufacturers of washers, and thus failed to allege the absence of an “available alternative source of supply from which to obtain the desired goods or services free of the terms claimed to be unconscionable.”  Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc. v. Superior Court, 211 Cal. App.3d 758, 768 (1989). Plaintiffs' emphasis that  any material alternative product or choice was curtailed or eliminated by the suggestions of Sears’ sales representatives that defendants’ machines were “the best” and superior to other washers, far from showing the absence of alternatives, merely highlighted the fact that alternatives apparently existed. 

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