Supreme Court Decides Two Personal Jurisdiction Cases

At the end of the term, the Supreme Court decided two important personal jurisdiction cases, J.McIntyre Machinery Ltd. v. Nicastro, U.S., No. 09-1343, and Goodyear Luxembourg Tires SA v. Brown, U.S., No. 10-76.  The first opinions on this issue in two decades. Readers may recall we posted on these cases before, including on the grant of cert and the oral arguments.

Personal jurisdiction addresses the reach of the court’s power over a party, and without such jurisdiction, any ruling by the court is not binding on the party. Plaintiff lawyers focus on personal jurisdiction as part of the equation where they can sue; defendants as part of where they can be sued properly. As a general matter, a defendant can only be sued where it has sufficient minimum contacts with the state such that a suit there does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.

The issue framed in Nicastro was: Whether, consistent with the Due Process Clause and pursuant to the stream-of-commerce theory, a state may exercise in personam jurisdiction over a foreign manufacturer when the manufacturer targets the U.S. market for the sale of its product and that product is purchased by a forum state consumer. The corresponding issue in Brown was: Whether a foreign corporation is subject to general personal jurisdiction, on causes of action not arising out of or related to any contacts between it and the forum state, merely because other entities distribute in the forum state products placed in the stream of commerce by the defendant.

Let’s start with Brown. Plaintiffs were North Carolina residents whose sons died in a bus accident outside Paris, France. They filed suit for wrongful death in North Carolina state court. Alleging that the accident was caused by a tire failure, they named as defendants Goodyear USA, an Ohio corporation, and petitioners, three Goodyear USA subsidiaries, organized and operating, respectively, in Luxembourg, Turkey, and France. The tires at issue were manufactured primarily for European and Asian markets and differ in size and construction from tires ordinarily sold in the United States. The foreign subs affiliates were not registered to do business in North Carolina; had no place of business, employees, or bank accounts in the State; did not design, manufacture, or advertise their products in the state; and did not solicit business in the State or sell or ship tires to North Carolina customers. But, a small percentage of their tires were redistributed in North Carolina by other Goodyear USA affiliates.

The state court denied defendants’ motion to dismiss the claims against them for want of personal jurisdiction. A unanimous Supreme Court reversed.

The Court first reviewed the general principles: The Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause sets the outer boundaries of a state tribunal’s authority to proceed against a defendant. International Shoe (you remember that one from law school) provides that state courts may only exercise personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant who has certain minimum contacts with a state such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice. The Court has recognized that jurisdiction could be asserted where the corporation’s in-state activity is “continuous and systematic” and gave rise to the episode-in-suit. The commission of “single or occasional acts” in a state may also be sufficient to render a corporation answerable in that state with respect to those acts, though not with respect to matters unrelated to those forum connections. These became known as “specific jurisdiction.” This notion is distinguished from cases in which the continuous corporate operations within a state are so substantial and of such a nature as to justify suit against it on causes of action even arising from dealings entirely distinct from those activities, “general jurisdiction.” Helicopteros Nacionales de Colombia, S. A. v. Hall, 466 U. S. 408.

Here, defendants lacked the kind of continuous and systematic general business contacts necessary to allow North Carolina to entertain a suit against them unrelated to anything that connects them to the state. The so-called stream-of-commerce cases on which the North Carolina court relied relate to exercises of specific jurisdiction in products liability actions, in which a nonresident defendant, acting outside the forum, places in the stream of commerce a product that ultimately causes harm inside the forum. Many state long-arm statutes authorize courts to exercise specific jurisdiction over manufacturers when the events in suit, or some of them, occurred within the forum state. The North Carolina court’s stream of commerce analysis ignored the essential difference between specific and general jurisdiction. Flow of a manufacturer’s products into the forum may or may not bolster an affiliation germane to specific jurisdiction, but here North Carolina was not a forum in which it would be permissible to subject petitioners to general jurisdiction.

[Finally, plaintiffs failed to preserve the possible argument that the courts should disregard petitioners’ discrete status as subsidiaries and treatment of all Goodyear entities as a “unitary business,” so that jurisdiction over the parent would draw in the subsidiaries as well.]

More contentious and complex were the issues in Nicastro, which resulted in a 6-3 decision with a plurality opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy. Justices Breyer and Alito concurring in the judgment; and Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan dissenting.

Plaintiff injured his hand while using a metal-shearing machine that petitioner/defendant J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. manufactured in England, where the company is incorporated and operates. Nicastro filed a products liability suit in a state court in New Jersey, where the accident occurred. Defendant argued there was no personal jurisdiction. Nicastro’s jurisdictional claim was based on three primary facts:

1) a U. S. distributor agreed to sell J. McIntyre’s machines in this country;

2) J. McIntyre officials attended trade shows in several states, although not in New Jersey; and

3) exceedingly few J. McIntyre machines (the record suggested only one), ever ended up in New Jersey.

The NJ state court held that jurisdiction could be exercised as long as the manufacturer knew or reasonably should have known that its products were distributed through a nationwide distribution system that might lead to sales in any of the states-- even though at no time had it advertised in, sent goods to, or in any relevant sense targeted this specific state. This is a version of the so-called “stream-of-commerce” doctrine of jurisdiction, discussed by a plurality of the court in Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court of Cal., Solano Cty., 480 U. S. 102.

The Supreme Court reversed. The exercise of jurisdiction here would violate due process when the defendant never engaged in any activities in New Jersey that revealed an intent to invoke or benefit from the protection of the state’s laws. The plurality’s due process analysis is intriguing, and very traditional. A court may subject a defendant to judgment only when the defendant has sufficient contacts with the sovereign such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice. But, “free-form” fundamental fairness notions divorced from traditional practice cannot transform a judgment rendered without authority into law. That some might argue subjecting the defendant to suit is “fair” is not enough. As a general rule, the sovereign’s exercise of power still requires some act by which the defendant purposefully avails itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum state, thus invoking the benefits and protections of its laws. In cases like this one, it is the defendant’s purposeful availment that would make jurisdiction consistent with “fair play and substantial justice” notions.

Justice Kennedy then went on to address the stream of commerce notion, stating that no “stream-of-commerce” doctrine can displace that general rule of purposeful availment, even for products liability cases. He acknowledged that the standards for determining state jurisdiction over an absent party have been a bit unclear because of decades-old questions left open in Asahi. This imprecision arising from Asahi, for the most part, resulted from its statement of the relation between jurisdiction and the notion of placing a product in the “stream of commerce.” That concept, like other metaphors, has its "deficiencies as well as its utilities."  A defendant’s placement of goods into commerce “with the expectation that they will be purchased by consumers within the forum State” may sometimes indicate purposeful availment. But that does not swallow the general rule of personal jurisdiction. The principal inquiry in cases of this sort is still whether the defendant’s activities manifest an intention to submit to the power of a sovereign. And the conclusion in this case that the authority to subject a defendant to judgment depends on purposeful availment is consistent with Justice O’Connor’s Asahi opinion, not that of Justice Brennan.

Nicastro did not establish below that J. McIntyre engaged in conduct purposefully directed at New Jersey. The company had no office in New Jersey; it neither paid taxes nor owned property there; and it neither advertised in, nor sent any employees to, the State. Indeed, the trial court found that petitioner did not have a single contact with the State apart from the fact that the machine in question ended up there. That’s not enough.

Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Alito, agreed that the New Jersey Supreme Court’s judgment must be reversed, but concluded that because this case did not present the new and special issues arising from recent changes in commerce and communication, it was unnecessary to get into full analysis of the steam of commerce issue as it might be applied to 21st century marketing. Rather, the outcome of the case could be determined by the Court’s existing precedents, which have held that a single isolated sale, even if accompanied by the kind of sales effort indicated in the record here, is not sufficient. Here, the relevant facts showed no “regular flow” or “regular course” of sales in New Jersey, nor any special state-related design, advertising, advice, or marketing.

So what dies it all mean? It is significant for foreign companies that the Court corrected the mistake of some lower courts which have blended the concepts of specific and general jurisdiction. And a majority of the Court feels that the mere fact that your product ends up in a state and injures someone there is not, by itself, sufficient to confer jurisdiction on that state’s courts. Both the plurality and the concurrence seem to agree that a rule like that adopted by the NJ court would erroneously permit every state to assert jurisdiction in a products liability suit against any domestic manufacturer who sells its products (made anywhere in the United States) to a national distributor, no matter how large or small the manufacturer, no matter how distant the forum, and no matter how few the number of items that end up in the particular forum at issue. But there is no majority agreement so far on whether there can ever be a proper exercise of jurisdiction when a case presents “contemporary commercial circumstances” regarding the sale of a product – presumably things like use of Internet marketing. And if a foreign defendant directs his conduct at the entire United States, the plurality suggests that conceivably the defendant may in principle be subject to the jurisdiction of the courts of the United States but not of any particular state, but it is not clear if the rest of the Court agrees. The plurality thought this might be rare in that foreign corporations will often target or concentrate on particular states, and it might depend on the product/industry.

 

House Committee Votes To End Funding for CPSC Database

The House Appropriations Committee voted last week (tally 27–21) to send a funding bill to the House floor that would cut off funds from being used for the Consumer Product Safety Commission's new consumer database.

Readers may recall that the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 mandated the creation of a consumer product safety information database, and from the beginning, there was controversy about the absence of a process for addressing false and inaccurate reports that will scare consumers, harm business, and generate no additional safety gains; the need to employ means to prevent the submission of fraudulent reports of harm while not discouraging the submission of valid reports; the importance of  not putting the governmental imprimatur on voluntary data that has not been verified; and the absence of a sufficient time period allocated for manufacturers to evaluate and respond to any proposed report.

As we have posted, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission gave final approval late last year to the new consumer product safety database, overriding very real concerns about who should be permitted to submit incident reports and how they will be verified as accurate. CPSC commissioners split along party lines in the 3-2 vote, which came after a final discussion of whether the regulation would simply give certain interest groups a new forum to attack product makers and plaintiff lawyers a new tool, giving rise to lawsuits based on a rumor repeated through the echo chamber of the Internet.

Manufacturers have limited control over what information can be removed or amended once posted. The two dissenting votes made an unsuccessful attempt to amend the final rule so as to give manufacturers more time to comment on or respond to the accuracy of postings before they are published to the database and to the public.

The database is accompanied by a weak disclaimer stipulating that CPSC has not verified the accuracy of any report. Observes worry that the agency has not paid sufficient attention to legitimate issues of a manufacturer's goodwill and reputation, to the costs of unnecessary panic among product consumers, and the mischief that plaintiffs' lawyers might cause with unwarranted increase in litigation against manufacturers.

The bill just passed out of committee would cut CPSC's overall budget by about $3.5 million—approximately the same amount needed for the database—from FY 2011 levels, and provides that  no funds may be used to carry out any of the database activities.  It appears the bill will be taken up on the House floor in July. 

While consumer groups have opposed the funding cut-off, the majority on the committee agreed with the concern about the risks of unverifiable and inaccurate consumer comments that may be submitted. In the meantime, a 2011 continuing resolution requires the GAO to conduct an analysis of the database.

 

 

Tort Reform Advances In Tennessee

Readers know that tort reform is an important issue we have posted on before, at the federal and state level.  Latest update: Tennessee recently enacted reform legislation that will, among other things, limit the amount of non-economic damages that plaintiffs can recover in civil lawsuits.

Specifically, the Tennessee Civil Justice Act of 2011 was signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam earlier this month. 

The new law limits venue to the county where the events constituting the cause of action occurred, where the business has its principal office, or where its registered agent of record is located.

Prior law included punitive damages in calculating the bond amount, set a maximum appeal bond at $75 million, and did not address the possibility that obtaining the bond could render an appellant bankrupt or insolvent. The amended law facilitates the appeal of a trial court verdict by lowering the maximum amount of a bond from $75 million to the greater of (i) $25 million or (ii) 125% of the judgment amount. In determining the bond amount, the court will now not consider or include punitive damages, unless there is evidence of the appellee dissipating assets. The law also gives the court discretion to take other actions or set other terms, if obtaining the bond would render the appellant insolvent or bankrupt.

Prior state law had no cap on non-economic damages. The new law places a cap of $750,000 on the non-economic damages incurred by an injured plaintiff, damages like pain and suffering.  A few exceptions are provided, such as no cap in intentional torts, or when the defendant was under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs and his or her judgment was substantially impaired, or when a defendant intentionally falsified, destroyed or concealed records to avoid liability.

Prior state law did not have caps on punitive damages. Under the new act, punitive damages must be proven by clear and convincing evidence and are capped at 2x compensatory damages or $500,000, whichever is greater. There are limited instances when the defendant's liability is not limited by the caps: (i) if the defendant intended to injure the plaintiff, (ii) if the defendant was under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs and his or her judgment was substantially impaired, and (iii) if the defendant intentionally falsified, destroyed or concealed records to avoid liability.  Moreover, no punitive damages may be assessed against the manufacturer of a drug or device who was in compliance with applicable laws and regulations, unless the manufacturer withheld material information from regulators or misrepresented that information to the regulators.

The new law provides additional protections for non-manufacturer product sellers. No product liability action may be commenced or maintained against any seller, other than the manufacturer, unless the seller exercised substantial control over that aspect of the design, testing, manufacture, packaging or labeling of the product that caused the alleged harm for which recovery of damages is sought, or the seller altered or modified the product, and the alteration or modification was a substantial factor in causing the harm for which recovery of damages is sought; or the seller gave an express warranty which was breached.

Also, the seller of a product other than the manufacturer would not be liable for punitive damages, unless the seller exercised substantial control over that aspect of the design, testing, manufacture, packaging or labeling of the product that caused the harm for which recovery of damages is sought; the seller altered or modified the product and the alteration or modification was a substantial factor in causing the harm for which recovery of damages is sought; or the seller had actual knowledge of the defective condition of the product at the time he supplied the same.

Under the new Act, the state court of appeals would hear appeals from orders of trial courts granting or denying class action certification if a notice of appeal is filed within 10 days after entry of the order. All proceedings in the trial court would be automatically stayed pending the appeal of the class certification ruling.

Supreme Court Decides Global Warming Case

In the third of our trilogy this week, let's take a look at the Supreme Court's decision in  American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, No. 10-174 (U.S. 6/20/11).

Readers may recall from our previous posts that in 2004, two groups of plaintiffs, one consisting of eight states and New York City, and the other consisting of three land trusts, sued six electric power corporations that own and operate fossil-fuel-fired power plants, seeking abatement of defendants' alleged ongoing contributions to the "public nuisance of global warming." Plaintiffs claimed that global warming, to which the defendants allegedly contributed as large emitters of carbon dioxide, is causing, and will continue to cause serious harm affecting human health and natural resources.

Plaintiffs brought these actions under the federal common law of nuisance to force defendants to cap and then reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. The district court held that plaintiffs' claims presented a non-justiciable political question and dismissed the complaints. On appeal, plaintiffs argued that the political question doctrine does not bar adjudication of their claims; that they had standing to assert their claims; that they had properly stated claims under the federal common law of nuisance; and that their claims were not displaced by any federal statutes.

In a lengthy opinion, the Second Circuit held that the district court erred in dismissing the complaints on political question grounds; that all of plaintiffs had standing; that the federal common law of nuisance governs their claims; that plaintiffs had stated claims under the federal common law of nuisance; that their claims were not displaced. In a very minimalist interpretation of what is needed for standing, the Second Circuit distinguished multiple precedents of the Supreme Court which held that to have standing a plaintiff must allege an injury that is concrete, direct, real, and palpable -- not abstract. Injury must be particularized, personal, individual, distinct, and differentiated -- not generalized or undifferentiated.

An equally divided Court affirmed the Second Circuit’s exercise of jurisdiction. (Justice Sotomayor took no part in the consideration or decision of this case because of her participation in the 2d Circuit.). But the Court then held that  the Clean Air Act displaces any federal common law right to seek abatement of carbon-dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel fired power plants. It was an academic question whether, in the absence of the Clean Air Act and the EPA actions the Act authorizes, the plaintiffs could state a federal common law claim for curtailment of greenhouse gas emissions because of their alleged contribution to global warming -- because any such claim would be displaced by the federal legislation authorizing EPA to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions.

When Congress addresses a question previously governed by a decision rested on federal common law, the Court explained, the need for such an unusual exercise of law making by federal courts disappears. Legislative displacement of federal common law does not require the same sort of evidence of a clear and manifest Congressional purpose demanded for preemption of state law.  The Court thus held that the Clean Air Act, and the EPA actions it authorizes, displace any federal common law right to seek abatement of carbon-dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel fired power plants. Precedent made plain that emissions of carbon dioxide qualify as air pollution subject to regulation under the Act, and it was equally plain that the Act “speaks directly” to emissions of carbon dioxide from the defendants’ plants.

If EPA did not set emissions limits for a particular pollutant or source of pollution, States and private parties could always petition for a rulemaking on the matter, and EPA’s response would be reviewable in federal court. The Act itself thus provides a means to seek limits on emissions of carbon dioxide from domestic power plants—the same relief the plaintiffs were seeking by invoking federal common law. The Court saw no room for "a parallel track."

The plaintiffs argued that federal common law should not be displaced until EPA actually exercises its regulatory authority, i.e., until it sets standards governing emissions from the defendants’ plants. The Court disagreed. The critical point was that Congress delegated to EPA the decision whether and how to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants; the delegation is what displaces federal common law.

Interestingly, although the split-court did not change the jurisdictional ruling, the Court did note that the appropriate amount of regulation in any particular greenhouse gas-producing sector cannot be prescribed in a vacuum: as with other questions of national or international policy, informed assessment of competing interests is required. Along with the environmental benefit potentially achievable, our Nation’s energy needs and the possibility of economic disruption must weigh in the balance.  The Clean Air Act entrusts such complex balancing to EPA in the first instance, in combination with state regulators. It was "altogether fitting" that Congress designated an expert agency, here, EPA, as best suited to serve as primary regulator of greenhouse gas emissions. "The expert agency is surely better equipped to do the job than individual district judges issuing ad hoc, case-by-case injunctions."  A statement that sounds alot like defendant's jurisdictional argument. 

The Court went on: federal judges lack the scientific, economic, and technological resources an agency can utilize in coping with issues of this order. Judges may not commission scientific studies or convene groups of experts for advice, or issue rules under notice-and-comment procedures inviting input by any interested person, or seek the counsel of regulators in the States where the defendants are located. Rather, judges are confined by a record comprising the evidence the parties present. Moreover, federal district judges, sitting as sole adjudicators, lack authority to render precedential decisions binding other judges. 

Notwithstanding these disabilities, the plaintiffs proposed that individual federal judges determine, in the first instance, what amount of carbon-dioxide emissions is “unreasonable,” and then decide what level of reduction is “practical, feasible and economically viable.” These determinations would be made for the defendants named in the litigation, and then similar suits could be mounted against thousands of other defendants fitting the plaintiffs' description “large contributors” to carbon-dioxide emissions.

Thus, since the decision turned on the displacement by Congressional designation of EPA as the prime decision-maker on regulation of emissions, if efforts underway in Congress to take away EPA's authority succeed, this may affect future global warming cases.  The Court also declined to decide the plaintiffs’ state-law claims, leaving that battle for another day.  Nevertheless, the issues of judicial competence and discretion highlighted by the Court may serve to deter federal judges from making environmental policy under any substantive law.  Also left open is whether a State may sue to abate any and all manner of pollution originating outside its borders.

Rankings from Legal 500

I am pleased to report that your himble blogger is recommended in the 2011 Legal 500 rankings In the category of Product Liability and Mass Tort Defense: Toxic Torts.  My efforts were part of what the guide calls "excellent service" and a "keen awareness in bringing value for cost." 

 

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Supreme Court Declines To End Multiple Class Action Mischief

The second of our Supreme Court trilogy for the week.  The Court ruled last week in Smith v. Bayer Corp., No. 09-1205, that a federal district court was prevented by the the Anti-Injunction Act from enjoining a state court from entertaining plaintiff's motion to certify a class action even when that federal court had earlier denied a similar motion to certify an overlapping class in a closely related case.

Generally, the Anti-Injunction Act bars a federal court from granting injunctions to stay proceedings in state courts except where specifically authorized by Congress, or "where necessary in aid of its jurisdiction, or to protect or effectuate its judgments."  Most of our readers hoped that the Court would agree with the lower courts' ruling that this was just such an exception.

The Smith case involved the issue whether a federal court can enjoin class members from bringing a product liability class suit in a state court after the federal court declined to certify a similar class. Specifically, the Baycol MDL court in Minnesota had denied class certification, and the court of appeals upheld the injunction barring plaintiffs from bringing virtually the same suit in West Virginia state court. The federal court of appeals in fact unanimously affirmed, holding that the injunction was authorized by the All Writs Act and the re-litigation exception to the Anti-Injunction Act, and that petitioners did not have a due process right to re-litigate class certification.

The Supreme Court, unfortunately, reversed, in a decision that may encourage forum shopping.

-The decision encourages "creative" case structuring strategies by the plaintiffs' bar to give themselves a second bite at the apple (or more) in class claims, even after the federal court properly denies certification, and even when the state class law mirrors Federal Rule 23; here, the Court found that an application of West Virginia's Rule 23 did not present the same exact issue as the application of the federal rule version, even though the language of the rules is nearly identical.

-The decision highlights the double-edged sword that is federalism; now, the preclusive effect of a certification denial, if any, will be decided by state courts applying the notions of res judicata rather than by the enjoining court.  This comports with the general notion that the second court looking back decides the impact, not the first court looking forward.  But readers are well aware of the hard-to-fathom preclusion decisions some state courts have fashioned in the class action context.  E.g., the Engle class in Florida. And, as plaintiffs told Justice Ginsburg in oral argument of the case, a state has the right to apply and interpret a rule of civil procedure "as it sees fit to manage its own docket and administrate its own docket as it sees fit."

-As a practical matter, it invites "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again," with plaintiffs seeking to bring similar cases again and again, shopping for a forum or judge that will finally agree to certify something. Plaintiffs will recruit a new named plaintiff, and recreate the risks associated with class certification, even after the defendant has seemingly won that important battle. Justice Alito asked petitioners at oral argument whether after a class certification denial is entered in one federal court, a plaintiff's attorney could simply substitute the name of a new named plaintiff and file the same complaint in another federal court. Plaintiffs answered that an attorney could do that.

-Note that petitioners had not been foreclosed from seeking relief on their individual claims, but only from seeking to represent other people through a class action. Whether a class should be certified had been fully and fairly litigated in proceedings that ought to be binding on petitioners and in which petitioners’ interests were adequately represented by an identically situated named plaintiff -- one whom plaintiff's counsel promised was an adequate representative, was typical, with common claims and no adverse interests. The Court apparently did not consider the possible argument that an absent class member who is adequately represented might be in sufficient privity with the named plaintiff such that he can be precluded from litigating the certification decision a second time.

-Even though in dicta, the Court discouraged the application of preclusion to absent class members.   It may be of little comfort to defendants faced with the costs and risks of serial class claims that, as the Court put it, the "legal system generally relies on principles of stare decisis and comity among courts to mitigate the sometimes substantial costs of similar litigation brought by different plaintiffs."

-The Court agreed that the policy concerns were the defendant's "strongest argument, " and seemingly recognized the mischief it was permitting, because the opinion noted that nothing in this holding forecloses legislation to modify established principles of preclusion should Congress decide that CAFA does not sufficiently prevent re-litigation of class certification motions. Nor does the opinion at all address the permissibility of a change in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure pertaining to this question.  The Court said the trial court could not call on the "heavy artillery" of an injunction, but perhaps an even mightier weapon is needed.

 


 

Dukes v. Wal-Mart: What It May Mean for Mass Torts

Three new Supreme Court decisions to comment on this week.  Let's take one at a time and start with Dukes v. Wal-Mart, 564 U.S. __ (2011). The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday overturned a lower-court decision that had certified a massive class action against retailer Wal-Mart. The suit was filed by current or former employees of petitioner Wal-Mart, who sought judgment against the company for injunctive and declaratory relief, punitive damages, and backpay, on behalf of themselves and  a class of some 1.5 million female employees.  They claimed that local managers exercised their discretion over pay and promotions disproportionately in favor of men.

The District Court certified the class, finding that respondents satisfied Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(2)’s requirement of showing that “the party opposing the class has acted or refused to act on grounds that apply generally to the class, so that final injunctive relief or corresponding declaratory relief is appropriate respecting the class as a whole.”  The Ninth Circuit substantially affirmed,and ruled that the class action could be "manageably" tried without depriving Wal-Mart of its right to present its statutory defenses.

We will leave to our colleagues on the Employment Litigation & Policy  team how this decision impacts employee discrimination claims.  But let's talk about the larger potential significance of the decision for mass tort class actions.

The Court began where we always like to begin in class certification briefing, reminding everyone that a class action is an exception to the usual rule that litigation is conducted by and on behalf of the individual named parties only.  In order to justify a departure from that rule, a class representative must be part of the class and possess the same interest and suffer the same injury as the class members. Rule 23(a) ensures that the named plaintiffs are appropriate  representatives of the class whose claims they wish to litigate. The Rule’s four requirements—numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequate representation—effectively limit the class claims to those fairly encompassed by the named plaintiff’s claims, when applied correctly.

The crux of this case, said the Court, was commonality—the rule requiring a plaintiff to show that “there are questions of law or fact common to the class.”  But that language, warned the Court, is "easy to misread" as any competently crafted class complaint can raise seemingly common questions. (citing the late mass tort scholar R. Nagareda, Class Certification in the Age of Aggregate Proof, 84 N. Y. U. L. Rev. 97, 131–132 (2009)). Such as the standard ones relating to defendant's alleged conduct.  But simply reciting these questions is not sufficient to obtain class certification. Commonality requires the plaintiff to demonstrate that the class members have suffered the same injury, which in turn does not mean merely that they have all suffered a violation of the same provision of law. The allegedly common contention must be of such a nature that it is capable of class-wide resolution—which means that determination of its truth or falsity will resolve an issue that is central to the validity of each one of the claims in one stroke.  So, what matters is not the raising of seemingly common questions, but, rather, the capacity of a class-wide proceeding to generate common answers apt to drive the resolution of the litigation. Thus, the Court came down on the side of the lower courts that have applied the commonality rule with rigor and with common sense, requiring meaningful common questions.  And commonality thus becomes a more potent weapon in your efforts to defeat mass tort class actions.

Second, the Court re-emphasized that a party seeking class certification must affirmatively demonstrate his compliance with the Rule.  Sometimes it may be necessary for the trial court to probe behind the pleadings before coming to rest on the certification question. Certification is proper only if the trial court is satisfied, after a rigorous analysis, that the prerequisites of Rule 23(a) have been satisfied.  And frequently that “rigorous analysis” will entail some overlap with the merits of the plaintiff’s underlying claim. "That cannot be helped." The class determination generally involves considerations that are enmeshed in the factual and legal issues comprising the plaintiff’s cause of action.  Not completely new, but an important reminder.

Third, the Court noted that the parties disputed whether plaintiffs' expert's testimony met the standards for the admission of expert testimony under Federal Rule of Evidence 702 and Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U. S. 579 (1993). The District Court concluded that Daubert did not apply to expert testimony at the certification stage of class action proceedings. Although dicta, the Court went out of its way to note, " We doubt that is so."  A signal to the lower courts who somehow think junk science is acceptable at the class certification hearing, and a green light to those that apply Daubert.

Fourth, the Court also concluded that respondents’ claims for backpay were improperly certified under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(2), holding that such claims cannot be, at least where (as here) the monetary relief is not incidental to the injunctive or declaratory relief.  One possible reading of this provision is that it applies only to requests for injunctive or declaratory relief and does not authorize the class certification of monetary claims at all. The Court did not have to reach that question because, at a minimum, claims for individualized relief (like the backpay at issue here) do not satisfy this Rule. The key to the (b)(2) class is “the indivisible nature of the injunctive or declaratory remedy warranted—the notion that the conduct is such that it can be enjoined or declared unlawful only as to all of the class members or as to none of them.”  Thus, Rule 23(b)(2) applies only when a single injunction or declaratory judgment would provide relief to each member of the class. It does not authorize class certification when each individual class member would be entitled to a different injunction or declaratory judgment against the defendant. Similarly, it does not authorize class certification when each class member would be entitled to an individualized award of monetary damages. The Court said it was "clear that individualized monetary claims belong in Rule 23(b)(3)."  While not deciding in this case whether there are any forms of truly  “incidental” monetary relief that are consistent with this interpretation of Rule 23(b)(2) and that comply with the Due Process Clause, the Court's ruling may impact mass torts such as medical monitoring claims in which the plaintiffs try to avoid the predominance test of Rule 23(b)(3) by seeking a so-called court administered fund to pay for medical monitoring for the class rather than individual medical monitoring damages.  When the "program" sought is in essence an injunction ordering defendant to pay for each class member's individual medical screening tests, (b)(2) should not be available.

Fifth, the Court noted that the 9th Circuit had found the trial of the proposed class action to be manageable and in accord with due process by ignoring the traditional procedures and proceeding "with Trial by Formula."  In other words, a sample of the class members would be selected, as to whom liability for sex discrimination and the backpay owing as a result would be determined in depositions supervised by a special master. The percentage of claims determined to be valid would then be applied to the entire remaining class, and the number of (presumptively) valid claims thus derived would be multiplied by the average backpay award in the sample set to arrive at the entire class recovery—without further individualized proceedings. This extrapolation methodology has been proposed by many mass tort plaintiffs (including in asbestos) as a means to make the class trial "manageable."  The Supreme Court was clear: "We disapprove that novel project." Because the Rules Enabling Act forbids interpreting Rule 23 to abridge,enlarge or modify any substantive right, a class cannot be certified on the premise that the defendant will not be entitled to litigate its defenses to individual claims.  The same issue applies to the trial plans proposed by many mass tort plaintiffs, which try to use the class rule to prevent defendants from ever having an opportunity to litigate individual defenses as to individual class members. 

Lots to think about.

State Appeals Court Rejects Medical Monitoring

The Wisconsin court of appeals last week affirmed the dismissal of a plaintiff's medical monitoring complaint for failure to state a claim.  Alsteen v. Wauleco Inc.,  No. 2010AP1643 (Wis. Ct. App., 6/14/11).

Plaintiff alleged that, while living in a nearby neighborhood, she was exposed to carcinogenic
chemicals that defendant Wauleco allegedly released from the Crestline window factory. Alsteen did not allege that she suffered any present health problems due to this exposure; however, she contended she was at an increased risk of developing cancer in the future. She therefore sought damages for future medical monitoring expenses.

From approximately 1946 to 1986, operations at the Crestline site included treatment of wood products with a preservative called “Penta.”  Plaintiff alleged that Penta contains hazardous chemicals, including dioxins, pentachlorophenol, and benzene. These chemicals, plaintiff asserted, are harmful to human health and some are classified as possible carcinogens. As a result, the air, soil, surface water, and groundwater in her River Street neighborhood allegedly  became contaminated with dangerous levels of these hazardous chemicals. Current and former residents of the neighborhood had ingested, inhaled, and absorbed these chemicals, the complaint averred.

Some neighbors sued for personal injuries; others sued for property damage.  A third group, including plaintiff, sued for medical monitoring.  Readers know we have posted on medical monitoring issues before.

The trial court dismissed the action for failure to state a claim.  The key issue on appeal was whether Wisconsin law recognized a cause of action for medical monitoring, for increased risk of future disease in the absence of present injury. The court of appeals affirmed, relying on Wisconsin case law that requires actual injury before a plaintiff may recover in tort;  on the reasoning of the Supreme Court’s decision in Metro-North Commuter Railroad Co. v. Buckley, 521 U.S. 424 (1997)(asymptomatic railroad worker who had been exposed to asbestos could not recover medical monitoring expenses under FELA); and on the persuasive reasoning of courts in several other jurisdictions that have addressed the issue and have articulated sound policy reasons for refusing to recognize medical monitoring claims in the absence of actual injury.

Increased risk of future harm is not an actual injury under Wisconsin law.  Meracle v. Children’s Service Society of Wisconsin, 149 Wis. 2d 19, 437 N.W.2d 532 (1989), and mere exposure to a chemical is not an affront to plaintiff's body that constitutes an actual injury. Dyer v. Blackhawk Leather, LLC, 313 Wis. 2d 803, 758 N.W.2d 167 (2008).  The court recognized that while medical monitoring in essence substitutes the increased risk of future disease for the traditional tort injury element, this argument is inconsistent with Wisconsin law, which requires plaintiffs to prove present injury. This "argument turns tort law on its head by using the remedy sought —compensation for future medical monitoring — to define the alleged injury."  See also Henry v. Dow Chem. Co., 701 N.W.2d 684, 691 (Mich. 2005). Similarly, other courts have rejected the argument that the "need" for medical monitoring itself is an injury, reasoning, “With no injury there can be no cause of action, and with no cause of action there can be no recovery. It is not the remedy that supports the cause of action, but rather the cause of action that supports a remedy.” Wood v. Wyeth-Ayerst Labs., 82 S.W.3d 849, 855 (Ky. 2002).

The state court also found persuasive the worries of the Supreme Court in Buckley: First, it recognized that medical monitoring claims present  special difficulties for judges and juries who will be forced to identify which costs are the extra monitoring costs, over and above those otherwise recommended. This problem is compounded by uncertainty among medical professionals about just which tests are most usefully administered and when. The Court also expressed concern that permitting a medical monitoring claim without actual injury could lead to unlimited and  unpredictable liability.

Importantly, the state court here recognized that many of the policy concerns identified in Buckley also apply in the context of a court-supervised medical monitoring fund (as opposed to damages). Specifically, the Supreme Court’s concerns regarding the difficulty of assessing the costs of the remedy, unlimited and unpredictable liability, and confusion over application of secondary sources of payment, apply regardless of the form of remedy.

Finally the court aligned itself with the trend in recent cases around the country to reject such claims: E.g., Henry, 701 N.W.2d 684; Hinton v. Monsanto Co., 813 So. 2d 827 (Ala. 2001); Lowe v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., 183 P.3d 181(Or. 2008); Badillo v. American Brands, Inc., 16 P.3d 435 (Nev. 2001); Paz v. Brush Eng’d Materials, Inc., 949 So. 2d 1, 3, 5 (Miss. 2007).

The court accordingly refused to “step into the legislative role and mutate otherwise sound legal
principles” by creating a new medical monitoring claim that does not require actual injury.

 

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Plaintiffs' Class Allegations Flattened in Tire Case

A federal court in New York last week denied plaintiffs' motion for class certification in a case alleging that the run-flat tires on defendant BMW's MINI Cooper S were defective. See Oscar v. BMW of North America LLC, No. 1:09-cv-00011-RJH (S.D.N.Y. 6/7/11).

Oscar purchased a new 2006 MINI Cooper S from BMW-MINI of Manhattan, an authorized MINI dealership, but prior to purchasing the MINI did not do any sort of research. Nor did he take the car for a test drive. The car came with run-flat tires (RFTs), an innovation that allows drivers to drive to the nearest service station even after the tire was flat. As of December 2, 2009, a period of about three years, Oscar had had five flat tires.  Plaintiff alleges that  his troubles stemmed from the fact that his car was equipped with RFTs rather than with standard radial tires. He considered the number of flat tires he experienced to be evidence of a widespread defect.

Plaintiff proposed a nationwide class (or a New York class) of all consumers who purchased or leased new 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009 MINI vehicles equipped with Run-Flat Extended Mobility Technology tires manufactured by Goodyear and sold or leased in the United States whose Tires have gone flat and been replaced.

On the first prerequisite of Rule 23(a), the court offered an interesting discussion arising from the fact that most of plaintiff's evidence of numerosity did not correlate directly to his class definition: data that may have included other vehicles, or non-RFT tires, or makers other than Goodyear. But the opinion noted that courts have relied upon "back-of-the-envelope calculations in finding numerosity satisfied."  Conservative assumptions leading to a likelihood of numerosity have at times sufficed. This case fell "right on the border between appropriate inference and inappropriate speculation."  Accordingly, numerosity was satisfied for the proposed national class but not the New York class.

Turning to the Rule 23(b)(3) requirements, the court confronted the choice of law issues inherent in a national class. Although plaintiff conceded that the law of the fifty states plus the District of Columbia would apply to the members of the nationwide class, he argued that the differences between the states’ laws on implied warranty claims were negligible because the implied warranty is a Uniform Commercial Code claim. But numerous courts have recognized that there are significant variances among the interpretation of the elements of an implied warranty of merchantability claim among the states. See Walsh v. Ford Motor Co., 807 F.2d 1000, 1016 (D.C. Cir. 1986); In re Ford Motor Co. Ignition Switch Litig., 194 F.R.D. 484, 489 (D.N.J. 2000).  In particular, several states still require privity; so, plaintiff advanced a theory of privity-by-agency. But this theory has not been accepted in all states. Readers know that choice of law issues impact, among other things, the manageability of the class and the superiority of the use of the class device.

The court also found that plaintiff failed to demonstrate that common questions of fact predominate. Plaintiff was unable to articulate and allegedly common defect, merely hypothesizing that the failure rate could stem from the RFTs’ "stiffness" and stating that further discovery would be necessary to ascertain the precise nature of the defect. Plaintiff did not provide the court with any evidence that Goodyear RFTs are likely to fail because of a particular common defect. The failure to specify an alleged common defect provided a further basis for concluding that plaintiff had not demonstrated predominance. See Am. Honda Motor Co. v. Allen, 630 F.3d 813, 819 (7th Cir. 2010) (holding predominance was not satisfied where forty-one plaintiffs owners alleged that their motorcycles wobbled, but failed to provide competent evidence that a common defect underlay their claims).

Even if Oscar had put forth evidence of a common defect, breach of warranty suits like this one often involve complicated issues of individual causation that predominate over common questions regarding the existence of a defect. See, e.g., In re Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., 288 F.3d 1012, 1018-19 (7th Cir. 2002) (noting that class treatment of tire defect litigation was unmanageable in part because individual factors could affect the alleged tire failure); Sanneman v. Chrysler Corp., 191 F.R.D. 441, 451-52 (E.D. Pa. 2000) (declining to certify a class of vehicle owners whose paint had delaminated allegedly because of faulty painting process in part because the paint could delaminate for reasons other than the alleged defect); In re Ignition Switch Litig., 194 F.R.D. at 490-91 (declining to certify a class of vehicle owners whose passenger compartments caught on fire allegedly because of a faulty ignition switch because issues of individual causation would predominate); Feinstein v. Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., 535 F. Supp. 2d 595, 603 (S.D.N.Y. 1982) (declining to certify a class of tire purchasers because of “myriad [individual] questions,” including “other possible causes of the problem encountered”); see also Wolin v. Jaguar Land Rover N. Am., LLC, 617 F.3d 1168, 1172-74 (9th Cir. 2010).

Here, individualized issues of causation would swamp the common inquiry into an as yet to be identified tire design defect.  Even if the plaintiffs were to show that the Goodyear RFTs suffered from a common defect, they would still need to demonstrate that this defect caused each class member’s RFT to puncture. But tires can puncture for any number of reasons, and not all of these reasons will relate to the alleged defect. RFTs can go flat for reasons that would also cause a standard radial tire to go flat -- for example, if the driver ran over a nail, tire shredding device, or large pothole, or if a vandal slashed the tire. In order to demonstrate liability, plaintiff would have to demonstrate in each individual class member's case that the tire punctured for reasons related to the defect, rather than for a reason that would cause any tire to fail.

Similarly, under the state consumer fraud law claim, where the link between the defendant’s alleged deception (about the tires) and the injury suffered by plaintiffs is too attenuated and requires too much individualized analysis, courts will not certify a class. See, e.g., Pelman v. McDonald’s Corp., 272 F.R.D. 82 (S.D.N.Y. 2010) (declining to certify a class allegedly misled by McDonald’s claims that its food was healthy).  Again, determining whether each tire failed as a result of the allegedly concealed defect or as a result of unrelated issues, e.g., potholes or reckless driving habits, would devolve into numerous mini-trials.

Certification denied.

 

 

FDA Releases Draft Guidance on Nanotechnology

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week released draft guidance designed to move the process forward of providing its regulated industries with greater certainty about the use of nanotechnology (which generally involves materials made up of particles that are one billionth of a meter in size). The guidance outlines the agency’s current view on certain issues about regulated products that contain nanomaterials or involve the application of nanotechnology.

FDA has not to date established regulatory definitions of “nanotechnology,” “nanoscale” or related terms. The term is perhaps most commonly used to refer to the engineering (i.e., deliberate manipulation, manufacture or selection) of materials that have at least one dimension in the size range of approximately 1 to 100 nanometers. For example, theNational Nanotechnology Initiative Program defines nanotechnology as the understanding and control of matter at dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers, where unique phenomena enable novel applications. Other factors such as function, shape, charge, the ratio of surface area to volume, or other physical or chemical properties have also been mentioned in various published definitions.

Our readers know that nanotechnology, the science involving manipulation of materials on an atomic or molecular scale, is an emerging technology with a broad range of potential applications, such as increasing bio-availability of a drug, improving food packaging, and in cosmetics.

The draft guidance document, “Considering Whether an FDA-Regulated Product Involves the Application of Nanotechnology,” represents a first step toward providing some regulatory clarity on the FDA’s approach to nanotechnology. Specifically, the agency named certain characteristics – such as the size of nanomaterials used and the exhibited properties of those materials – that may be considered when attempting to identify applications of nanotechnology in regulated products.

For products subject to premarket review, the FDA intends to apply the points contained in the draft guidance, when finalized, to better understand the properties and behavior of engineered nanomaterials. For products not subject to premarket review, the FDA will urge manufacturers to consult with the agency early in the product development process so questions related to the regulatory status, safety, effectiveness, or public health impact of these products can be adequately addressed.

In 2006, the FDA formed the Nanotechnology Task Force, charged with identifying and addressing ways to better enable the agency to evaluate possible adverse health effects from FDA-regulated nanotechnology products.  The agency issued a report by the task force in 2007 that recommended that the FDA issue additional guidance and take steps to address the potential risks and benefits of drugs, medical devices and other FDA-regulated products using nanotechnology.

 

Chambers Rankings 2011

On an individual note, it was nice to be recognized and ranked again individually by Chambers.

As gratifying as such recognitions are, the most important validation of what I have done over the past decade is the trust my clients have shown in me, seeking me out to partner on some of their most important and complex legal challenges involving products liability, mass torts, and class actions.

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Proposed Class Rep Not Adequate: Got Your Dates Straight?

A federal court in New Jersey last week joined the small but growing trend (call it a simmer not a boil) of courts putting some real meaning into the prerequisites to class certification found in Rule 23(a).  The court in Coyle v. Hornell Brewing Co., No. 1:08-cv-02797-JBS-JS (D.N.J. 2011) found that the factual inaccuracies and/or inconsistencies in the proposed class representative's testimony constituted fatal flaws under Rule 23(a)(4) requiring an adequate class representative.

Plaintiff alleged that she was misled by labels on bottles of Arizona brand beverages touting “All Natural” ingredients, and thereby induced into buying bottles of Arizona beverages that contained High Fructose Corn Syrup (“HFCS”), which she claimed is not “natural”. Plaintiff sought to certify, under Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(2), a class of consumers who purchased similarly labeled Arizona beverages that contained HFCS, seeking only declaratory and injunctive relief.  The underlying claims were based on the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“NJCFA”). [Full disclosure, we are partial to their Arizona Sports thirst-quenchers.]

The court denied plaintiff’s motion for class certification because she could not satisfy the adequacy requirement of Rule 23(a)(4).  The reasoning is instructive. During the course of discovery in this case, plaintiff produced a retainer agreement she signed in anticipation of this lawsuit. But, the agreement was signed on August 9, 2007, more than seven months before plaintiff alleged that she was first misled by defendants’ “all natural” labeling in her product purchase on March 30, 2008.  Indeed, plaintiff repeated the 3/08 purchase date in her deposition.

Problem. Solution? Nearly two months after her deposition, plaintiff produced a signed declaration that contradicted her deposition testimony (and prior answers to interrogatories and the allegations in both her original Complaint and subsequent Amended Complaints).  She now said she meant to claim the alleged purchase occurred in March, 2007 rather than on March 30, 2008. But she offers no explanation for why she had previously alleged the March 30, 2008 date in her Complaints and in certified answers to interrogatories.

The court noted that in the procedural posture, the substantive allegations of the complaint must be taken as true.  But class certification questions are sometimes enmeshed in the factual and legal issues comprising the plaintiff's cause of action, and courts may delve beyond the pleadings to determine whether the requirements for class certification are satisfied.  The Third Circuit calls for a “rigorous analysis”  of a motion to certify a class. In re Hydrogen Peroxide Antitrust Litig., 552 F.3d 305, 309 (3d Cir. 2008). Specifically, the district court must make findings that each Rule 23 requirement is met.  Id. at 310. Plaintiff has the burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence that she has met each and every element of Rule 23.

Rule 23(a)(4) seeks to ensure “that the representatives and their attorneys will competently, responsibly, and vigorously prosecute the suit and that the relationship of the representative parties’ interests to those of the class are such that there is not likely to be divergence in viewpoint or goals in the conduct of the suit.”  Bogosian v. Gulf Oil Corp., 561F.2d 434, 449 (3d Cir. 1977). On the subsidiary question whether the named plaintiff has interests antagonistic to those of the class, courts often have to evaluate attacks on the named plaintiff’s credibility.

Here, defendants argued that plaintiff’s inconsistent allegations and testimony regarding the date of her qualifying purchase of an Arizona product render her an inadequate class representative. See Friedman-Katz v. Lindt & Sprungli (USA), Inc., 270 F.R.D. 150, 159 (S.D.N.Y. 2010). Plaintiff  responded that, to the extent that defendant raised a problem of plaintiff’s credibility, such a credibility question is one for the jury to decide; it would be improper for the court to make a credibility determination, on the factual dispute of when plaintiff last purchased an Arizona product, at this certification stage of the litigation.  However, the court properly recognized it had an independent obligation at the class certification stage to make findings on whether the named plaintiff satisfied each of the Rule 23 elements. The court thus had an obligation to look at whether the credibility problems raised by plaintiff’s contradictory testimony and subsequent declaration rendered her an inadequate class representative.

The court observed that it need not find plaintiff to have intentionally lied to hold that she does not meet the adequacy element of Rule 23(a)(4). The issue was not simply whether plaintiff in fact lied, but whether her inconsistent testimony makes her vulnerable to a unique factual or legal defense not faced by other class members, thereby rendering her interests potentially too antagonistic to the interests of the other class members.  And that is exactly the case; the court found that plaintiff’s factual inconsistencies raised sufficiently grave credibility problems as to prevent her from serving as an adequate class representative.

First, she filed three separate Complaints alleging with specificity that she was misled by  defendants’ labeling when she first purchased an Arizona beverage in March, 2008, but she had retained an attorney on this issue seven months previously.  She repeated these claims in at least two answers to interrogatories, assisted by counsel, and again repeated the claim in her  deposition, even after being confronted with the apparent inconsistency of such a claim. Her subsequent declaration, in which she attempted to “clarify” the time-line in her deposition, did not explain how she had repeatedly asserted the incorrect date in her Complaints and discovery answers.  This level of inconsistency logically demonstrated either (1) an effort to disguise the fact that she did purchase the Arizona beverage in 2008 as alleged, but for the sole purpose of bringing the lawsuit she had already hired a lawyer for, or (2) a significant carelessness about the specific highly material facts she has alleged in the case, said the court.

Under either scenario, the court would find that plaintiff was not an adequate class representative.  Were she to be a class representative, she would be required to address defendants’ argument that she made her only documented purchase of Arizona iced tea in March of 2008 solely for the purpose of bringing the instant lawsuit and therefore suffered no ascertainable loss. This argument would divert attention from the substance of the claims advanced on behalf of the class.  That would risk that the class could fail in its claim because its representative was unable to prove she made a qualifying purchase, noted the court.

Finally, the court found, as an alternative basis to deny class certification, that plaintiff’s counsel’s adequacy was also brought into question through the existence of these material discrepancies. Under the "most charitable interpretation" of these facts, counsel submitted three separate Complaints to the court alleging an incorrect date of purchase, at least two answers to interrogatories repeating the same purportedly incorrect purchase date. The court thought that was insufficient attention to detail to show the ability to effectively represent the interests of a class.

 

Third Circuit Upholds Exclusion of Plaintiff's Causation Expert

The Third Circuit last week affirmed the exclusion of expert testimony in a toxic tort suit in which plaintiff alleged defendants' insecticide products gave him non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Pritchard v. Dow AgroSciences, et al., No.10-2168 (3d Cir. 2011).

Plaintiff claimed that he contracted cancer from a pesticide produced by defendant Dow AgroSciences. His wife claimed to have suffered derivative injuries. In support of their complaint, the Pritchards solicited the expert testimony of Dr. Bennet I. Omalu, who provided the District Court with a report and, later, a declaration, stating that Dursban caused the cancer.  Although the trial court found Dr. Omalu to be a qualified expert, it ruled (on Dow's motion) that his proposed testimony was unreliable and therefore inadmissible at trial under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993). The exclusion of Dr. Omalu's testimony doomed the lawsuit, because plaintiffs had no other evidence of causation.  Plaintiffs appealed.

The appeal tried to raise the issues surrounding the intersection of federal law, rules of evidence underlying Daubert, and state law, which supplies the elements of a claim (including causation) in a diversity case. Plaintiffs argued that in the course of finding that Dr. Omalu's testimony was unreliable, the District Court erroneously relied on principles that were supposedly at odds with state (Pennsylvania) substantive law governing the level of certainty required to establish causation, having to do with idiopathic disease and epidemiological studies.

It is true that the trial court noted that Dr. Omalu did not rule out unknown or idiopathic causes; that the court considered the fact that the epidemiological study on which the doctor wished to rely showed only a relative risk of 2.0; and that the court observed that the proposed testimony was not grounded in science as Dr. Omalu has not presented any statistically significant evidence showing an association between the chemical agent at issue and non-Hodgkins lymphoma. See Pritchard v. Dow Agro Sciences, 705 F. Supp. 2d 471, 492, 486, 493 (W.D. Pa. 2010).

However, the trial court considered these factors among “a host of other deficiencies,” as components of a determination that the proffered testimony failed to satisfy the admissibility standard. The trial court did not adopt any bright-line rules, but instead evaluated the plaintiffs' proffer using a flexible approach as directed by the Court of Appeals in Heller v. Shaw Industries, 167 F.3d 146 (3d Cir. 1999).  This was an evidentiary ruling, separate and distinct from any substantive question regarding causation (which the court never had reason to reach).

Plaintiffs also argued that the court had engaged in some kind of improper balancing of plaintiffs' scientific evidence vs. defendants'. But the district court engaged in no such balancing. Instead, it rightly concluded that Dr. Omalu's proposed testimony was unreliable due to numerous cracks in its scientific foundation.  He cited only one specific study in support of his general causation conclusion that Dursban causes cancer — and in fact, he relied not on the study itself but on his own reinterpretation of the study's findings using a lower confidence interval. (That is, he recalculated the study's conclusions so as to serve plaintiff's litigation needs, said the court.)   Moreover, the plaintiffs offered no clear explanation of the methods through which he recalculated the study's results, leaving the court unable to evaluate the reliability of his methodology.

And the expert's specific causation conclusion that Dursban had caused Mr. Pritchard's illness was not supported by evidence in the medical records, discovery responses, deposition testimony, application records, or any other information regarding Mr. Pritchard's exposure to pesticides.  Significantly, Dr. Omalu also failed to adequately address possible alternative causes of the cancer.

Accordingly, the trial committed no error in excluding the expert testimony, and in the absence of proof of causation, the case was properly dismissed. Affirmed.

 

Plaintiffs Attacking Fiji's Green Water Sing the Blues

A California appeals court last week affirmed the dismissal of a putative class action in which plaintiffs accused Fiji Water Co. LLC of improperly promoting its bottled water. Ayana Hill v. Roll International Corp. et al., No. A128698 (Cal. Ct. Appeal, 1st Appellate District).

Plaintiff  Hill alleged she bought bottles of Fiji water, on the label of which was a green drop; she claimed that the drop somehow represented Fiji bottled water was environmentally superior to other waters and endorsed by an environmental organization. Hill filed a proposed class action on behalf of herself and other consumers of Fiji bottled water, asserting violations of California‚Äüs Unfair Competition Law (UCL) (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17200 et seq.), False Advertising Law (FAL) (§ 17500 et seq.), and Consumers Legal Remedies Act (CLRA) (Civ. Code, § 1750 et seq.), plus common law fraud and unjust enrichment.

Readers know that the term “green” is commonly used to describe the environmentally friendly aspects of products, and that concerned about over-use of such terms, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued standards known as “Green Guides” to describe the appropriate use of such labeling. The Federal Trade Commission last Fall proposed revisions to the guidance that it gives marketers to help them avoid making misleading environmental claims. The proposed changes were designed to update the Guides and make them easier for companies to understand and use.  The changes to the Green Guides included new guidance on marketers’ use of product certifications and seals of approval, “renewable energy” claims, “renewable materials” claims, and “carbon offset” claims.

Because the guides are not legislative rules under Section 18 of the FTC Act, they are not themselves enforceable regulations, nor do they have the force and effect of law. They consist of general principles, followed by nonexclusive specific examples, and are intended to provide a safe harbor for marketers who want certainty about how to make environmental claims. However, a few states, such as California, have incorporated the FTC guides into their consumer fraud (here CLRA) definition of environmental marketing claims.  

Hill's personal allegations were that, starting in 2008, she bought Fiji water about twice a week from Walgreens stores in San Francisco, relying on  these alleged representations that the product was “environmentally friendly and superior.” She would not have bought Fiji water had she supposedly known the truth that the Green Drop was the creation of defendants, not a neutral party or environmental group. Defendants accomplish this supposed elaborate "deception” through conspicuous placement of the Green Drop on the front of the product to allegedly look similar to environmental seals of approval.  Further, plaintiff complained  that in their packaging and marketing, defendants have “called their product FijiGreen” and, in stores and other public places, stated that "Every Drop is Green.” 

The trial court dismissed the claims, and plaintiff appealed.  In that posture, the court assumed that Hill actually was, as she claims, misled in the context to believe that the green drop symbol on Fiji water was a seal implicitly indicating approval by a third party organization, and thus believed that the Fiji product was environmentally superior to competitors' bottled water.

The problem was that Hill's beliefs, asserted and even assumed, do not satisfy the reasonable consumer standard, as expressed in the FTC guides (16 C.F.R. § 260.7(a) (2011) [material implied claims conveyed “to reasonable consumers”]) and as used in California's consumer laws. The court of appeals emphasized that the standard is not a least sophisticated consumer, nor the unwary consumer , but the ordinary consumer within the larger population.  Importantly, the court noted that "it follows, in these days of inevitable and readily available Internet criticism and suspicion of virtually any corporate enterprise, that a reasonable consumer also does not include one who is overly suspicious."  How true that is.

So, does the green drop on Fiji water bottles convey to a reasonable consumer in the circumstances that the product is endorsed for environmental superiority by a third party organization? No, said the court. The drop itself bears no name or recognized logo of any group, much less a third party organization, no trademark symbol, and no other indication that it is anything but a symbol of Fiji water.  The water has just a green drop, the drop being the most logical icon for this particular product—water.  And for context, a green drop on the back of every bottle appears right next to the website name, “fijigreen.com,” further confirming to a reasonable consumer that the green drop symbol is by Fiji water, not an independent third party organization—and, of course, inviting consumers to visit the website, where Fiji Water's explains its  environmental efforts.

Plaintiff asked the court of appeals to reverse the the trial court's denial of leave to amend, claiming that any defects in the complaint could be cured by amendment. But Hill's saying so "does not make it so," and it was her burden to show how she might amend to cure the deficiencies. She did not. Dismissal without leave affirmed.


 

Supreme Court Declines to Clarify Tolling Effect of Mass Tort Class Actions

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court declined to take a case raising the tricky issues of cross-jurisdictional class action tolling.  Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp. v. Stevens, No. 10-1196 (U.S., certiorari denied 5/31/11).

The question presented in the cert petition was whether was whether tolling the statute  of limitations for individual claimants based on the pendency of a mass personal injury class action violates fundamental federal due process protections where the class action provides no notice to a defendant of the identity of unnamed class members, thus absolutely precluding the timely preservation of evidence and testimony critical to presenting an effective defense.

Defendant/petitioner has been involved for several years in litigation claiming that the drug Zometa is linked to osteonecrosis of the jaw or “ONJ.”  Plaintiff below obtained a jury verdict on such a claim, affirmed by the Montana Supreme Court . 358 Mont. 474, 247 P.3d 244 (2010). The sole aspect of the Montana Supreme Court’s opinion at issue here was its ruling that the pendency of a never-certified federal class action on ONJ acts to resurrect respondent’s otherwise time-barred personal injury claims. The Montana Supreme Court determined as a matter of first impression in Montana that federal class action tolling should apply to render timely respondent’s complaint against petitioner. The Montana court noted that the concept of federal class action tolling was articulated by the Supreme Court in American Pipe & Construction Co. v. Utah, 414 U.S. 538 (1974). In American Pipe, the Court held that in some contexts, the commencement of the class action suit satisfied the purpose of the limitation provision as to all those who might subsequently participate in the suit as well as for the named plaintiffs. One reason was concerns of judicial economy, as a contrary holding might invite a multiplicity of activity that the federal rules of procedure were designed to avoid, as individual plaintiffs would be forced to file preventative motions to join or intervene as parties if the class action status was still pending at the expiration of the statute of limitations.

The problem is that in the specific context of a personal injury mass tort, the application of American Pipe federal class action tolling seems to infringe on a defendant’s ability to defend itself -- in violation of due process principles. Suspending statutes of limitation indefinitely for all purported members of the kinds of  “worldwide” classes we see of personal injury plaintiffs, based on nothing more than the filing a Rule 23 federal class action, introduces systemic unfairness to defendants. 

A  pharmaceutical personal injury case may be an especially poor vehicle for federal class action tolling. Virtually no pharmaceutical personal injury class action has been certified over opposition and survived appeal in the federal system for a decade now. See, e.g., Jolly v. Eli Lilly & Co., 751 P.2d 923, 933-38 (Cal. 1988) (en banc) (rejecting tolling due to pending personal injury class action because such torts are not susceptible to class action certification). Tolling individual  actions based on a pending personal injury class action renders limitations periods impermissibly uncertain and invites unnecessary litigation by giving plaintiffs’ counsel everywhere an incentive to add putative class relief to every federal complaint just to toll statutes of limitations to the benefit of unknown future plaintiffs -- knowing there will never be a certified class.  Some lower courts have thus concluded that class action tolling should not be applied in the mass tort context unless the defendant had actual notice of the identities of unnamed class members.

Petitioner argued that tolling the limitations period for all purported members of the class during the pendency of class certification proceedings – which in a mass class action can take years – creates an unacceptable risk that by the time the claims of unnamed individuals are adjudicated, evidence critical to defending claims of that individual plaintiff will have been lost.  Issues relating to exposures, learned intermediaries, concurrent risk factors, specific (as opposed to general) causation, proximate causation regarding warnings, and assumption of the risk, all involve evidence that can be both peculiar to the individual plaintiff, and turn out to be the central evidence in the action.

Perhaps because of unique procedural issues below (involving fictitious parties), however, the Court passed on the opportunity to address these serious issues.