District Courts May Need to Conduct Full Daubert Inquiry Before Class Certification Decision

The Seventh Circuit issued a very interesting opinion on the interplay of class certification and Daubert issues. American Honda Motor Co., Inc. v. Allen, 2010 WL 1332781 (7th Cir., April 7, 2010).  Specifically, the defendant asked the court to resolve whether the district court  must conclusively rule on the admissibility of an expert opinion prior to class certification when that opinion is essential to the certification decision. Since this is the type of question that Rule 23(f) was designed to address, the court of appeals took the appeal -- and agreed with Honda. 

Plaintiffs were purchasers of Honda's Gold Wing GL1800 motorcycle; they alleged that the motorcycle has a design defect that prevents the adequate dampening of “wobble,” that is, side-to-side oscillation of the front steering assembly. Plaintiffs moved for class certification pursuant to Rule 23(b)(3). To demonstrate the predominance of common issues, they relied heavily on a report prepared by a motorcycle engineering expert, who opined about a "reasonable wobble decay" standard. Honda moved to strike the report pursuant to Daubert, arguing that this wobble decay standard was unreliable because it was not supported by empirical testing, was not developed through a recognized standard-setting procedure, was not generally accepted in the relevant scientific, technical, or professional community, and was not the product of independent research.

The district court said that it had "definite reservations" about the reliability of the expert's wobble decay standard. Nevertheless, the court declined to exclude the report in its entirety "at this early stage of the proceedings.”  The trial court denied Honda's motion to exclude “without prejudice,”  and granted plaintiffs' motion for class certification.

The 7th Circuit has already noted that a district judge may not duck hard questions by observing that each side has some support. Tough questions must be faced and squarely decided, if necessary by holding evidentiary hearings and choosing between competing perspectives. But the court had not yet specifically addressed whether a district court must resolve a Daubert challenge prior to ruling on class certification if the testimony challenged is integral to the plaintiffs' satisfaction of Rule 23' s requirements.  Here, it did hold that when an expert's report or testimony is critical to class certification, as it was in this case, a district court must conclusively rule on any challenge to the expert's qualifications or submissions prior to ruling on a class certification motion. That is, the district court must perform a full Daubert analysis before certifying the class if the situation warrants. If the challenge is to an individual's qualifications, a court must make that determination by comparing the area in which the witness has superior knowledge, skill, experience, or education with the subject matter of the witness's testimony. The court must also resolve any challenge to the reliability of information provided by an expert if that information is relevant to establishing any of the Rule 23 requirements for class certification.

Here, while the trial court began to ask the right questions, it never finished. The court's effective statement of admissibility left open the questions of what portions of the expert's testimony it may have decided (or will decide) to exclude, whether the expert reliably applied the standard to the facts of the case, and, ultimately, whether plaintiffs had actually satisfied Rule 23(b)(3)'s predominance requirement -- because they relied on the expert opinions. As a result, the district court never actually reached a conclusion about whether the expert report was reliable enough to support plaintiffs' class certification request.  This was not sufficient. Indeed, it was an abuse of discretion, according to the court of appeals.

The court went on to examine the record, which revealed to it that exclusion was the inescapable result when the Daubert analysis is carried to its conclusion. The expert originally developed the standard for use in a lawsuit in which he testified as an expert against Honda; despite its publication in one journal, there is no indication that this wobble decay standard had been generally accepted, or indeed, accepted by anyone other than this author. The expert never conducted any rider confidence studies to determine when motorcycle riders perceive wobble, or performed any tests to determine the minimal wobble amplitude at which riders detect oscillation.  He did test a single, used 2006 GL1800, ridden by a single test rider, but then extrapolated his conclusions to the entire fleet of GL1800s produced from 2001 to 2008 -- arguably too small a sample size from which reliable extrapolations can be made. 

The court therefore granted Honda's petition for leave to appeal, vacated the district court's denial of Honda's motion to strike and its order certifying a class, and remanded for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

 

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