Class Action Motion Rejected in Human Tissue MDL

We have posted before about the interesting Human Tissue litigation.  The multidistrict litigation consolidated hundreds of cases filed either by plaintiffs who received allografts — transplants from cadavers — harvested by defendants allegedly without obtaining proper consent and following appropriate regulations, or by those plaintiffs who allegedly had allografts improperly taken from deceased relatives. The MDL court last week denied the latter plaintiffs' motion for class certification. In re: Human Tissue Products Liability Litigation, No. 06-135/MDL 1763 (D.N.J.).

According to the named representative plaintiffs, each of the class members had a deceased family member whose body went to one of the defendant funeral homes; plaintiffs claim that the funeral homes, after taking possession of the bodies, allowed another defendant to extract bones and tissue from the decedents. Following this, the harvested tissue then allegedly was given to other defendants, tissue banks. The purported class consisted of “all next of kin relatives of decedents whose bodies were desecrated by [defendants] for the harvesting and sale of human body parts."

Two parts of the opinion will be of the most interest to readers.  First, under the Rule 23(a) prerequisites, the court found that the typicality element was not established because of the highly individualized nature of the claims in this action.  Plaintiffs asserted emotional distress claims against the funeral homes that handled the donor decedents' remains and the tissue processors who allegedly received the harvested tissue. The Third Circuit has stated that class certification is inappropriate in mass tort claims, generally, because they often present questions of individualized issues of liability. In re Life USA Holding Inc., 242 F.3d 136, 145 (3d Cir. 2001). This observation is particularly true where the tort claims alleged are premised on emotional distress. The factual circumstances underlying each of the individual claims – including but not limited to plaintiffs' relationships with the decedents and the injuries allegedly suffered – were sufficiently personal and specific as to prevent any finding of similarity with regard to their claims.  

Also, plaintiffs were bringing contractual claims against the funeral home defendants, which again hinged on different factual circumstances that also might give rise to different defenses. There was no allegation that the individual contracts made with the funeral homes concerning final arrangements for the donor decedents were identical; in fact, since they were drafted and negotiated by different funeral home representatives and family members, they likely contained different representations, again subject to different defenses. For example, the meetings between funeral home personnel and the decedents' family members involved representations regarding the specific services requested and potential tissue donation. "These are all very personalized discussions," said the court.  All in all, the court found sufficient factual differences among the contracts negotiated with the different funeral homes to preclude a finding of typicality. See In re Schering Plough Corp. ERISA Litig., 589 F.3d 585, 598 (3d Cir. 2009)(“Ensuring that absent class members will be fairly protected required the claims and defenses of the representative to be sufficiently similar not just in terms of their legal form, but also in terms of their factual basis and support.”); see also In re Life USA Holding, Inc., 242 F.3d at 144-46 (vacating class certification in part because plaintiffs' claims of deceptive insurance sales practices arose from individual and non-standardized presentations by numerous independent agents).

It is significant that the court put some teeth into the 23(a) element. While the court acknowledged that factual differences will not automatically render a claim atypical if the claim arises from the same event or practice or course of conduct that gives rise to the claims of the class members, and if it is based on the same legal theory, here plaintiffs failed to demonstrate, other than through a bald assertion, that any practice or course of conduct existed among the funeral homes or among the tissue processors.

The same differences undermined a showing of predominance and superiority under Rule 23(b)(3), which provides for certification when the court finds that the questions of law or fact common to class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members, and that a class action is superior to other available methods for fairly and efficiently adjudicating the controversy.

The individual factual circumstances, including contractual arrangements, personal relationships with the decedents, injuries suffered, etc. precluded a 23(b)(3) class.  The superiority inquiry compels a court to balance, in terms of fairness and efficiency, the merits of a class action device against those of alternative available methods of adjudication.  Here, the multitude of individualized issues presented in plaintiffs' claims would entail complicated mini-trials within the class action itself.  The claims presented by plaintiffs and their unique factual underpinnings would require such extensive individual consideration that it would be neither more fair nor more efficient to proceed with this matter as a class action.  Class rejected.


 

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