Summary Judgment for Defendant in Heater Case

A federal court granted defendant summary judgment in a products case alleging that a  propane heater that exploded was responsible for plaintiff's husband's death.  See Ayala v. Gabriel Building Supply, No. 2:12-cv-00577 (E.D. La., 4/26/13).

Plaintiff filed a wrongful death and survival action in state court. Defendants removed the matter and the federal court dismissed plaintiff's claims for negligence, strict liability, and manufacture of an ultra hazardous project, holding that plaintiff's theories of recovery are limited to the Louisiana Products and Liability Act ("LPLA").  Under Louisiana law, the LPLA provides the exclusive remedy against manufacturers in a products liability action. Demahy v. Schwarz Pharma, Inc., 702 F.3d 177, 182 (5th Cir. 2012). To maintain a successful action under the LPLA, a plaintiff must prove: "(1) that the defendant is a manufacturer of the product; (2) that the claimant's damage was proximately caused by a characteristic of the product; (3) that this characteristic made the product 'unreasonably dangerous'; and (4) that the claimant's damage arose from a reasonably anticipated use of the product . . . . " Stahl v. Novartis Pharms. Corp., 283 F.3d 254, 261 (5th Cir. 2002). 

Defendants then moved for summary judgment on the basis that the subject heater was not "unreasonably dangerous" under the LPLA. A product can be "unreasonably dangerous" in four ways: (i) in construction or composition; (ii) in design; (iii) for failure to provide an adequate warning; and (iv) for failure to conform to an express warranty.

One of plaintiff's claims was design defect.  A product is unreasonably dangerous in design if, at the time the product left the manufacturer's control:
(1) There existed an alternative design for the product that was capable of preventing the claimant's damage; and
(2) The likelihood that the product's design would cause the claimant's damage and the gravity of that damage outweighed the burden on the manufacturer of adopting such alternative design and the adverse effect, if any, of such alternative design on the utility of the product La. Rev. Stat. § 9:2800.56.

Plaintiff failed to present any credible evidence that an alternative design existed that could have prevented plaintiff's injuries. And there was no evidence regarding the burden of adopting the design and
any adverse effect on the utility of the heater. Given the foregoing, plaintiff could not prove that the
subject heater was unreasonably dangerous in design.

To prevail under the manufacturing defect (construction or composition theory), Louisiana courts require the plaintiff to (i) set forth the manufacturer's specifications for the product and (ii) demonstrate how
the product materially deviated from those standards so as to render it unreasonably dangerous. Roman v. W. Mfg, Inc., 691 F.3d 686, 698 (5th Cir. 2012). Plaintiff's expert opined that the most probable cause of the fire and the injuries was a propane leak in the subject heater. However, since all non‐ferrous components of the subject heater melted in the fire, he based his opinion on an examination of another heater.  He conceded that there was no evidence to suggest the subject heater itself was defective. In fact, the expert admitted that he could not conclusively rule out other potential sources of a propane leak, such as a faulty propane tank or plaintiff's failure to properly secure the fitting.  That didn't meet the burden.

To maintain a failure‐to‐warn claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the product possessed a characteristic that may cause damage and the manufacturer failed to use reasonable care to provide an adequate warning of such characteristic and its danger to users of the product. Stahl, 283 F.3d at 261. In all cases, however, a manufacture is liable for inadequate warning only if such defect was a proximate cause of the plaintiff's injury. Peart v. Dorel Juvenile Grp., Inc., No. 09–7463, 2011 WL 1336563, at *3 (E.D. La. Apr. 7, 2011).  In addition to proving causation in fact, a plaintiff must also demonstrate that the inadequate warning was the most probable cause of his injury. See Wheat v. Pfizer, Inc., 31 F.3d 340, 342 (5th Cir. 1994). Here, Plaintiff failed to meet this burden of establishing causation. Indeed, Plaintiff's expert failed to adequately support a defect, as above, and offered nothing credible to establish a causal connection between the alleged failure to provide an adequate warning and plaintiff's injury.

 

 

Hearing Questions EPA Stance on Fracking

The House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment held a hearing earlier this week to review federal hydraulic fracturing research activities. The hearing examined research activities by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Interior (DOI) in an inter-agency effort to “address the highest priority challenges” related to the production of domestic unconventional oil and natural gas resources.  Readers may recall we have posted about fracking issues before. 

Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) noted a widely publicized handful of unsubstantiated charges that fracking pollutes ground water; the EPA is at the center of this debate, linking fracking to water contamination in at least three cases, only to be forced to retract their statements after further scrutiny.

Members questioned administration witnesses on the objectives of the interagency initiative as they relate to the administration’s regulatory intentions and track record of unsubstantiated attacks on the safety of hydraulic fracturing.  

Witnesses included:

Dr. Kevin Teichman, Senior Science Advisor, Office of Research and Development, Environmental Protection Agency
Mr. Guido DeHoratiis, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Oil and Gas, Office of Fossil Energy, Department of Energy
Dr. David Russ, Regional Executive, Northeast Area, U.S. Geological Survey
Dr. Robin Ikeda, Acting Director, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Department of Health and Human Services

The hearing also noted the administration’s interagency working group had committed to release a draft of their research plan by October 2012 and complete the final plan by January 2013. The Administration has yet to even release a draft for public comment. 

Energy Subcommittee Chairman Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) noted that her home state of Wyoming is at the center of this issue since the EPA put it in the national spotlight with a “draft” report implying that fracking was somehow responsible for the quality of the water. However, in the days and weeks that followed this announcement, the State of Wyoming, industry, and other federal agencies exposed EPA’s study as deeply flawed.

Environment Subcommittee Chairman Chris Stewart noted that largely as a result of the expanded use of cheap natural gas from 2005 to 2011, the U.S. has decreased its carbon dioxide output more than any other nation, including those countries that have implemented aggressive green energy agendas, such as Germany and Spain.  It is perhaps ironic that many of the most passionate advocates for action on climate change also oppose fracking.

Consumer Fraud Claims Denied; Class Decertified

A federal court ruled recently for defendant in a proposed class action about the labeling of an iced tea product. See Ries v. Arizona Beverages USA LLC, No. 10-01139 (N.D. Cal., 3/28/13).

We have posted before about plaintiffs' efforts to manufacture consumer fraud class actions out of any aspect of a product label or marketing. Here, plaintiffs brought a class action challenge defendants’ advertising, marketing, selling, and distribution of AriZona Iced Tea beverages labeled “All Natural,” “100% Natural,” and “Natural” because they allegedly contained high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and citric acid. Problem turns out, plaintiffs could muster no proof the marketing was false.

The Complaint set forth six California state law claims for relief: under the False Advertising Law (FAL) for (1) misleading and deceptive advertising, and (2) untrue advertising; under the Unfair Competition Law (UCL), for (3) unlawful, (4) unfair, and (5) fraudulent business practices; and (6) under the Consumers Legal Remedies Act (CLRA), for injunctive and declarative relief.

The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment and plaintiffs filed a motion for class certification. The court initially certified the class under Rule 23(b)(2) for purposes of injunctive and declaratory relief only. At the close of discovery, defendants made a renewed motion for summary judgment, reviving their argument that the named plaintiffs could not support their claims, and had failed to meet their evidentiary burden of showing that defendants’ beverage labeling practices were unfair or misleading. Defendants further moved for decertification of the class.

The court noted that factual predicate for each of plaintiffs’ claims was that the beverages were falsely labeled as “all natural” despite allegedly containing HFCS and citric acid. So plaintiffs had to show that HFCS and citric acid are indeed not natural; and also that accordingly they were entitled to restitution. In their opposition to the motion for summary judgment, plaintiffs did not offer any credible evidence that HFCS is artificial and thus rendered the beverage not natural.  But plaintiffs had no credible evidence, relying primarily on the fact the ingredients were allegedly patented.  But they cited no legal authority supporting their contention that if the process to produce an ingredient is patented, that fact, in and of itself, automatically renders it artificial and no natural. This was, the court observed, merely an extension of their rhetoric that HFCS is artificial because it “cannot be grown in a garden or field, it cannot be plucked from a tree, and it cannot be found in the oceans or seas of this planet.”  The deposition testimony they cited, even when read in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, did not satisfy their evidentiary burden. It certainly did not demonstrate that it is probable that a significant portion of the consuming public could be confused by the “all natural” labeling of defendants’ products. Rather than showing that defendants were attempting to engage in unfair competition by capitalizing on any such confusion, the testimony indicated that everything in the beverages is natural, and that defendants even included labels specifying that they contain all natural tea without preservatives, artificial color, and artificial flavor to clarify that to theoretically confused customers.

On the restitution issue, the court noted there must be evidence that supports the amount of restitution necessary to restore to the plaintiff, meaning the difference between what the plaintiff paid and the value of what the plaintiff received.  Plaintiffs had no such evidence to support their prayer for restitution and disgorgement. Plaintiffs offered not a scintilla of evidence from which a finder of fact could determine the amount of restitution or disgorgement to which plaintiffs might be entitled if this case were to proceed to trial. This failure alone provided an independent and sufficient basis to grant defendants summary judgment.  

The court also found that plaintiffs' failures undermined the finding of adequacy of representation under Rule 23(a)(4). The class was therefore decertified. One wonders why it was certified in the first place.


The class was decertified, the motion for summary judgment was granted, and a motion to exclude expert opinion testimony was denied as moot.

Discovery of Expert Communications At Issue

 Here is one to watch for our readers who practice in Pennsylvania.  The state Supreme Court has before it the issue of discovery of communications between lawyers and their expert witnesses. See Carl Barrick v. Holy Spirit Hospital of the Sisters of Christian Charity, et al., No. 76 MAP 2012 (S.Ct. Pa.).

Barrick filed suit against Holy Spirit Hospital and Sodexho Management Inc. alleging personal injuries in the cafeteria of Holy Spirit Hospital.  An orthopedic surgeon who treated Barrick for injuries sustained from the accident was also named as an expert witness.  One of the defendants subpoenaed Barrick’s medical chart and other records, but the Doctor's medical center withheld some records which allegedly were trial preparation materials under Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure.

The defendant filed a motion to compel, and after the trial court conducted an in camera review, the court ordered the release of the materials to the defendants.  This was in line with some state cases that suggested work product protections in Pennsylvania are not as strong as under the federal rules. The plaintiff appealed, and a panel of the Superior Court upheld the ruling in 2010. The issue was then reconsidered by the Superior Court sitting en banc, which ruled that the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure did not compel the disclosure of such communications between attorneys and their expert witnesses. Arguably this ruling offered more protection than the federal rules do.  It also made an interesting contrast with Rule 4003.5 which, upon cause shown, gives state courts some ability to compel experts to do more than the basic response to interrogatories regarding their anticipated testimony at trial.

The 8-1 majority reasoned that Pa.R.C.P. 4003.5 controls discovery regarding expert testimony, and it specifies that a party cannot directly serve discovery requests upon a non-party expert witness. Discovery regarding testimony of an expert other than through a defined set of interrogatories must be made upon the showing of good cause to the court, not through a subpoena. Here, the correspondence sought by the defendant did not fall into the area of interrogatory permitted under Rule 4003.5(a)(1).  

Following the en banc ruling, defendants appealed.  The issue before the supreme court now is whether the superior court’s holding “improperly provides absolute work-product protection to all communications between a party’s counsel and their trial expert.”

No Purchase, No Standing

Earlier this month a federal court reaffirmed that a named class representative in a proposed consumer class action against Ghirardelli Chocolate Co. lacked standing to assert claims about products he never bought. See Miller v. Ghirardelli Chocolate Co., No. 12-04936 (N.D. Cal. 4/5/13). We have posted before about plaintiffs overreaching in consumer fraud class actions. If a tree falls and no one is there, does it make a sound? If you never bought and used a product, how can you bring a “consumer” claim?

Plaintiff Scott Miller allegedly bought a package of “Ghirardelli® Chocolate Premium Baking Chips –Classic White” and then, on behalf of himself and other consumers, sued the Ghirardelli
Chocolate Company, complaining that defendant somehow deceived customers into thinking that this and four other products contained “artificial” or “imitation” ingredients, in violation of United States Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) and state regulations.

Readers may know that Ghirardelli is one of America’s longest continuously operating chocolate manufacturers (more than 150 years) and that it is one of very few American manufacturers that make chocolate starting from the cocoa bean through to finished products. Ghirardelli accepts
only the highest-quality beans, rejecting as many as 30% of the beans that are offered it. Ghirardelli roasts the cocoa beans in-house to ensure the company’s signature flavor profile is consistently maintained in all chocolate products.

Miller filed suit in San Francisco County Superior Court, and Ghirardelli removed to federal
court and moved to dismiss the complaint. The court initially agreed that Miller lacked standing for products he had not purchased. At oral argument, however, plaintiff argued that the branding on the label meant that – under the FDA regulations and standards – the alleged harm was identical across product lines, and that established standing as to products he never used. Miller filed an amended complaint and Ghirardelli again moved to dismiss.

Hard as it may be to believe, there are a few cases that suggest that a plaintiff who does not purchase a product nonetheless may have standing if the products and alleged misrepresentations were substantially similar. E.g., Astiana v. Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, Inc., No. C-11-2910 EMC, 2012 WL 2990766, at *11 (N.D. Cal. July 20, 2012). But certainly where the alleged misrepresentations or accused products are dissimilar, courts tend to dismiss claims to the extent they are based on products not purchased. E.g., Larsen v. Trader Joe’s Co., No. 11-cv-5188-SI (Docket No. 41) (N.D. Cal. June 14, 2012), the court found that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring claims based on products they did not purchase (wide range of Trader Joe’s products (cookies, apple juice, cinnamon rolls,biscuits, ricotta cheese, and crescent rolls). See also Stephenson v. Neutrogena, No. C-12-0426 PJH, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1005099, at *1 (N.D. Cal. Jul. 27, 2012) (plaintiff brought suit over six Neutrogena Naturals products but had only purchased the purifying facial cleanser).

Even under the Astiana approach, here the products were too different: they look different; they have different uses (baking chips, drink powders, and wafers); they have different labels and different representations on packaging, and they are marketed and sold differently in that, for example, some are sold alongside each other, and some are sold in commercial markets and others in consumer markets. The logo, which plaintiff put so much emphasis on, was relatively unimportant considering the varying products, packaging and representations, and markets. Logos cannot be dispositive of what a product is and that a consumer determines what a product or characterizing flavor is by reviewing the label. Finally, the identity of the commodity here under FDA regulations was “white chocolate,” not “chocolate” as in the logo. That in turn means that a determination of standing required an examination of the entire label, and again, the five products and the alleged misrepresentations were not sufficiently similar.

Supreme Court Decides Comcast

The Supreme Court weighed back in on the issues of class certification last month in Comcast v. Behrend, No. 11-864 (U.S. 3/27/13). Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia stated that the class had been improperly certified under Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(3)'s predominance prong, in an opinion that bears careful scrutiny for our readers, but probably did not cover as much ground as some thought it would when cert was granted (no further guidance on Daubert at the class stage).

Plaintiffs brought a class action antitrust suit, under Rule 23(b)(3), claiming Comcast subscribers in the Philadelphia area were harmed because of a specific Comcast strategy that allegedly lessened competition and would lead to higher prices. Comcast allegedly “clusters” their cable television operations within a particular region by swapping their systems outside the region for competitor systems inside the region.  Plaintiffs offered several theories as to why this alleged approach harmed them: it allowed Comcast to withhold local sports programming from its competitors, resulting in decreased market penetration by direct broadcast satellite providers; it allegedly reduced the level of competition from “over-builders,” companies that build competing cable networks in areas where an incumbent cable company already operates; it reduced the level of “benchmark” competition on which cable customers rely to compare prices; and it allegedly increased Comcast’s bargaining power relative to content providers.

The District Court ruled that plaintiffs had to show that the “antitrust impact” of the violation could be proved at trial through evidence common to the class and that the damages were measurable on a class-wide basis through a “common methodology.” The trial court then certified the class, but accepted only one of the four proposed theories of antitrust impact. The Third Circuit affirmed, noting again its artificial separation of class and merits issues:  we "have not reached the stage of determining on the merits whether the methodology is a just and reasonable inference or speculative." The court of appeals concluded that Comcast's attacks on the merits of the methodology had "no place in the class certification inquiry.”

Of course class certification is a procedural step, not the occasion to decide which side has the winning case, but in recent years the Supreme Court has been telling the lower courts that the line between merits and certification is not such a bright line.  The Third Circuit ran afoul of this admonition when it refused to entertain arguments against the damages model that bore on the propriety of class certification simply because they might also be pertinent to the merits determination. A certifying court may have 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 Rule 23’s prerequisites have been satisfied. Such an analysis will frequently overlap with the merits of the plaintiff ’s underlying claim because a class determination generally involves considerations that are enmeshed in the factual and legal issues comprising the plaintiff ’s cause of action. A District Court cannot refuse to evaluate evidence at the class certification stage just because that same evidence relates to the merits of the claims. In so doing, the Court made clear that the rigorous analysis discussed in Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011), applies to both the Rule 23(a) factors and the Rule 23(b) prerequisites. 

The figures that plaintiffs' expert used were calculated assuming the validity of all four theories of antitrust impact originally proposed, and did not delineate the differences between the allegedly supra-competitive prices prices attributable to over-builder deterrence, and the prices caused by other economic factors.  To ignore that would reduce the Rule 23(b)(3) predominance requirement to a nullity. The questions of individual damages calculations here would inevitably overwhelm questions common to the class in this antitrust case; the plaintiffs' model fell far short of establishing that damages were capable of measurement on a class-wide basis. Thus, the Court made clear that plaintiffs must offer a method sufficient to calculate damages on a class-wide basis in Rule 23(b)(3) class actions or risk losing certification.

 

CAFA Local Exception Rejected

 A federal court in Georgia ruled last week that a proposed class action alleging injury from chemical exposures was properly removed under the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005.  See Anderson v. King America Finishing Inc., No. 1:11-cv-2258-JEC (N.D. Ga., 3/25/13).


Plaintiffs alleged that defendant King America Finishing released a toxic chemical into the Ogeechee River from its manufacturing plant in Dover, Georgia. According to plaintiffs, the toxic chemical release caused damage to surrounding land downstream from the Dover plant. In addition, plaintiffs claimed that certain individuals who swam in the Ogeechee River suffered from physical injuries due to the release. Plaintiffs filed a class action complaint in Fulton County Superior Court. They purported to represent a property damage class defined to include “[a]ll possessors of property affected, directly or indirectly, by [the May, 2011] release of chemicals into
the waters of the Ogeechee River.” One named plaintiff also purported to represent a personal injury class defined to include “[a]ll persons who have been exposed, directly or indirectly, with the waters of the Ogeechee River that had been contaminated by the Release.”


Defendants removed the case to federal court pursuant to the Class Action Fairness Act (“CAFA”), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332(d) and 1453. CAFA generally provides for the removal of any class action in which there is: (1) minimal diversity, (2) at least 100 putative class members and (3) $5 million in alleged damages. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332(d)(2) and 1453. It was undisputed that these requirements were met in this case. Plaintiffs conceded that all of the named plaintiffs were diverse from defendant, that the putative class exceeded 100 members, and that the claims exceeded $5 million in damages.

Nevertheless, plaintiffs filed a motion to remand the case to state court, based on the “local controversy” exception to CAFA jurisdiction, which provides for the remand of a class action that “uniquely affects a particular locality to the exclusion of all others.” Evans v. Walter Indus., Inc., 449 F.3d 1159, 1164 (11th Cir. 2006). Specifically, a “local controversy” is defined by CAFA as a class action in which: (1) greater than two-thirds of the class members are citizens of the state in which the action was originally filed, (2) at least one “significant” defendant is a citizen of the state in which the action was filed and (3) the principal injuries alleged in the action were incurred in the state in which the action was filed. 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d)(4)(A).

Defendants did not dispute elements 2 and 3. The argument among the parties centered on the two-thirds requirement.  Under CAFA, plaintiffs bear the burden of proving that the exception applies. In order to meet their burden on the two-thirds requirement, plaintiffs had to present evidence from which a court could credibly adduce that more than two-thirds of the purported class members were Georgia citizens. Plaintiffs used tax and voter registration records,  reference to the Secretary of State’s Corporation website, and interviews of personal injury class members who were determined by interview to be Georgia citizens, to just get over the threshold.

The court rejected their calculations, finding no sound evidentiary basis for including several of these groups in the calculation. For example, with regard to the legal entities, the Secretary of State’s website merely lists a Georgia office address for each entity. The website does not indicate that any of these entities have their “principal place of business” in Georgia. In addition to the evidentiary issues with the numerator in plaintiffs’ equation, there were serious questions about the denominator as well. Both the property and the personal injury classes were defined broadly in the complaint to include all land and persons directly or indirectly allegedly impacted by the May, 2011 release. Given that broad definition, the property class likely included many more members than the 900 or so landowners in the particular geographical area chosen by plaintiffs’ attorneys for their showing. Likewise, there could be many more individuals who were “indirectly” injured by the release than the 20 potential class members interviewed by plaintiffs.  The court could not simply speculate about the citizenship of these unaccounted for class members.
Accordingly, the court denied the plaintiffs' motion for remand.