Federal Court Dimisses Consumer Fraud Allegations in Washer Litigation

A federal court has dismissed (with prejudice) a variety of consumer fraud and unjust enrichment claims in litigation alleging issues with front-loading washers. Butler, et al. v. Sears, Roebuck and Co., No. 06 C 7023 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 4, 2009).

In their Consolidated Complaint, plaintiffs alleged that the washing machines they bought
from Sears suffered from electronic control board failure and an alleged design defect that prevented adequate water drainage and proper self-cleaning. The water drainage and
cleaning defect allegedly resulted in odors on clothes. Plaintiffs contended that the electronic control board failure is manifested by the washing machines prematurely and repeatedly failing mechanically. 

Defendant was alleged to have known about the defects because of allegedly similar problems with other washing machines, and customer complaints of mold problems. As a result, plaintiffs contended that Sears violated their respective home states’ consumer fraud statutes.

The case has a bit of a history, as prior versions of these allegations had been the subject of three motions to dismiss. Although the court did allow plaintiffs to file this consolidated amended complaint (these cases were consolidated for purposes of discovery and pretrial proceedings on January 6, 2009), plaintiffs did not request leave to re-allege the claims that were dismissed with prejudice in the prior rulings, including consumer fraud claims under the laws of California, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Washington. See 2008 WL 4450307, at *8. Plaintiffs. however, re-alleged these claims in substantially the same form in their Consolidated Complaint.  Without leave to do so, and new details, these claims could not survive.

In order to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the complaint must not only provide the defendant with fair notice of the claim’s basis, but must also establish that the requested relief is plausible on its
face. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949, (2009); see also Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Allegations of fraud are subject to the heightened pleading standard of Rule 9(b), which requires a plaintiff to state with particularity the circumstances constituting fraud. Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b). This means that the plaintiff must plead the “who, what, when, where, and how" of the alleged fraud.

The court found that the new allegations  were insufficient to meet Rule 9(b)’s pleading requirements. Plaintiffs adequately averred defendant's knowledge, but they did not adequately allege the other required elements. For example, plaintiffs had not indicated how the alleged reported failure rate compares with the failure rates of comparable machines produced by comparable manufacturers. Plaintiffs also failed to specify how often design or manufacturing defects related to self-cleaning features of washers occur. No meaningful engineering explanation had been alleged. The language reproduced in the Consolidated Complaint offered far from a meaningful engineering explanation for the defects; the allegations were vague and indeterminate.

The alleged violation of California’s Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act, Cal. Civil Code § 1790 et seq., survived the motion to dismiss.  But, overall, product manufacturers can appreciate the court's application of the Twombly doctrine, the fraud pleading requirements, and its reluctance to give plaintiffs many, many bites of the apple.  Federal court litigation should not be "if at first you do not succeed, try, try again," with the trial court offering plaintiff's counsel a road map how to construct a proper pleading.

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