Update on Mass Tort Rules in Busy Court

We posted before about potentially important changes in the administrative rules for Philadelphia's busy mass tort system.  General Court Regulation No. 2012-01 represented the first general overhaul of the Complex Litigation Center’s practices in many years. The order was designed to revise and streamline the conduct of mass tort litigation in Philadelphia in a number of ways.  The order noted the pronounced upward trend in mass tort filings in this court, and the fact that the court’s disposition rate had not kept pace with filings; thus, a significant backlog developed. The order noted the impact of past policy which invited the filing of cases from other jurisdictions. A "dramatic increase in these filings" occurred after the court’s leadership invited claims from other jurisdictions.

In a recent report to the mass tort bar, Administrative Judge Herron of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas noted a significant percent reduction in mass tort filings from 2011 to 2012. There were 70% fewer filings in 2012 than 2011.  The overall inventory of mass tort cases declined by about 12%. Out-of-state filings declined slightly by percentage, and discovery disputes also declined, while settlement activity reportedly increased. The court thus indicated that the revised protocols would be continued.

While there are a number of factors that could impact filing rates, the decline in filings is significant, and it is hard to escape the conclusion that new protocols must have had some impact.  Judge Herron labeled the changes an "exceptional result" leading to a much more manageable number for the court.  Of the 2012 filings, 489 were pharmaceutical cases and 327 were asbestos, according to the court statistics. 

The court also disposed of more cases than new cases were filed, contributing to the decease in inventory. The new protocols encourage mediation of cases before former state and federal judges.

 

 

Advisory Board

Your humble blogger is pleased to note that Law360 has announced the formation of its 2013 Product Liability editorial advisory board. Yours truly was named to the editorial advisory board for Law360 Product Liability.  

The purpose of the editorial advisory board is to offer ideas and feedback on Law360's coverage and to offer insight on how the publication can best shape future coverage to serve readers.  Happy to try to help fellow practitioners through this forum as well as here at MassTortDefense.

 

Tags:

Class Denied in Credit Card Claim

A federal court in California last week denied certification of  a proposed class of Nike store customers. Gormley v. Nike Inc., No. C-11-893-SI, (N.D. Cal., 1/28/13).  The issue, interestingly, was typicality.

Plaintiffs in these consolidated cases brought putative class actions on behalf of themselves
and a class of consumers, alleging that defendants violated the Song-Beverly Credit Card Act of 1971, by requesting and recording the ZIP codes of credit card customers through Nike’s “Information Capture Policy.”  Plaintiffs alleged that Nike implemented and maintained a policy whereby its cashiers were trained to follow the “EPOC manual” under which cashiers were prompted with a pop-up box on their screen to enter the customer’s ZIP code. The screen on the sales register that allowed the cashier to input a customer’s ZIP code did not appear until after the credit card was authorized and the receipt was printing. If a customer declined to provide a ZIP
code, Nike’s cashiers entered any alphanumeric combination.  In support of class certification, plaintiffs submitted evidence that, during the class period, Nike’s ZIP code request policy was allegedly implemented at every Nike retail store in California, and ZIP codes were requested and recorded during approximately 561,179 transactions.

The plaintiffs sought to represent a class of all those consumers who Nike requested a ZIP code from in conjunction with a credit card transaction in a retail store in California from February 24, 2010, to February 24, 2011.  Defendants raised a number of arguments against class certification, including noting that the proposed class definition appeared to be "fail-safe."  But the issue that the court focused on was typicality. Rule 23(a)(3) requires the named plaintiffs to show that their claims are typical of those of the class. To satisfy this requirement, the named plaintiffs must be members of the class and must possess the same interest and suffer the same injury as the class members. Gen. Tel. Co. of Sw. v. Falcon, 457 U.S. 147, 156 (1982). The typicality requirement may be satisfied when each class member’s claim arises from the same course of events, and each class member makes similar legal arguments to prove the defendant’s liability. Rodriguez v. Hayes, 591 F.3d 1105, 1124 (9th Cir. 2010).

Although in the past many courts have found the typicality requirement is not stringent, the court here followed the recent trend, and held that plaintiffs had not demonstrated that they were typical of the class they seek to represent. The consolidated complaint challenged Nike’s “Information Capture Policy,” and yet all of the named plaintiffs testified that their experiences were not fully consistent with that policy. For example, some testified that cashiers asked them for their ZIP codes before providing them with their receipts and merchandise. However, under the Nike policy that is the subject of this lawsuit, cashiers were prompted to request ZIP codes after giving customers their receipts and merchandise.   The court read the governing statute as prohibiting merchants from requesting personal identification information as a condition precedent to accepting payment by a credit card,  Thus, as the legality of Nike’s policy depends on whether a consumer would perceive the store’s request for a ZIP code as a condition of the use of a credit card, the timing of that request is clearly relevant.

Accordingly, the Court found that the named plaintiffs were not typical of the class they seek to
represent, and denied class certification on this ground.

Class Claim Against Crock-Pot Seems a Crock

There was an era in television that featured lots of made-for-TV "sporting events," like Battle of the Network Stars, that were popular with some viewers, but not really sports.  That is the world of consumer fraud class actions today, popular with some lawyers but very little deception of consumers going on.

A federal court last month dismissed proposed consumer class action claims against the  manufacturer of the Crock-Pot.  See Rice v. Sunbeam Products Inc., No. CV 12-7923-CAS (C.D. Cal., 1/07/13).

Plaintiff alleged that the Crock-Pot, a slow-cooking kitchen device sold on-line by the manufacturer direct to consumers and through various retailers of household goods, posed an unreasonable risk of burns, fires, and other related injuries to consumers when used as intended, asserting claims under the state Consumer Legal Remedies Act, Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1750, et seq. (“CLRA”);  the California Unfair Competition Law, Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17200 et seq. (“UCL”); the California False Advertising Law, Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17500 et seq. (“FAL”); and various common law claims.

The device's accompanying Owner’s Manual recommended cooking times between one hour and nine hours using one of the device’s three temperature settings. After purchase, with the device slow cooking plaintiff’s meal, she allegedly reached across her counter to grab an item next to the Crock-Pot. As she was doing so, she allegedly suffered a burn on her wrist due to the high temperature of the stainless steel exterior of the Crock-Pot. Plaintiff alleged that the placement of the heating components in the device created high temperatures on the exposed stainless steel part of the Crock-Pot, which in turn created an unreasonable risk of harm to consumers. Plaintiff brought this putative class action suit on behalf of herself and all other persons who purchased a Crock-Pot during the last four years from defendant’s website or an authorized retail store located in the State of California. Defendant moved to dismiss. 

Although only part of the Court's analysis, let me point out what is wrong with these kinds of all too common claims: the Owner’s Manual mentioned six times that the device becomes hot during cooking and the Owner’s Guide instructs the user to place the Crock-Pot at least six inches from other items and surfaces while in use because it gets hot.  But the class was surprised that it might burn them?

The CLRA prohibits a variety of “unfair or deceptive acts” in the sale of goods or services to a consumer. Cal. Civ. Code § 1770(a). This includes the use of “deceptive representations” in connection with the sale of goods or “representing that goods. . . have characteristics, ingredients, uses, [or] benefits. . . which they do not have. . . .” Id. § 1770(a)(4), (5). California courts have interpreted the CLRA to also proscribe fraudulent omissions in limited circumstances: “the omission must be contrary to a representation actually made by the defendant, or an omission of a fact the defendant was obliged to disclose.” Daugherty v. Am. Honda Motor Co., Inc., 144 Cal. App. 4th 824, 835 (2006). Relevant here, a duty to disclose arises where the defendant “had exclusive knowledge of material facts not known to the plaintiff” or “actively conceals a material fact from the plaintiff.” In re Toyota Motor Corp. Unintended Acceleration Mktg., Sales Practices, & Products Liab. Litig., 754 F. Supp. 2d 1145, 1172–73 (C.D. Cal. 2010); see also Ehrlich v. BMW of N. Am., LLC, 801 F. Supp. 2d 908, 916 (C.D. Cal. 2010) .

Here, defendant allegedly failed to disclose that the exposed stainless steel base of the Crock-Pot allegedly reaches dangerously hot temperatures, higher than comparable home kitchen appliances.  Plaintiff alleged that despite the fact that defendant advertised the Crock-Pot for “household use only,” the external surface of the device reaches temperatures that are appropriate only for commercial kitchens.  Defendant argued that the representation that it is for “household use only” would not deceive a reasonable consumer into believing that the base of the device would not reach temperatures that could cause burns during normal use. The Crock-Pot becomes hot regardless of whether or not a consumer supervises it. Defendant further argued that because
it made no representations about the surface temperature of the Crock-Pot, such that plaintiff cannot state a claim on the basis of an omission “contrary” to a claim actually made by defendant. In support of this contention, defendant noted the six times in the Owner’s Manual where it  disclosed that the device becomes hot during cooking.

The Court concluded that plaintiff failed to state an actionable claim under the CLRA under either a representation or omission-based theory. Most problematically, plaintiff failed to allege with the requisite particularity several of the representations she and other consumers reasonably relied on in making their purchasing decisions. Moreover, even putting to one side the pleading deficiencies, the Court was unconvinced that plaintiff was pleading actionable representations—a plaintiff must allege a plausible interpretation of a representation that defendant actually made to state a claim under the CLRA, based on the perspective of a reasonable consumer in the marketplace. Here, plaintiff did not plausibly allege that a reasonable consumer would be deceived by any of the alleged representations. The Court was unable to discern how a reasonable consumer would understand a statement regarding “all day cooking” to be a representation regarding the temperature of the exterior of the Crock-Pot. Second, plaintiff’s argument with respect to the alleged “safe for household use” representation was also unconvincing. Plaintiff failed to explain how an instruction regarding the use of a cooking device in the home is deceptive to a reasonable consumer with respect to the temperature that this cooking device allegedly reaches while cooking. In fact, the Owner’s Guide instructs the user to place the Crock-Pot at least six inches from other items and surfaces while in use, among other cautionary statements. For these reasons, the Court concluded that plaintiff failed to adequately plead a misrepresentation under the CLRA.

Plaintiff alleged that defendant violated the UCL by (1) failing to disclose the unreasonably hot surface temperatures the Crock-Pot attains during cooking; (2) failing to provide warnings on the device itself; (3) misrepresenting the Crock-Pot’s safety for household use; and (4) continuing
to market the device after receiving notice of the purported defect. However, plaintiff failed to adequately allege that defendant had knowledge of a defect that needed to be remedied.  In addition, plaintiff offered no factual support for her allegation that defendant’s conduct causes harm to consumers that “greatly outweighs any benefits” associated with the sale of its Crock-Pot in the marketplace. Plaintiff’s conclusory allegation failed to state a claim based upon alleged unfair conduct.  Accordingly, the Court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s UCL claim.

To plead a claim under the FAL, a plaintiff must allege that a defendant publicly disseminated advertising that false or misleading, and which the defendant knew or reasonably should have known was untrue or misleading. Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17500. As with the CLRA, the perspective of a reasonable consumer is the standard by which an advertisement is measured. See Paduano v. Am. Honda Motor Co., Inc., 169 Cal. App. 4th 1453, 1497–98 (2009). The Court found that the alleged representations that plaintiff purported to rely on in support of its FAL  claim were not actionable nor pleaded with sufficient particularity. As noted, plaintiff failed to adequately allege defendant’s knowledge of the purported defect. Courts that have considered the
issue have required that a plaintiff allege in far greater factual detail the basis for a claim that defendant had knowledge of a defect or the falsity of its statements. Vaguely alleging awareness of customer complaints, without any factual detail, does not suffice to demonstrate that defendant should have known about the falsity of its alleged representations.  Accordingly, the Court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s claim under the FAL.
 

Finally, the warranty claims were dismissed because the plaintiff failed to avail herself of the remedy provided for in the warranty, the return of the allegedly defective Crock-Pot.   Moreover, her warranty allegations rested on the alleged representations that the Crock-Pot was “safe and fit for household use,“ which were insufficient to create an express warranty under California law.