Mass Tort Defense

State Supreme Court Reverses Class Certification on Predominance Grounds

The Alabama Supreme Court has recently reversed a lower court's certification of a class of third-party payers of health care services who complained about damages allegedly flowing from the recall of a drug from the market.  Wyeth, Inc. v. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, 2010 WL 152123 (Ala. Jan. 15, 2010).

Defendant Wyeth voluntarily withdrew Duract from the market, notifying the public of its decision to do so through a press release.  As part of the process of withdrawing Duract from the market, Wyeth voluntarily instituted a customer refund program for customers who still had Duract capsules in their possession. The third-party payers sued Wyeth solely on a theory of unjust enrichment, alleging that their payment for the drug had conferred an inappropriate benefit on Wyeth in light of the withdrawal.

After a hearing on the class certification motion, the trial court entered an order certifying a nationwide class of TPPs who paid for the prescription drug Duract that was not used as of the date of its withdrawal from the market.  On appeal, the defendant argued that predominance of common issues had not been established, a requirement of Alabama Rule 23 analogous to FRCP 23 (b)(3).

As in many states, Alabama recognizes that unjust enrichment claims are particularly unsuitable for class treatment. Funliner of Alabama, L.L.C. v. Pickard, 873 So.2d 198, 211 (Ala.2003) (unjust enrichment claims based on allegations of mistake or fraud require an individualized inquiry into the state of mind of each plaintiff).  The trial court distinguished this body of law, finding that this particular enrichment claim was not based on fraud or mistake, but on the somehow different theory that “equity and good conscience” required the defendant to disgorge money that belongs to the plaintiff.

The court observed that Wyeth probably had the better of the argument on this, meaning that the trial court had fashioned on a distinction without a difference.  But the state high court did not need to resolve the unjust enrichment issue under Alabama law, because the plaintiffs sought a nationwide class. Regardless of what Alabama law was, there had been no adequate showing, either to the trial court or to the Supreme Court, that the laws of all (or even most of) the 49 other states would allow unjust enrichment claims to proceed on such a "good conscience" basis somehow distinct from a traditional claim. 

Even a cursory examination showed that variances exist in state common laws of unjust enrichment. The actual definition of unjust enrichment varies from state to state. Some states do not specify the misconduct necessary to proceed, while others require that the misconduct include dishonesty or fraud. See Clay v. American Tobacco Co., 188 F.R.D. 483, 501 (S.D.Ill.1999).

Accordingly, common issues could not predominate.  Certification was vacated.

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Sean P. Wajert of Shook, Hardy & Bacon LLP