Science vs. Politics on Cell Phones Safety

The contrast is striking.  Recently, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 10-1 vote in favor of an ordinance requiring cell phone retailers in that city disclose cell phones' specific absorption rate, or SAR, to customers.

The same day, a study was published that further substantiates the safety of cell phone use.  Mobile phone base stations and early childhood cancers: case-control study, BMJ 2010;340:c3077.  The study, in the British Medical Journal, showed no link between proximity to cell phone towers and increased cancer risk to children whose mothers were pregnant while living near such towers.

The study looked at almost 7,000 children and incidence of early childhood cancers across Great Britain.  This was compared with data from Britain's four national mobile phone operators -- Vodafone, O2, France Telecom's Orange, and Deutsche Telekom's T-Mobile -- on more than 80,000 mobile phone towers used from 1996 to 2001.   The researchers found that those who developed cancer before the age of five were not more likely to have been born close to a tower than their peers. The scientists found no association between risk of cancer in young children and estimated exposures to radiofrequency from mobile phone base stations during pregnancy.

MassTortDefense notes some strengths in the study: its size and national coverage, avoiding selection and reporting bias in the choice of cases and areas for study. Also, because it focused on early childhood cancers, it avoided issues of long latency that can affect interpretation of some mobile phone studies in adults.

The study adds to a growing body of scientific research which has found no links between cell phones and cancer. Use of mobile phones has increased markedly in recent years. In the United Kingdom, the number of mobile connections has risen from just under nine million in 1997 to almost 74 million in 2007.

In light of the real science, we wonder if the ordinance will actually mislead consumers with point of sale requirements implicitly suggesting that some phones are "safer" than others based on radiofrequency (RF) emissions. In fact, all phones sold in the U.S. must comply with the Federal Communications Commission's safety standards for RF emissions.  

Supreme Court Passes On Chance to Clarify Punitive Damages Issue

We posted before about an important punitive damages issue, hoping the Supreme Court would take a look.  However, last week the Court declined to review the federal appeals court decision ordering a re-trial on punitive damages. Wyeth LLC v. Scroggin, U.S., No. 09-1123, review denied 6/21/10.

The case involves a woman who allegedly developed cancer after taking hormone therapy drugs. (The FDA continues to approve the drugs as safe and effective.) The plaintiff contended that Wyeth was negligent in failing to include a stronger warning on its label, and that she would not have taken the drug if the warning had been stronger. The district court conducted a bifurcated trial
before a single jury, with liability determined first and punitive damages determined second. In the first phase, the jury found for plaintiff and awarded $2.7 million in compensatory damages. In the second phase, the same jury determined that defendant was liable for punitive damages of $19.4 million. Wyeth LLC v. Scroggin, 554 F.Supp.2d 571 (E.D. Ark. 2008). On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit overturned the punitive damages award, ruling that the award was tainted by the admission of improper evidence during the punitive damages phase of the trial. But rather than ordering an entirely new trial, the appeals court ordered a partial new trial limited to punitive damages only. Scroggin v. Wyeth, 586 F.3d 547 (8th Cir.2009).

We would argue that the Seventh Amendment prohibits such partial retrials limited to punitive damages. The Seventh Amendment “right to trial by jury” has long been understood to constitute those jury trial rights that existed under the English common law when the Seventh Amendment was adopted in 1791. At common law there was no practice of setting aside a verdict in part. If the verdict was erroneous as to any issue, a new trial was directed as to all issues, so that all related issues could be decided by a single jury. Where the issue to be re-tried is related to issues already decided by the first jury, partial re-trials create a danger that the second jury will be confused when told that some issues have already been decided. Moreover, there is considerable empirical evidence suggesting that permitting partial re-trials regarding punitive damages exacerbates the unpredictability of punitive damages awards.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. took no part in the consideration or decision of the petition.
 

Self-Annointed Watchdogs, Eat Your Own Unhappy Meals

We are generally hesitant to post about some of the ridiculous industry-bashing that many anti-science, anti-capitalism groups spout -- for fear of spreading their misguided word one inch farther.  But sometimes, when litigation is threatened, you just have to stop biting your tongue.

The self-proclaimed Center for Science in the Public Interest has apparently threatened to sue McDonald’s if the popular food company does not stop marketing toys with its Happy Meals.  The claim is that the toys included in the meals instill unhealthy eating habits in children.  CSPI sent a letter to McDonald's last week demanding that the company immediately pull toys from its Happy Meal children’s meals. By advertising that Happy Meals include toys, McDonald’s somehow supposedly unfairly and deceptively markets directly to children.   Advertising a small toy in a Happy Meal box is supposedly deceptive because children under the age of 8 are not advanced enough to understand the "intent" of the marketing.

Well, how wrong can one misguided group be?  Let's count the ways.  Last time we checked, in a democracy with a free market economy, product sellers were free to make their products attractive to consumers, free to advertise them, and free to market their wares with accurate and truthful statements.  A Happy Meal is advertised to contain a toy.  It does.  It has a meal, just like promised.  And as a dad, I can attest to the fact the box meal does make kids happy.  Where is the deception?  There is none. The group cites a variety of state consumer fraud acts in the letter, but not a single case supporting its preposterous legal theories -- because there aren't any. For example, the group cites the Massachusetts law (93A), but the recent case Rule v. Ford Dodge Animal Health Inc., 2010 WL 2179794 (1st Cir. 6/2/10), makes clear that there is no valid consumer claim when the customer does not suffer a traditional and real economic injury.

Next, last time we checked, very few small children were behind the wheel in the drive-through line.  Parents can decide what their kids eat.  And parents can still say "no" when little Johnny or Suzie wants burgers and fries too often. When did we cross the line from parents raising their kids to the best of their ability, to the government (regulators or the courts through a suit) determining how kids should be raised, down to what they can eat and whether they get a small toy to play with after dinner?  According to CSPI, many children will pester their parents to take them to McDonald’s.  So what?  Kids pester; that's what they do.  Parents say "no."  That's what they do.  Problem solved -- without a class action.

Next, the rabble rousers complain that the Happy Meals are slightly higher in calories than the group thinks is reasonable.  Thank goodness for the self-appointed calorie police who think that the best way to tackle the issue of weight in this country is to have the courts force all food companies to make food that looks and tastes like cardboard and is boring, anything but "happy."  How about we get kids to put down the remote control and exercise and play sports more?  Problem solved -- without the litigation.

But, cries the group, the toys build brand loyalty and send the customers back again in the future.  Since when was it an actionable wrong to actually provide your customers with a product they like so much they come back and buy it again in the future?  What kind of economy does this group want?

CSPI needs to worry more about junk science than junk food.  In fact, in my area, McDonald's heavily advertises the four-piece Chicken McNuggets Happy Meal, which includes Apple Dippers, low-fat caramel dip and 1 percent low-fat white milk.  Maybe the issue is that the parents of the CSPI members never told them "no."  Not to worry, they will soon hear it from the courts if they pursue this threatened litigation.
 

Update on Foreign Manufacturers Liability Act

We have posted before about legislative efforts to make it easier for U.S. consumers to sue foreign product manufacturers.

Last week the the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection held a legislative hearing on H.R. 4678, the “Foreign Manufacturers Legal Accountability Act.”  The House bill  was introduced last February. The Senate's version, S. 1606, was introduced in August, 2009.

Witnesses included a representative of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Consumers Union,  American Association of Exporters and Importers, and a Professor from American University College of Law.

The Act would require foreign manufacturers and producers of several kinds of products to establish registered agents for service of process and to consent to jurisdiction here.  It appears to have bipartisan support, but raises a number of constitutional issues, and may not address the key issue of the enforceability of judgments handed down by U.S. courts.

Supporters of the bill note that the Hague Convention on Service Abroad of Judicial and Extrajudicial Documents in Civil or Commercial Matters – of which the United States and many of its major trading partners, including China, are parties – provides a means of serving process on foreign manufacturers in their home countries.  However, this method can be time consuming and costly, because all the legal documents must be translated into the foreign manufacturer’s native language and then provided to a governmental central authority, which in turn attempts to serve the documents on the manufacturer. It can take many months for the central authority to serve the documents on the manufacturer.   In addition, even if a plaintiff successfully serves process on a foreign manufacturer, argue the supporters, the manufacturer will likely challenge the exercise of personal jurisdiction over it by a U.S. court. Before a U.S. court can exercise personal jurisdiction over a defendant it must consider: 1) the defendant’s purposeful minimum contacts with the state in which the court sits, and 2) fairness to the defendant of being subjected to jurisdiction in that state’s courts.  Foreign manufacturers have increasingly turned to litigating this issue to avoid being hauled into U.S. courts.

The Act would require foreign manufacturers and producers that import products into the United States to designate a registered agent who is authorized to accept service of process here in the United States. The agent would have to be registered in a state with a substantial connection to the importation, distribution, or sale of products of the foreign manufacturer or producer. CPSC, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency would each be required to determine, based on the value or quantity of goods manufactured or produced, which foreign manufacturers and producers under their respective authority would be required to designate a registered agent. Registering an agent consistent with the Act constitutes acceptance by the manufacturer of personal jurisdiction of the state and federal courts of the state in which the agent is located.

AAEI, on the other hand, is particularly concerned about the impact H.R. 4678 would have on U.S. exporters if this bill is enacted by Congress. If the United States enacts H.R. 4678 requiring foreign manufacturers to appoint a registered agent to receive service of process, they anticipate that our trading partners will enact similar measures. It will be difficult and expensive for American exporters to maintain registered agents in all the foreign markets to which it exports. Moreover, having a registered agent in foreign markets increase the likelihood that these companies will be
subject to litigation before foreign courts in countries with legal proceedings which are less
transparent than the United States, argued AAEI.

Beware of Legislative Moves Over The Gulf Oil Spill

Last week,  U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) and Congressman Charlie Melancon (D-LA) introduced H.R. 5503, the “Securing Protections for the Injured from Limitations on Liability Act” (SPILL Act).  This is one of many pending and promised bills addressing legal liability issues arising from the Gulf Coast oil spill, including amendments to the Death on the High Seas Act.

Specifically, H.R. 5503 would:

• Amend the Death on the High Seas Act to permit recovery of non-pecuniary damages (e.g., pain and suffering and loss of care, comfort, and companionship) by the decedent’s family, as well as standardizing the geographic threshold for its application, and permitting surviving family members to bring suit directly rather than through a personal representative.

• Amend the Jones Act to permit recovery of non-pecuniary damages by the families of seamen who are killed.

• Repeal the Limitation on Liability Act to the extent it limits the liability of vessel owners to the value of the vessel and its cargo.

• Amend bankruptcy rules to prevent corporations allegedly responsible for damages under the Oil Pollution Act from certain moves seeking to sever their assets from the legal liabilities.

The bill is supposed to be in response to the Gulf Oil Spill. However, many of its provisions are not limited to the subject matter of oil spills.  For example, Section 5 proposes to amend the Class Action Fairness Act  to exclude from its reach any action brought by a State or subdivision of a State on behalf of its citizens.  Such a provision could have significant effect on CAFA, far beyond the oil spill litigation. For example, it might impact cases like State ex rel. McGraw v. Comcast Corp., 2010 WL 1257639 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 31, 2010). In that case, the state of West Virginia, in its capacity as parens patriae, filed an action in state court alleging that a cable company's requirements concerning cable boxes constituted impermissible tying behavior, in violation of state antitrust and consumer protection laws. On removal, the federal court held that the action was a “class action” under the Class Action Fairness Act, under which the definition of a class action must be “interpreted liberally.”

The bill has been referred to the following committees: House Judiciary, Subcommittee on House Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on House Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.

Earlier this month, the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a field hearing In Louisiana on the local impact of the Gulf oil spill.The House Subcommittee heard testimony from experts on the environment and wildlife, some of whom who warned that the full effects of the spill will not be known until the flow of oil is stopped.  But the most emotional testimony came from two widows, whose husbands died when the Deepwater Horizon Rig exploded in April. The widows urged Congress to reform the Death on the High Seas Act, but also noted that they fully support offshore drilling as essential to our nation's economy.

 

UPDATE: the House Judiciary Committee approved H.R. 5503, Securing Protections for the Injured from Limitations on Liability Act (SPILL Act), by a roll call vote of 16-11, with two Republicans, Reps. Lungren (R-Calif.) and Rooney (R-Fla.), joining the rest of the Democratic committee members in voting in favor.

Florida Supreme Court Decides Right of Fishermen to Sue For Pollution

In a case that may impact some of the litigation rising from the Gulf Oil Spill, the Florida Supreme Court last week ruled in favor of a group of commercial fishermen who alleged damages arising from pollution in the Tamp Bay. See Howard Curd, et al. v. Mosaic Fertilizer LLC, (No. SC08-1920 Fla. 6/17/2010). The issue on appeal -- which the court took as a certified issue of great public importance -- was whether Florida law permits commercial fishermen to recover for economic losses proximately caused by the negligent release of pollutants, despite the fact that the fishermen do not own any property damaged by the pollution.

The defendant owned/operated a phosphogypsum storage area near Archie Creek in Hillsborough County. The storage area included a pond enclosed by dikes, containing waste water from a phosphate plant.  The dike gave way and pollutants were allegedly spilled into Tampa Bay.
The fishermen claimed that the spilled pollutants resulted in a loss of underwater plant life, fish, bait fish, crabs, and other marine life. They did not claim an ownership in the damaged marine and plant life, but claimed that it resulted in damage to the reputation of the fishery products the fishermen were able to catch and sought to sell.

The lower court concluded that the state statute on water pollution did not permit a claim by these fishermen for monetary losses when they did not own any real or personal property damaged by the pollution. After initially permitting the fishermen to proceed on their claims of negligence and strict liability, the lower court ultimately ruled that these claims were not authorized under the economic loss rule. The court reasoned that an action in common law either through strict liability or negligence was not permitted because the fishermen did not sustain bodily injury or property damage. The strict liability and negligence claims sought purely economic damages unrelated to any damage to the fishermen's property. Accordingly, the court further reasoned that Mosaic did not owe the fishermen an independent duty of care to protect their purely economic interests. 

The state supreme court disagreed.  The court pointed to a number of factors on the statutory claim:  it expressly protected public and private interests; it is to be liberally construed to effect the purposes set forth in the state statute and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act.  Moreover, the Florida  Legislature found and declared that escape of pollutants “poses threats of great danger and damage . . . to citizens of the state, and to other interests deriving livelihood from the state.”   Also, under the definition of statutory damages cited above, one can recover for damages to real or personal property and for damages to natural resources, including all living things. Finally, not owning property affected was not a listed defense to the cause of action in the act.

The lower court found that the economic loss rule barred the common law claims, as the fishermen's negligence and strict liability claims sought purely economic damages unrelated to any damage to the fishermen's property. Second, Mosaic did not owe an independent duty of care to protect the fishermen's expectation of profits. The supreme court found instead that neither the contractual nor products liability economic loss rule was applicable to this situation. The parties to this action were not in contractual privity. Moreover, the defendant in this case was not  a manufacturer or distributor of a defective product that has caused damage to itself.  Rather, plaintiffs brought traditional negligence and strict liability claims against a defendant who had allegedly polluted Tampa Bay and allegedly caused them injury.

Turning to the issue whether Mosaic owed an independent duty of care to protect the fishermen's purely economic interests—that is, their expectations of profits from fishing for healthy fish, the court found Mosaic did owe a duty of care to the fishermen, a duty that was not shared by the public as a whole.  The court admitted that as a general principle of common law negligence, some courts have not permitted recovery for purely economic losses when the plaintiff has sustained no bodily injury or property damage. See Union Oil Co. v. Oppen, 501 F.2d 558, 563 (9th Cir. 1974) (noting “the widely recognized principle that no cause of action lies against a defendant whose negligence prevents the plaintiff from obtaining a prospective pecuniary advantage”). The reasoning behind this general rule is that if courts allowed compensation for all losses of economic advantages caused by a defendant's negligence, a defendant would be subject to claims based upon remote and speculative injuries that it could not foresee. Such courts have concluded that the negligent defendant owes no duty to plaintiffs for such losses.

The Florida court concluded that the defendant here did owe a duty of care to these commercial fishermen, and that the commercial fishermen thus had a cause of action sounding in negligence. Under Florida law, the question of whether a duty is owed is linked to the concept of foreseeability. In the present case, the duty owed by Mosaic arose out of the nature of Mosaic's business and the special interest of the commercial fisherman in the use of the public waters. The court concluded that Mosaic's activities created an appreciable zone of risk within which Mosaic was obligated to protect those who were exposed to harm. Mosaic's business involved the storage of pollutants and hazardous contaminants. It was foreseeable, said the court, that were these materials released into the public waters, they would cause damage to marine and plant life as well as to human activity in the water.

Further, the commercial fishermen had a special interest within that zone of risk, an interest not shared by the general community, found the state supreme court.  The fishermen were licensed to conduct commercial activities in the waters of Tampa Bay, and were dependent on those waters to earn their livelihood. Mosaic's activities placed the fishermen's peculiar interests directly within the zone of risk created by the presence of its facility. As a result, Mosaic was obligated to exercise prudent foresight and take sufficient precautions to protect that interest.

As pointed out in the dissent, the majority opinion decided the case for a more narrow class than those bringing the suit -- and more narrowly than the claims they alleged. Although Curd's proposed class consisted of “all fishermen and those persons engaged in the commercial catch and sale of fish,”  the majority's decision did not extend to distributors, seafood restaurants, fisheries, fish brokers, or the like whose incomes may also have been affected by the alleged pollution. Additionally, the majority only addressed economic harm that allegedly resulted from the depletion of marine life and the resulting inability to harvest the commercial fishermen's usual yield—not from harm to reputation as alleged in the complaint. The fishermen presumably must still prove all of the elements of their causes of action, including damages.
 

$700 Billion for "Stimulus" - Apparently None Left For Judiciary

We've had our disagreements with the ABA, in particular with inappropriate policy positions the Association has taken on issues that have divided their membership. (MassTortDefense has high hopes for the leadership of incoming President Steve Zack, an outstanding lawyer from Florida.)

But here is one position we heartily endorse.  The American Bar Association is urging the Supreme Court to take a suit brought by a group of current and former federal judges who are seeking cost-of-living salary raises.  Beer, et al. v. United States, No. 09-1395 (U.S. S.Ct.).  The judges are seeking back pay and declaratory relief because they never received the cost-of-living salary increases that they are entitled to under the Ethics Reform Act of 1989.

The American Bar Association last week filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to rule in Beer vs. U.S. on whether Congressional denial of cost-of-living salary adjustments for federal judges compromises judicial independence, violating the Constitution. Although the Ethics Reform Act of 1989 was intended to establish automatic annual COLAs for federal judges, Congress has refused to authorize these “non-discretionary” raises six times, notes the ABA brief. While inflation-adjusted wages for the average American worker have risen 19.5 percent since 1969, salaries for federal district judges have dropped by 27 percent over the same period. Judicial pay is now so low as to seriously compromise the independence that life tenure was intended to ensure and may becoming insufficient to attract and retain well-qualified jurists from diverse economic and societal backgrounds, argues the ABA. In many cases, former judicial law clerks earn more in salary and bonuses in their first year in private practice than the federal judges for whom they clerked.

While judges know about this pay scale when they answer the call of public service, they certainly could not anticipate that Congress would steadily erode that pay in real terms by repeatedly
failing over the years to provide even cost-of-living increases.
 

Summer Reading for the Rest of Us

Today is the official first day of Summer, and in that spirit, as our readers think about reading something fun (not that MassTortDefense is not fun) at the beach, lake, or pool, here is a suggestion.

New York Times bestselling author James W. Huston's novel, "Marine One" is out in paperback (St. Martin's Press). Huston is a practicing attorney in his spare time.

Finally, some reality to the legal thriller genre, as the hero of the story -- the good guy -- is a product liability defense lawyer!  Mike Nolan is retained to defend WorldCopter in a billion dollar civil lawsuit alleging a product defect caused Marine One (the President's helicopter) to crash on the way to Camp David, killing all aboard.

Was it an accident? pilot error? act of God? terrorists? a design or manufacturing defect? Our plucky defense counsel battles grandstanding Senators, a conspiracy-minded media, voracious plaintiff personal injury attorneys, and a seemingly "fixed" government investigation to try to get to the truth, and justice for his client, the besieged product seller.

For fans of Higgins and Clancy, with a twist on Grisham, a fun summer read.

EPA Releases Draft Toxicology Assessment of Formaldehyde

The Environmental Protection Agency has released a draft toxicological review of formaldehyde, entitled "Toxicological Review of Formaldehyde Inhalation Assessment: In Support of Summary Information on the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS).''  (EPA's IRIS is a human health assessment program that evaluates quantitative and qualitative risk information on effects that may result from exposure to chemical substances found in the environment. )

EPA announced a 90-day public comment period and a public listening session for the external review draft human health assessment.  The draft assessment was prepared by the National Center for Environmental Assessment (NCEA) within the EPA Office of Research and Development (ORD). EPA said it was releasing this draft assessment for the purpose of pre-dissemination peer review.  Also, a committee of the National Research Council, acting under the auspices of National Academy of Sciences (NAS), will conduct an independent scientific peer review of the EPA draft human health assessment of formaldehyde. The peer review committee will hold meetings, some of which may involve public sessions. Public sessions will be announced before each meeting on the National Academies Web site.  The public comment period and NAS scientific peer review are separate processes that are supposed to provide opportunities for all interested parties to comment on the assessment.

Formaldehyde is present in a wide variety of products including some plywood adhesives, abrasive materials, insulation, insecticides and embalming fluids. The major sources of anthropogenic emissions of formaldehyde are motor vehicle exhaust, power plants, manufacturing plants that produce or use formaldehyde or substances that contain it (i.e. glues), petroleum refineries, coking operations, incinerating, wood burning, and tobacco smoke, says the EPA.  It is used in industry to manufacture building materials and numerous household products and consumer products, including some soaps, shampoos, and shaving cream. 

Of course, alleged exposure to formaldehyde has been involved in numerous toxic tort suits as well as consumer fraud actions.

The draft assessment found that formaldehyde could be more likely to cause cancer than in previous EPA calculations. In the draft, EPA now estimates there could be up to one case of cancer for every 1,000 people breathing formaldehyde at concentrations of 20 parts per billion over their lifetime.  The draft assessment also provides for the first time an agency estimate of a reference concentration (RfC). Lifelong inhalation of formaldehyde at concentrations up to that RfC would not be expected to cause breathing, immune, reproductive, and other non-cancer health effects.

At Section 4.5.4, the report concludes that human epidemiological evidence is sufficient to conclude there is a causal association between formaldehyde exposure and nasopharyngeal cancer, nasal and paranasal cancer, all leukemias, myeloid leukemia and lymphohematopoietic cancers as a group. But, for example, it is questionable whether there really is a demonstrable link between formaldehyde and leukemia.  And the evidence does not appear to support a causal link between formaldehyde and  upper-respiratory tract cancers. See the critical comments of other federal agencies.

Any regulatory decision on this important chemical based on incomplete information could cause significant harm to the economy, as many products critical to the home and commercial building, automotive and aerospace industries, as well as defense-related applications and vaccines used worldwide to prevent polio, cholera, diphtheria, and other major diseases, all use it.  All living things — including people — produce and process formaldehyde. It occurs naturally in the air we breathe and does not accumulate in the environment or in plants, animals or people.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) has stated that the draft report is another reason to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act.  He plans to introduce such a bill this Summer. Also, legislation that would amend TSCA to set formaldehyde emissions limits for plywood and other composite wood products was reported out last month by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  See H.R. 4805, The Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act.

Update: and an alert reader points out that the Senate just this week passed its own version, S.1660, the Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act.  The Senate bill would make the formaldehyde emission standard contained in the California Code of Regulations (relating to an airborne toxic control measure to reduce formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products, as in effect on July 28, 2009) applicable to certain hardwood plywood, medium-density fiberboard, and particleboard sold, supplied, offered for sale, or manufactured in the United States, with certain exemptions, including for composite wood products used inside new vehicles, rail cars, boats, aerospace craft, or aircraft.

Tort Liability Annual Report Released by Think Tanks

The Pacific Research Institute (PRI), a free-market think tank based in San Francisco, and the Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI, a public policy and economic research organization based in Arlington, VA, announced last week the release of their 2010 U.S. Tort Liability Index, a measure of which states impose the highest and lowest tort costs and risks.

According to the report, Alaska, Hawaii, and North Carolina lead the pack with the best rankings, while New Jersey, New York and Florida bring up the rear. Again, the states with the worst performance had the highest monetary tort losses and tort litigation risks, meaning they had more costly and riskier business climates due to larger plaintiff awards, larger plaintiff settlements, more lawsuits, or some combination of the three.

Direct tort costs account for almost 2 percent of GDP in the United States, which is the highest in the world, not surprising to our readers. Such high costs cause businesses to divert revenue, that could hire workers, to fight lawsuits. But all our readers ultimately shoulder the burden through higher prices and insurance premiums, lower wages, restricted access to health care, less innovation, and higher taxes to pay for court costs.

The Best Tort climates, according to the report:

Alaska
Hawaii
North Carolina
South Dakota
North Dakota
Maine
Idaho
Virginia
Wisconsin
Iowa


The Worst climates, according to the report:

New Jersey
New York
Florida
Illinois
Pennsylvania
Missouri
Montana
Michigan
Connecticut
California
 

States were also ranked according to their tort rules and reforms to reduce lawsuit abuse and limit tort costs and risks, such as award caps, or venue reforms to stop “litigation tourism."  Oklahoma, Texas, Ohio, Colorado and Mississippi did well on the tort reform scale in this report. The states with the least favorable tort rules for defendants, according to the analysis, are Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Illinois. 

This report can also be contrasted with the Chamber of Commerce report ranking state liability systems, and the ATRA report of the "most unfair jurisdictions."

Court of Appeals Rejects Consumer Fraud Class Action for Pet Medication

The First Circuit affirmed last week the lower court's dismissal of a putative consumer fraud class action involving a re-called heartworm medication for dogs. Rule v. Ford Dodge Animal Health Inc., 2010 WL 2179794 (1st Cir. 6/2/10).

Plaintiff, Rule, purchased two doses of ProHeart 6, a medicine for preventing heartworm in dogs, and had them administered to her dog Luke. She later filed a putative class action against Wyeth, alleging that defendant had sold ProHeart 6 without disclosing safety concerns revealed in initial testing and in subsequent use.  She alleged these concerns ultimately led Wyeth to recall the product at the FDA's request. According to plaintiff, adverse reactions were suffered by dogs after receiving ProHeart 6 during trials and in general use after the product was released. Importantly, the class representative conceded that Luke had not suffered any harm from the drug, and that Luke had not developed heartworm while using the drug.

Plaintiff's first cause of action was based on breach of the implied warranty of merchantability and the other based on the state consumer fraud statute, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 93A. For damages on these two counts, Rule asserted that she and others similarly situated were entitled to the difference between the price they actually paid for ProHeart 6 and what it would have been worth had safety risks been adequately disclosed; for the chapter 93A count, she sought statutory damages if greater than actual damages and also trebling of damages. 

On the warranty count, the alleged unmerchantability (unfitness for ordinary use) of ProHeart 6 lay in its potential for causing harm to a dog. Rule conceded, however, that neither of the two doses injured Luke. So, while the sale to Rule may have been of an "unfit" drug, its unfitness did not give rise to any injury to Rule against which the warranty was designed to guard. Nor did she suggest that Luke became more susceptible to injury, as might be the case where one bought and installed a defective car tire that has not yet run its life. Recovery generally is not available under the warranty of merchantability where the defect that made the product unfit caused no injury to the claimant, the threat is gone, and nothing now possessed by the claimant has been lessened in value.

On the consumer fraud count, the act provides a cause of action for a plaintiff who has been injured by unfair or deceptive acts or practices. In Rule's view, she purchased Proheart 6 because of a deception (failure to disclose the risk), the product was “in reality” worth less than she paid for it (because of that undisclosed risk), and so she suffered damage measured by the difference between what she paid and what she would have paid if the risk had been disclosed. One problem with plaintiff's scenario was that she also alleged that had the risks been known, ProHeart 6 could not be sold at all, given FDA requirements.

But even assuming otherwise, Rule's suit was brought after her purchases and use of the drug, and she admitted that she got both the protection and convenience she sought and that the risk did not manifest itself in injury to her or her dog. Nor was she still holding a product that was worth less than she paid for it; she used the product up entirely and in fact suffered no economic injury at all. Indeed, her theory would not be adopted by deceived buyers whose dogs were actually injured or killed; they could seek not some modest reduction in price but the full cost of added veterinary bills and, if the dog died, its value.

So to the extent chapter 93A injury requires that a plaintiff who seeks to recover show “real” economic damages, Rule did not qualify. If, instead, a different notion of injury had sufficed - such as injury as a violation of some abstract “right” like the right not to be subject to a deceptive act that happened to cause no economic harm - then she would arguably have had a claim under chapter 93A and perhaps could obtain statutory damages.  The First Circuit observed some "tension" in the language used as between the earlier and the later state SJC decisions on the statute and especially where deception and risk are involved. However, said the court of appeals, the most recent SJC cases on point appear to have reaffirmed the notion that injury under chapter 93A means economic injury in the traditional sense.

Finally, the First Circuit addressed plaintiffs' typical policy-based argument that deceptive conduct needs to be deterred through a class action. While the alleged conduct such as that attributed to defendant needs to be deterred, that need not necessarily come from those who bought the product but were not injured.  It could be deterred by those with actual injury.
 

IOM Issues Food Safety Report Calling for Reform of FDA

report issued last week by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and the National Research Council (at the request of Congress) concludes that the FDA is not well equipped to handle potential problems with the food supply.  "Enhancing Food Safety: The Role of the Food and Drug Administration" notes that food-borne illnesses cause more than 300,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths in the U.S each year. Food-borne diseases are caused by a variety of bacteria—such as Escherichia coli or Salmonella—viruses, parasites, or chemical residues.  

The severity of these diseases and the frequency with which they occur spurred this evaluation of how well the current food safety system protects the public’s health. While food safety is regulated by several agencies, the FDA oversees approximately 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, including all produce, seafood, and cheeses. Some food safety experts and some in the media have criticized the FDA’s food safety system and questioned whether it properly safeguards Americans from food-borne diseases. Congress asked the IOM to examine the possible gaps in the current food safety system under the purview of the FDA and to identify the tools needed to improve food safety.

Readers know that many of these food issues have led to litigation.

The IOM determined that the FDA lacks a comprehensive vision for food safety and should take a risk-based approach in order to properly protect the nation’s food. In addition, the FDA should provide standards for food inspection so that states and the federal government follow the same rigorous methods for inspections, surveillance, and outbreak investigations. Most notably, the IOM recommends that Congress take legislative action to provide the FDA with the authority it needs to fulfill its food safety mission. Americans will continue to suffer from food-borne illnesses unless the FDA reevaluates and reworks its approach to food safety management, claims the report.

The FDA, which sponsored the report, responded that through the President's Food Safety Working Group, which includes all agencies involved in food safety, it feels it is making significant progress to ensure government agencies are working seamlessly to protect the American public. But the IOM concludes that in order for the FDA to better ensure food safety, legislative and organizational changes may be necessary. Most notably, it says, Congress should consider taking legislative action to provide the FDA with the additional authority it needs to fulfill its food safety mission. Within the FDA, authority over field activities should shift from its Office of Regulatory Affairs to its Office of Foods. Such a change will ensure that responsibility lies with well-trained personnel with specialized expertise in food safety and risk-based principles of food safety management, says the IOM.

Recognizing that organizational reform will pose challenges, the report recommends that the federal government move toward the establishment of a single food safety agency to unify the efforts of all agencies and departments with major responsibility for safety of the U.S. food supply. The committee recommends establishing a centralized, risk-based analysis and data management center in order to improve efficiency and work toward a safer food supply. This center would include staff and support resources necessary to conduct rapid and sophisticated assessments of short- and long-term food safety risks and to ensure that the comprehensive data needs to support the risk-based system are met.

With regard to legislative changes, Senator Harkin (D-Iowa), head of the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee is trying to bring legislation overhauling the food safety system to the Senate floor later this month. He is pushing S. 510, the Food and Drug Administration
Food Modernization Act
, which is co-sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), among others.  The  bill would give the FDA new authority to track, detect, and halt contaminated food coming from either domestic or foreign suppliers. Food-handling facilities would be required to share additional information with the FDA. Inspections would be more frequent and industry would nee to construct risk-based preventive control plans. The FDA would also get new recall authority.

The House passed its own version of food safety legislation in July, 2009, as we noted.

Medical Monitoring Class Actions Rejected in Beryllium Cases

The Third Circuit has affirmed the dismissal of two putative class actions that sought medical monitoring for workers and neighbors of factories using beryllium. Sheridan, et al.  v. NGK Metals Corp., et al., 2010 WL 2246392 (3d Cir. June 7, 2010). 

Readers may recall that previously we posted on the district court's dismissal of the claims against one of the defendants, an engineering firm that, according to the plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint, was involved with testing, sampling, analyzing, and monitoring the air quality and levels of beryllium at one plant involved in the cases. The Third Circuit affirmed.  Boiled down to its core, plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint contended that the engineering firm breached its duty of reasonable care by failing to warn members of the community surrounding one of the plants at issue about the alleged beryllium emissions from the facility. But there was no legal duty to warn.  In order for the engineers to have negligently failed to warn plaintiffs of harmful beryllium exposures, they must have undertaken the responsibility of making that warning. Plaintiffs never alleged that the firm negligently performed the tasks it actually undertook—that is, testing, analyzing, and monitoring the levels of beryllium, and reporting those tests to the owner and operator of the facility. 

Also of note for readers is the remainder of the court's analysis regarding other defendants, which focused on one of the elements of medical monitoring.

Some background.  Plaintiffs in each case filed a putative class action lawsuit against multiple defendants, alleging negligence in connection with beryllium exposure, and seeking a medical monitoring trust fund based on their alleged increased risk of developing chronic beryllium disease int he future. In the first action, (the “Anthony action”), the District Court granted defendants’ joint motion for summary judgment. In the second (the “Zimmerman action”), the District Court addressed three separate legal issues— medical monitoring under Pennsylvania law, claim preclusion of the claims of one named plaintiff, Sheridan, and third-party liability—and issued final orders in favor of defendants. Although the cases presented similar legal issues, they arose out of different locations and distinct facts. However, plaintiffs’ lawyers, many of the expert witnesses, and one defendant, were the same in each case. The Third Circuit did not consolidate the two separate appeals, but resolved them in one opinion.

Inhaling beryllium particles can lead to scarring of the lungs, a condition known as chronic beryllium disease.  CBD occurs when the immune system mounts an attack against beryllium particles that have entered the body. The lung sacs become inflamed and fill with large numbers of white blood cells that accumulate wherever the beryllium particles are found. The cells form balls around the particles called granulomas. Eventually, the lungs become scarred and lose their ability to transfer oxygen to the blood stream.

The dose-response picture is a bit unusual. Mere exposure itself appears to be insufficient because only persons who have a particular genetic “marker”—the Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA)-DPB1 allele—can potentially recognize beryllium in the lungs as an antigen. This reaction is called beryllium sensitization (“BeS”). The parties did not dispute that BeS is a necessary precursor to CBD. BeS by itself causes no abnormal lung function and requires no treatment (i.e., it is asymptomatic).  The experts debated how many people have the marker with estimates ranging from below 10% to 40% of the population. The most common test for sensitization is the beryllium lymphocyte proliferation test (“BeLPT”), which is not a test for the genetic marker, but a reasonably accurate test for sensitization according to the experts.

Readers know that one of the typical elements of a medical monitoring claim is proof of a significantly increased risk (of contracting the latent disease for which plaintiff seeks medical monitoring). Plaintiffs' expert testimony was that all individuals exposed to beryllium at above background levels are at a significantly increased risk and require medical monitoring. They  declared that there is a direct relationship between the level of exposure and risk, and that CBD is not qualitatively different from any other environmental exposure disease.  Defendants' expert opined that given class rep Anthony’s negative result in the test to show whether he had become sensitized, and the fact that only a small percentage of the population can become sensitized, Anthony was not at a significantly increased risk of developing CBD.

In the other class action, the parties stipulated that class rep Zimmerman was not beryllium sensitized. Plaintiff experts argued, however, that anyone who has lived in the area surrounding the plant in question was at a significantly increased risk given the levels of beryllium in the
ambient air and documented cases of CBD in the community. They made a quantitative risk assessment based on collected exposure data, concluding that the risk of contracting CBD to the members of the proposed class represented by Zimmerman was 3 per 10,000, and for those
individuals who have lived near the plant for at least ten years, the risk allegedly increased to 1 per 500.

The Third Circuit noted that the intermediate appellate court in Pennsylvania had addressed analogous medical monitoring claims in Pohl v. NGK Metals Corp., 936 A.2d 43 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2007). The Pennsylvania Superior Court concluded there that the record provided no support for plaintiffs’ contention that they were sensitized to beryllium and thus that they faced a significantly increased risk of contracting CBD. Plaintiffs in federal court contended that Pohl was neither controlling nor persuasive, because it was a fact-specific decision in which the state court dismissed the three plaintiffs’ claims based on their individual failure of proof.

The court of appeals, however, concluded that the state court drew a line along the exposure-to-disease continuum -- at sensitization. The Third Circuit held that unlike its role in interpreting federal law, it may not "act like a judicial pioneer" in a diversity case. Contrary to both Anthony’s and Zimmerman’s contentions, Pohl was not based only on a simple lack of proof; it was based on plaintiffs’ failure to meet the requisite threshold for establishing significantly increased risk due to (1) the undisputed facts about beryllium exposure, BeS, and CBD, and (2) plaintiffs’ inability to demonstrate a significant increase in risk of disease before sensitization. Although the disparate data on how many people have the marker shows the gaping holes in the current state of scientific research, as well as the substantial factual disagreements between scientists, it was not material to this appeal. The parties stipulated that Anthony had not developed BeS, and there was no proof that he has the genetic marker associated with CBD. This background data did not prove his individual significantly increased risk.

As to the Zimmerman class (all persons who resided within a one-mile radius of the Reading Plant for at least six months during the time period between 1950 and 2000), the court noted that plaintiffs tried to make a different showing, including by presenting data on specific exposure levels around the Reading Plant and the number of documented cases of CBD in the community there. From Zimmerman’s perspective, exposure to beryllium is analogous to exposure to other toxins, such as asbestos and PCBs. Defendants contended CBD’s immunological nature distinguishes beryllium from other toxins, which do not invoke an allergic response in only a subset of susceptible persons and instead have a more linear exposure-to-disease relationship.

The state of the art is that only a small subset of an exposed population (those who carry the genetic marker) is at risk of developing CBD; the relationship between beryllium exposure and CBD is relatively non-linear, making generalized risk assessments inappropriate. Thus, there was a failure of proof on the risk element, given the current state of scientific knowledge on the
relationship between beryllium exposure and disease. Plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence that as a proximate result of the exposure, he had a significantly increased risk of contracting
CBD.

The failure of the class reps to show they could meet a necessary element of the claim meant that the class actions could not proceed. (Sheridan's claim was barred.)

Facebook Groups and Class Actions

Plaintiffs have sued the Procter & Gamble Co. in a proposed national class action, alleging that  new Pampers diapers containing “Dry Max” technology is causing rashes and "chemical burns" in some infants. See Clark, et al. v. Procter & Gamble Co., No. 10-301 (S.D. Ohio, 5/11/10). Plaintiffs seek reimbursement for the cost of diapers, as well as for alleged medical expenses and treatment.  The plaintiffs allege that P&G knew or should have known that the diapers with Dry Max technology could harm kids' bottoms. They assert causes of action for breach of implied warranty of merchantability, breach of  implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose, violation of consumer fraud acts, negligence, unjust enrichment, and strict liability.  Then came word that the Consumer Product Safety Commission would review consumer complaints regarding Pampers with the new Dry Max technology.

P&G notes that the Dry Max technology is a significant innovation in diapers. The Dry Max technology allows the diapers to be thinner and lighter, but still absorbent.  The Proctor & Gamble website notes the safety of the diapers  for babies, and the heavy testing -- the product is one of the most tested diapers in the company's history. To date, there have been in excess of two billion diaper changes using the new product, with only a handful of rash complaints, none of which were shown to be caused by the type of materials in the product. In fact, the company has received fewer than two complaints about diaper rash for every one million diapers sold, which apparently is average for the diaper business and does not deviate from the number of calls received prior to Dry Max.

It is hard to imagine that common issues will predominate over the individual issues arising from causation and injury, in the putative class action. Diaper rash is very common, and sometimes severe, regardless of the diaper used. At any given moment, more than 250,000 babies will experience a serious rash. Disposable diapers in fact have helped reduce the incidence of rash by more than 50 percent since they were first introduced in the 1960s because they pull wetness away from a baby's skin. It is very common for long-time consumers of child care or personal care products to correlate a change in product style or design with an adverse effect.

What is most interesting for our readers, perhaps, is the fact that this litigation was apparently spurred by the social networking site, Facebook, where some parents have been blaming the new diapers for rashes.  This has spread not only word of the incidence of a possible problem, but also the non-scientific, non-expert attribution of causation.  Here, for example, there have actually been very few complaints to the CPSC, but the CPSC said the on-line activism was part of what has prompted them to examine the alleged diaper issues.

Sites like Facebook give consumers a bigger platform to voice their opinions and find other similarly situated individuals, and product sellers need to realize how that can spur litigation. Social media alone do not produce litigation, of course.  But from a potential liability standpoint, the social networking sites are becoming a new resource for plaintiff product liability  attorneys.   Facebook provided plaintiff attorneys potential access to thousands of product users documenting their experiences with the product.  Some even have posted relevant photographs. The diaper Facebook group apparently grew to more than 10,000 members. Such Internet activity can include product users talking about the possibility of litigation and searching for attorneys. Some members of the plaintiff bar have used on-line media to communicate with potential clients, and identify ideal class representatives.  

Defense lawyers need to recognize they can research and learn from plaintiffs' on-line activities, as well, particularly before the involvement of plaintiff attorneys. Discovery requests for
Facebook profiles, forensic examinations of computers, or, at proper times, third-party requests directly to the social networking site, may be part of their arsenal.  There may be information about named class representatives, or the class in general. After litigation is filed, some class members continue to participate in Facebook groups.  People will say things in that informal environment that they might not say in a deposition.

Of course, several advisory ethics opinions remind litigators that rules of professional responsibility apply when accessing social networks for case purposes. Contacting parties or witnesses through a “friend request” must be done in accordance with the applicable Rule of Professional Conduct.

 

CAFA Jurisdiction Not Ousted By Plaintiffs Dropping Class Allegation

Readers know that the Class Action Fairness Act expanded federal jurisdiction over certain class actions.  An interesting set of issues has arisen over whether and when federal jurisdiction remains after class proceedings take a turn. In a recent decision, the Seventh Circuit held that CAFA jurisdiction survives even after class allegations are removed from the complaint.  In re Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Corp., 2010 WL 1980172 (7th Cir., 5/19/10).

Plaintiffs were a class of local property owners who filed a complaint in Wisconsin state court against Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company. They alleged that BNSF's failure to inspect and maintain a railroad trestle caused their town to flood in July 2007, damaging their property. Defendants removed. After the district court denied a remand motion, plaintiffs asked for leave to amend their complaint to omit the class allegations. The district court allowed the amendment, noting that it would streamline the litigation. The court also construed the plaintiffs' motion as an implied motion to remand the case, which it granted. The district court explained that its revised jurisdictional analysis was based on the amended complaint, and that since the new complaint did not contain class allegations, it did not provide jurisdiction under CAFA.

The Seventh Circuit disagreed: jurisdiction under CAFA is secure, even though, after removal, the plaintiffs amend their complaint to eliminate the class allegations. The well-established general rule is that jurisdiction is determined at the time of removal, and nothing filed after removal affects jurisdiction. CAFA is, at base, an extension of diversity jurisdiction. Even in cases filed originally in federal court, later changes that compromise diversity do not destroy jurisdiction.

The court also analogized to its recent conclusion in Cunningham Charter Corp. v. Learjet, Inc., 592 F.3d 805 (7th Cir.2010). The court there held that in a case removed under CAFA, jurisdiction survives even if the district court denies class certification. Id. at 806-07; see also United Steel, Paper & Forestry, Rubber, Mfg., Energy, Allied Indus. & Serv. Workers Int'l Union, AFL-CIO, CLC v. Shell Oil Co., 2010 WL 1571190, at *3-4 (9th Cir. Apr.21, 2010).  CAFA jurisdiction attaches when a case is filed as a class action; keeping the case in federal court after removal minimizes the expense and delay caused by shuttling a case from court to court and furthers CAFA's purpose of allowing putative class actions to be litigated in federal court.

When the post-removal change is not the district court's denial of class certification but is instead the plaintiffs' decision not to pursue class certification, the same considerations of expense and delay apply, said the court.  In addition, allowing plaintiffs to "amend away" CAFA jurisdiction after removal would present a significant risk of forum manipulation. CAFA's legislative history reflects an awareness of the latter concern, citing the existing rule that jurisdiction cannot be ousted by later events.  Otherwise plaintiffs who believed the tide was turning against them could simply  amend their complaint months (or even years) into the litigation to require remand to state court.  See S.Rep. No. 109-14, at 70-71 (2005).

  

Digitek Class Action Denied in MDL

The federal judge in the multidistrict litigation concerning the heart drug Digitek has denied class certification in the MDL's six remaining class actions.  In re: Digitek Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 1968 (S.D. W. Va.).

Quick history. Digitek® is a trade-name for a drug called digoxin. Digoxin was approved by the FDA to treat various heart problems. At some point, a handful of non-conforming dose tablets were found in a lot of 4.8 million tablets.  Defendant initiated a voluntary Class I nationwide product recall.  A flood of civil actions were instituted in state and federal courts across the country. The plaintiffs claimed a variety of injuries and losses resulting from the recalled Digitek®. In 2008, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation established an MDL proceeding.

The MDL court addressed several overlapping motions for class certification. The class representatives each sought some kind of economic loss class certified pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23. Two of the class complaints sought only a single-state class. Others sought a nationwide class of all persons residing in the United States who purchased Digitek® pursuant to prescription, during the time period when the recalled Digitek® was manufactured, or sold, who suffered economic losses, including, but not limited to, payments for recalled Digitek®, out-of-pocket expenses for diagnostic testing, medical visits, and/or new prescriptions, as a result of having received recalled Digitek®.

Generally, the plaintiffs focused not on the distinct and highly individualized alleged injuries to the class, but -- as is typical -- on defendants’ alleged misconduct that led to the recall.  In doing so, the plaintiffs tried to paint New Jersey as the nerve center for certification purposes. In fact, they said New Jersey law should control all of the potentially hundreds of thousands of class members’ claims and recoveries throughout the United States. They thus downplayed the individual issues that would arise, including choice of law. They stressed instead that the damages  allegedly suffered by each individual class member were modest and, absent a certified class, millions of consumers would be left without remedy.

The court first addressed the choice of law issues in a nationwide class, as the state in which each claimant was injured has an overriding interest in having its laws applied to redress any wrong done to its citizens.  For example, state consumer protection laws vary considerably, and courts must respect these differences rather than just apply one state's law to sales in other states with different rules.  In re St. Jude Medical, Inc., 425 F.3d 1116, 1120 (8th Cir. 2005).  See generally Kanner, Consumer Class Actions After CAFA, 56 Drake L. Rev. 303, 334 (2008).  Unjust enrichment law varies considerably throughout the United States as well.  Tyler v. Alltel Corp., 265 F.R.D. 415, 422 (E.D. Ark. 2010).  The court reached the same conclusion with the express and implied warranty claims.  See, e.g., Walsh v. Ford Motor Co., 807 F.2d 1000, 1016-17 (D.C. Cir.1986).  The differences impact the class certification factors of typicality, predominance, and manageability.

Putting aside the choice of law issue (that is, assuming a class of New Jersey residents alone and applying only New Jersey law to their claims), the court found that common issues still did not predominate. Violation of the NJ Consumer Fraud Act is subject to proof of a number of
elements, including that plaintiff suffered an ascertainable loss as a result of the unlawful conduct; and a causal relationship between the unlawful practice and the loss sustained.  That is, the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act affords a right to monetary relief only if there has been an  ascertainable loss in consequence of the consumer receiving something other than what he bargained for, and losing the benefits of the product which he was led to believe he had purchased.  Plaintiffs' contention here that everyone in the class sustained an ascertainable loss presumes that the drug was worthless. But the drug was enormously beneficial to many patients; most got the right dose. Those patients presumably got their money's worth and suffered no economic injury. And the question whether an individual class member got his or her money's worth is inherently individual. Indeed, it involves very much the same questions as would a claim for money damages for personal injury.

This was seen in the differences between the class representatives: one returned Digitek® following the recall. But he received, in return, replacement digoxin at no charge. Another wanted a co-payment for a doctor visit that he had post-recall. He admitted, though, that the appointment was scheduled pre-recall. If certification were granted, this type of fact-intensive investigation and specific explanation would likely be necessary for all claimants to assure that their claims were compensation worthy.

The individual questions also proliferate to the extent the jury is ultimately required to determine which class members received defective Digitek® and which did not. In other words, it may ultimately be inappropriate, said the court, to treat all the recalled Digitek® as a single “defective” product for purposes of making the determination of whether it was unsafe.  Thus product identification would have individual, as opposed to collective, hallmarks.

Another individual issue was the vast array of individualized damages the representatives were seeking. The plaintiffs tried to sweep this concern aside. But even if not controlling,  individualized damage determinations cut against class certification under Rule 23(b)(3).  Ward v.
Dixie Nat. Life Ins. Co.
, 595 F.3d 164, 180 (4th Cir. 2010).

Finally, the court confronted the individualized process of sorting out those potential class members who were already fully compensated by the defendants' refund process. Mitigation was  another highly individualized matter.  Certification appropriately denied. 

Update on Chinese Drywall Litigation

The Consumer Product Safety Commission last week announced the results of testing performed by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on allegedly defective drywall samples.  Among the findings, most of the drywall that has allegedly caused personal injury and corroded electrical components in various homes throughout the U.S. was indeed manufactured in China;  specifically,  the most reactive sulfur-emitting drywall samples were all produced in China, according to the CPSC.  The worst-testing samples of the Chinese drywall showed emission rates of hydrogen sulfide 100 times greater than non-Chinese drywall samples.

CPSC released the names of the 10 worst-performing samples, including those of Knauf Plasterboard (Tianjin) Co. Ltd. for drywall manufactured in 2005, Taian Taishan Plasterboard Co. Ltd. for drywall manufactured in 2006, Shandong Taihe Dongxin Co. for drywall manufactured in 2005, Beijing New Building Materials for drywall manufactured in 2009.  Drywall samples manufactured in the United States in the same period contained low or no detectable emissions of hydrogen sulfide, according to the agency. 

At the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue meetings in Beijing May 24-25, U.S. officials reportedly pressed the Chinese government to facilitate a meeting between CPSC and the Chinese drywall companies whose products were used in U.S. homes, and which exhibit the emissions identified during the testing procedures. The Strategic and Economic Dialogue represents the highest-level bilateral forum to discuss a broad range of issues between the two nations.

Federal cases concerning the drywall products are coordinated in multidistrict litigation pending in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. More than 7,000 plaintiffs have claimed that Chinese-made drywall in their homes emits sulfide gases that corrode electrical wiring and/or cause personal injury such as nasal damage and other respiratory problems.  In the first trial, the court ordered Taishan Gypsum to pay $2.6 million to seven plaintiffs last April. In the second trial, the court ordered Knauf Plasterboard to pay a plaintiff family $164,000.  In re: Chinese-Manufactured Drywall Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 2047 (E.D. La.).

Cases are also pending in state court, and a state trial court in Miami recently certified a class in this litigation. Harrell v. South Kendall Construction Corp. et al., No. 09-008401 (11th Judicial Circuit, Fla.). Following a hearing last Thursday, Judge Farina granted class certification, the first Chinese drywall case to be certified. The class consists of approximately 150 claimants who were purchasers of homes in three subdivisions of the Keys Gate community there. The class alleged that those homes were built using Chinese drywall. Defendants are home builder Kendall Construction Corp., Palm Isles Holdings LLC, broker Keys Gates Realty Inc, and supplier Banner Supply Co.

The court found that a predominating common issue in each class member's case is whether the drywall installed in his or her house was defective. The trial court found that the alleged defect, the potential to emit sulfur gases that can cause damage, is inherent in the physical characteristics of the product and thus has a uniform nature. With one supplier and one builder allegedly involved, the court distinguished the case from other product defect cases in which individual issues are typically found to predominate.

The opinion noted that differences among proof of damages has typically not defeated class certification. The court stressed that if individual class member homeowners were to file their own separate actions, the court would be confronted with a multiplicity of lawsuits that would unnecessarily burden the court system and create the risk of inconsistent rulings and contradictory judgments.

While the court was clearly influenced by the belief that the issues surrounding the allegedly defective product were "unaffected by outside variables," like the way the product was used, its analysis of predominance is quite questionable.  For example, it concluded that a common issue was whether the defective drywall damaged the homes of the putative class members, and thus that the issue of injury (whether the drywall damaged all the homes) could be proved with class-wide evidence.  The fact is that enough of the drywall was imported to damage more than 50,000 homes; yet only a small percentage of that has been observed. Thus, it may be that any number of factors may be impacting the damage drywall is or is not causing in a particular house. Moreover, it is far too simplistic to talk about the injury or "damage" being caused, when there are hotly debated issues about whether there is injury to, or the need for remediation of, non-problem drywall, insulation, flex duct, molding, encapsulated wiring, counter tops, and a whole host of house components. Similar issues will relate to the causation of corrosion of a home’s electrical wiring or AC system.