State Supreme Court Rejects Fishing Expedition of Experts' Employer

The Texas Supreme Court rejected plaintiffs' attempt to engage in a "fishing expedition"  of the employer of two experts retained in a product liability dispute. See In re Ford Motor Co., No. 12-1000 (Tex., 3/28/14).

In this design-defect case, the plaintiff sought to discover alleged  potential bias of the defendant’s two testifying experts by seeking to depose a corporate representative of each expert’s employer. This suit arose from injuries plaintiff Saul Morales allegedly sustained after a Ford vehicle allegedly struck him. Morales had been in his own vehicle, fleeing police who suspected he was driving drunk, said the court. Eventually, Morales stopped his vehicle and continued his flight on foot. One of the police officers likewise left his 2004 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor, then pursued and apprehended Morales. While the officer attempted to handcuff Morales, the officer’s vehicle allegedly began rolling backward toward the pair. The vehicle allegedly struck the plaintiff, injuring him. 

Morales sued Ford Motor Company, which designed and manufactured the police car, and the car’s seller, Ken Stoepel Ford, Inc. Morales alleged the vehicle had a design defect that allowed the officer unintentionally to place the gear-shift selector between park and reverse, which then caused the vehicle to go into an idle-powered reverse. To defend the lawsuit, Ford retained two expert witnesses: Erin Harley, of Exponent, Inc., and Hugh Mauldin, of Carr Engineering, Inc. After deposing both Harley and Mauldin, Morales sought corporate-representative depositions from Exponent and Carr Engineering on seventeen topics, arguing the additional depositions were necessary to prove each testifying expert’s bias in favor of Ford and other automobile manufacturers.

The courts have expressed concerns about allowing overly expansive discovery about testifying experts that can “permit witnesses to be subjected to harassment and might well discourage reputable experts” from participating in the litigation process. Ex parte Shepperd, 513 S.W.2d 813, 816 (Tex. 1974). The particular deposition notices in this case. said the court,  highlighted the danger of permitting such expansive discovery. In his deposition notices to Carr Engineering and Exponent, Morales sought detailed financial and business information for all cases the companies have handled for Ford or any other automobile manufacturer from 2000 to 2011. Such a "fishing expedition," said the court, seeking sensitive information covering twelve years, is just the type of overbroad discovery the rules are intended to prevent.

In any event, the most probative information regarding the bias of a testifying expert comes from
the expert herself. In this case, for example, Harley testified that 5% of the cases she handles
are for plaintiffs and that she has never testified against an automobile manufacturer. Similarly,
Mauldin testified that historically about 50% of Carr Engineering’s work is done for Ford.  That was all plaintiff was entitled to, and the lower court order was quashed.

 

 

 

Juice Class Decertified at Close of Discovery

A federal court recently decertified a class action filed on behalf of  juice buyers, recognizing the grave ascertainability problems in the case alleging that the beverage maker misleadingly advertised its drink's health benefits. See In re Pom Wonderful LLC Mktg. & Sales Practices Litig., No. 2:10-ml-2199-DDP-RZ (C.D. Cal. 3/25/14).

Back in 2012, the court had certified a damages class comprised of all persons who purchased a Pom Wonderful 100% juice product between October 2005 and September 2010. After the  completion of discovery, Pom moved to decertify the class, in light of the facts developed and in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 133 S. Ct. 1426 (2013). On a motion for decertification, as at the certification stage, the burden to demonstrate that the requirements of Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 23(a) and (b) are met lies with the party advocating certification. E.g., Marlo v. United Parcel Serv. Inc., 639 F.3d 942, 947 (9th Cir. 2011).

The court noted that the Ninth Circuit has adopted a rather narrow reading of Comcast, which holds that, under rigorous analysis, “plaintiffs must be able to show that their damages stemmed from the defendant’s actions that created the legal liability.” Leyva v. Medline Indus., Inc., 716 F.3d 510, 514 (9th Cir. 2013). Thus, the court proceeded to examine plaintiffs’ damages models and the relationship of those models to the plaintiffs’ legal theories. Plaintiffs' expert advanced two damages models. The "Full Refund" model concluded that consumers spent $450 million on Pom’s 100% pomegranate juice and juice blends during the class period, and that class damages are 100% of the amount paid, or $450 million.  Defendant argued that the Full Refund model was invalid because it failed to account for any value consumers received. Even putting aside any potential health benefits, defendant argued, consumers still received value in the form of hydration, vitamins, and minerals.  The court agreed.  The California consumer acts authorize a trial court to grant restitution to private litigants asserting claims under those statutes. Colgan v. Leatherman Tool Group, Inc.,135 Cal.App.4th 663, 694 (2006). “The difference between what the plaintiff paid
and the value of what the plaintiff received is a proper measure of restitution.” In re Vioxx Class Cases, 180 Cal.App.4th 116, 131 (2009). “A party seeking restitution must generally return any
benefit that it has received.” Dunkin v. Boskey, 82 Cal.App.4th 171, 198 (2000).  Since the model did not account for this, it did not comport with Comcast.

The second or "Price Premium" model assumed that, absent the alleged misrepresentations, “demand for Pom would have been less and the Pom market price would have been lower.” The Price Premium model quantified alleged damages “by comparing the price of Pom with other refrigerated juices of the same size.”  This model yielded a damage calculation of “about $290 million.”  The parties agreed that the Price Premium model depended upon a “fraud on the market” theory. Plaintiffs essentially asserted (1) that a presumption of reliance dependent upon defendant’s alleged material misrepresentations establishes the existence of a fraud on the
entire juice market, (2) that because of that fraud on the market, every consumer who purchased defendant’s juices was similarly damaged, regardless of motivation or satisfaction, and (3) damages could therefore be measured on a class-wide basis. But, the court was not aware of any authority applying a fraud on the market theory to this type of consumer action. (It's a securities thing!)  Putting that issue aside, a plaintiff alleging a fraud on the market must show that the relevant market is efficient. See Smilovits v. First Solar, Inc., 295 F.R.D. 423, 429 (D. Ariz. 2013). This court was not persuaded that the market for defendant’s high-end refrigerated juice products operates efficiently.

Third, whether the entire class can be said to have relied upon the alleged  misrepresentations for liability purposes, this did not necessarily speak to the adequacy of a damages model. Plaintiffs must be able to show that their damages stemmed from the defendant’s actions that created the legal liability.  Plaintiff's expert made no attempt upon a sound methodology to explain how defendant’s alleged misrepresentations caused any amount of damages. Instead, the expert  simply observed that Pom’s juices were more expensive than certain other juices. Rather than
answer the critical question why that price difference existed, or to what extent it was a result of Pom’s alleged actions, the expert simply assumed that 100% of that price difference was attributable to the alleged misrepresentations. Rather than draw any link between Pom’s actions and the price difference between the juice average benchmark price and average Pom prices, the Price Premium model simply calculated what the price difference was. This damages “model” did not comport with Comcast’s requirement that class-wide damages be tied to a legal theory.

The other basis for the decision was ascertainability.  In situations where purported class members purchase an inexpensive product for a variety of reasons, and are unlikely to retain receipts or other transaction records, class actions may present such daunting administrative challenges that class treatment is not feasible.  See, e.g., In re Phenylpropanolamine Prods., 214 F.R.D. 614, 620 (W.D. Wash. 2003) (describing critical manageability problems concerning sales of a three dollar medication, despite possibility of fluid recovery); Sethavanish v. ZonePerfect Nutrition Co., 2014 WL 580696 at *5 (N.D. Cal. Feb. 13, 2014) (denying certification because proposed class of nutrition bar purchasers would not be ascertainable).  Here, plaintiffs acknowledged that, based on the volume of product sold, every adult in the United States is a potential class member. Realistically, the class included at least ten to fifteen million purchasers. These millions of consumers paid only a few dollars per bottle, and likely made their purchases for a variety of reasons, observed the court. Few, if any, consumers were likely to have retained receipts during the class period, which closed years before the filing of this action. This case therefore fell well toward the unascertainable end of the spectrum. Here, at the close of discovery and despite plaintiffs’ efforts, there was no way to reliably determine who purchased defendant’s products or when they did so.

Class decertified.

Wisconsin Senate Passes Asbestos Trust Disclosure Bill

 The Wisconsin Senate recently passed a bill that would require plaintiffs in asbestos lawsuits to notify defendants of their various asbestos trust claims.  This comes in response to about the lack of transparency that allows plaintiffs to double dip from trusts and solvent defendants.

The bill passed on a mostly party line vote, and returns the issue to the state Assembly, which approved a similar measure last year.  Several states have  passed or considered similar legislation. Under the bill, plaintiffs would divulge all of their claims against asbestos trusts and any related documents, including those related to the settlement of the claim. The proposed legislation would also allow the trust documents to be admitted as evidence in asbestos personal injury claims. If a trust determined a plaintiff's claim against the trust was valid, a later jury could find that the plaintiff was exposed to the other asbestos product and that the other exposure may have been a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff's alleged asbestos-related injury in the suit.

Full text here.

 

Appeals Court Affirms Summary Judgment for Cart Manufacturer

The Second Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment for a golf cart maker who challenged plaintiff's expert opinion in a design defect suit by a teenager injured in a 2007 golf cart accident. See Valente v. Textron, Inc., No. 13-1456 (2d Cir., 3/10/14).

Plaintiffs appealed from an award of summary judgment in favor of defendants on Valente’s strict liability and negligence design defect claims for damages allegedly sustained when Valente was operating a golf car manufactured by defendants. Valente contended that the district court erred in precluding the testimony of his expert (K. Seluga) after a hearing pursuant to Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993).

Specifically, the district court excluded Seluga’s testimony that yaw instability—resulting from a design defect in the use of a two-wheel rear braking system as opposed to a four-wheel braking system—was responsible for Valente’s accident. In fact, the court of appeals concluded, the district court’s thoughtful and thorough explanation for excluding Seluga’s testimony convincingly demonstrated that it acted well within its discretion.

There is no dispute that the coefficient of friction term in the relevant calculations was the determining factor in the expert's opinion that yaw instability was responsible for Valente’s accident. But the coefficient of friction used by Seluga, based on flat surface testing, was approximately 40% lower than the coefficient measured by Seluga and defendants' expert on the actual path of the accident, as well as that used by the expert in a published peer reviewed article on the topic.

 

Even assuming the reliability of the coefficient, Seluga testified that his simulation would predict a
rollover due to yaw instability somewhere between 25% and 50% of the time.  The purpose for which Valente sought to offer Seluga’s testimony, however, was not that under certain circumstances there was a 25% chance that the accident could have occurred as a result of the defect in the golf car, but rather that the design defect actually caused the accident “to a reasonable degree of engineering certainty.” Where, as here, data is simply inadequate to support the conclusions reached, Daubert and Rule 702 mandate the exclusion of that unreliable opinion
testimony.

 

With Seluga’s testimony properly excluded, the record was devoid of any evidence supporting Valente’s theory that the golf car had a design defect or that such a design defect likely caused his accident.

Affirmed.

 

Certification Rejected in Dietary Supplement Claim

The important issues of ascertainability and choice of law led a federal court to deny class certification in litigation relating to the dietary supplement VPX Meltdown Fat Incinerator.  See Karhu v. Vital Pharm., Inc., No. 13-60768 (S.D. Fla., 3/3/14).

Plaintiff filed a class complaint against Vital Pharmaceuticals Inc.  to recover damages based upon VPX's alleged false advertisements, and to enjoin any further alleged misrepresentations. He sought to bring the suit on behalf of all persons in the United States who have purchased Meltdown for purposes other than resale since April 4, 2008. The claims included:  (1) breach of express warranty under the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act ("MMWA"), 15 U.S.C. § 2301, et seq.; (2) breach of
express warranty; (3) unjust enrichment; and (4) violation of the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act ("FDUTPA"), Fla. Stat. § 501.201, et seq.

The court concluded that the case would be unmanageable as a class action. First, the court saw no practical method of verifying membership in the proposed Class of Meltdown purchasers. No central record of Meltdown customers existed, and it was unlikely that each Meltdown purchaser since 2008 has retained a proof of purchase. Second, the claims of the Nationwide Class would implicate the laws of multiple states. The varied requirements of the states' laws would require different proof on each claim depending on the locations of the class members. These legal permutations would render an eventual trial unwieldy, and would overshadow the common factual questions that otherwise allegedly united the class members' claims.

Regarding ascertainability, a plaintiff seeking class certification must first craft a class definition clear enough to allow the court to understand whether a particular individual is a member of the class, and that membership is ascertainable. A class is ascertainable only if the court can determine whether a given person is a class member through administratively feasible methods. See In re Checking Account Overdraft Litig., 286 F.R.D. 645, 650–51 & n.7 (S.D. Fla. 2012). Here, plaintiff failed to propose a realistic method of identifying the individuals who purchased Meltdown. The courts have come to recognize that purchasers are less likely to retain receipts or other records of minor purchases, and thus cannot rely on those proofs to ascertain the identities of class members. See Red v. Kraft Foods, Inc., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 186948, at *14–19 (C.D. Cal. Apr. 12, 2012).

Nor could the court trust individuals to identify themselves as class members through the submission of affidavits. Accepting affidavits of Meltdown purchases without verification would deprive VPX of its due process rights to challenge the claims of each putative class member.  On the other hand, having VPX contest each affidavit would require a series of mini-trials and defeat the purpose of class-action treatment. Using affidavits to determine class membership would also invite fraudulent submissions and could dilute the recovery of genuine class members, said the court.

Regarding predominance, the court noted that the MMWA does not define a stand-alone federal cause of action for breach of express written warranty, but instead borrows state law causes of action for breach of both written and implied warranties. Under choice of law analysis, the law governing each class member's warranty claim is the law of the state where he or she purchased the Meltdown. The court noted that state law varied on issues such as privity and reliance. In short, varied state laws would govern the MMWA claims of class members across the country, imposing different legal requirements and overshadowing the allegedly common factual bases of the claims. Moreover, some of these laws would require individualized proof inappropriate for class treatment. In light of the differences among applicable laws and the potential need for individualized proof, the court found that individualized legal and factual issues predominate over the common aspects of the proposed class MMWA claims, rendering class certification inappropriate under Rule 23(b)(3).

Class certification denied.

Class Certification Denied in Baby Seat Case

A California federal court declined to certify a class of consumers accusing a manufacturer of designing a baby seat that is allegedly prone to having unhealthy mold. See Butler v. Mattel Inc. et al., No. 2:13-cv-00306 (C.D. Calif.).

Plaintiffs move to certify a nationwide class of individuals who “acquired” a Fisher-Price Rock ‘N Play Sleeper (Sleeper) prior to January 8, 2013.  The court's analysis focused on predominance. The predominance inquiry under Rule 23(b) tests whether proposed classes are
sufficiently cohesive to warrant adjudication by representation. Amchem Prods., Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591, 623 (1997) (citation omitted). The thrust of plaintiffs’ case was that the Sleeper is defective because it has a “dangerous propensity” to grow mold. From that proposition, plaintiffs raised several claims for product defects and misrepresentations about the quality of the Sleeper.

The court concluded that plaintiffs’ bid to have the case handled on a class basis failed because they could not establish that any actual defect was common to the entire class. There was ample evidence in the record that the vast majority of the proposed class did not experience mold growth on the Sleeper to a degree that they saw fit to complain to defendant or to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The Sleeper was only alleged to have a “propensity” for mold growth – which the court saw as an issue separate and apart from the issue of an actual reaction by the consumer to whatever mold may be present. There was no evidence that every Sleeper developed notable levels of mold and ample evidence that most of them did not. Based on the record before the court, it appeared that the vast majority of the proposed class, for whatever reason, was in no way affected by the alleged increased propensity of the Sleeper to grow mold.  It was not clear whether any child suffered a reaction or injury. There was merely a limited “recall” by which defendants provided additional care instructions for cleaning any mold that may occur.

This meant that many of the proposed class members likely do not have standing to raise the class claims, and whether or not a particular class member has standing was an individual issue that was not amenable to class treatment. Only class members who actually experienced mold or who could show that their particular circumstances made it likely that they would actually experience a mold issue would likely have standing, said the court.

The dispositive issue of standing thus was not common to all class members and must be
addressed on an individual basis. The overarching importance of this question predominated over any common questions that may exist as it was impossible to award class wide relief without consideration of standing.

Class certification denied.

Federal Court Rejects Copycat Class Action

 A California federal court declined to certify a putative class of consumers in a suit accusing defendant of marketing defective dryers. See  Martin Murray v. Sears Roebuck and Co. et al., No. 4:09-cv-05744 (N.D. Cal.).

In 2009, Murray filed a putative class action on behalf of all California consumers who purchased the same Kenmore-brand dryer that he allegedly did. In his complaint, he alleged that Sears and Electrolux, the dryer’s manufacturer, had marketed the dryer to consumers by promoting its “stainless steel” drum without disclosing that the drum’s front -- the portion of the drum that allegedly rusted -- was actually made of a mild steel, which is allegedly more susceptible to corrosion and chipping. Based on this alleged omission, Murray asserted claims against defendants for unjust enrichment, breach of contract, and violations of California’s Consumer Legal Remedies Act (CLRA) and Unfair Competition Law (UCL). Defendants removed the action to federal court under the Class Action Fairness Act.

The original complaint was a "copycat" of allegations in a class action in the 7th Circuit, the infamous Thorogood matter. After amendment, the court concluded that the new allegations were sufficiently different from those in Thorogood, such that plaintiff was not collaterally estopped from
asserting his claims on a class-wide basis.

Plaintiffs sought certification under Rule 23 subsections (b)(2) and (b)(3). Rule 23(b)(2) applies where the party opposing the class has acted or refused to act on grounds generally applicable to the class, thereby making appropriate final injunctive relief or corresponding declaratory relief with respect to the class as a whole.  Rule 23(b)(3) permits certification where common questions of
law and fact predominate over any questions affecting only individual members, and class resolution is superior to other available methods for the fair and efficient adjudication of the
controversy. In deciding the class issue, the court must conduct a rigorous analysis, which may require it to probe behind the pleadings before coming to rest on the certification question. Wal-Mart
Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541, 2551 (2011).  Frequently that rigorous analysis will entail some overlap with the merits of the plaintiff’s underlying claim. "That cannot be helped.” Dukes, 131 S. Ct. at  2551.

The court's analysis focused on the commonality and typicality requirements of Rule 23(a). The court concluded that Murray failed to present any evidence that defendants represented on a class-wide basis that the dryer’s drum front was made of stainless steel (rather than mild steel) and that this feature would prevent its user’s clothes from developing rust stains or tears. None of the sales managers testified that Sears marketed the drums as preventing rust stains or tearing. One
product manager testified that she believed the stainless steel was marketed as an aesthetic feature. A third Sears employee simply referred Murray to Sears’s marketing team when asked about the company’s advertising practices. None of this testimony supported Murray’s claim that California consumers, as a class, were likely to be confused by Sears’s marketing claims.

While some of Sears’s promotional materials stated that the Kenmore-brand dryers feature an “exclusive, all stainless-steel drum that provides lasting durability,” this, said the court, hardly qualified as a material misrepresentation.  And Murray’s account of his personal experience at a single Sears store did not suggest that Sears made any representation about the Kenmore-brand dryers on a class-wide basis. Nor did it suggest that Sears ever made such a representation about the Frigidaire-brand dryers nor that Electrolux ever made similar  representations about either brand of dryers. If anything, his individual isolated (and uncorroborated) incident of allegedly deceptive marketing suggests that Murray’s claims, were highly “idiosyncratic” and, thus, not amenable to class-wide proof.  In addition, Murray’s failure to identify any other class  member whose clothes were stained by rust only reaffirmed that his claimed injury here was unique. He also had not offered any evidence to suggest that other California consumers’ clothes were ever damaged by Kenmore or Frigidaire dryers. 

Accordingly, because he had not identified any common questions of fact or law that pertain to every class member, Murray failed to meet the commonality prerequisite.

Rule 23(a)(3) requires that the claims or defenses of the representative parties be typical of the claims or defenses of the class. Murray failed to satisfy the typicality requirement here for the same reasons he failed to satisfy the commonality requirement: specifically, he had not presented evidence of any class-wide misrepresentations or class-wide injury. As explained above, the only evidence here that defendants ever specifically represented that their dryers’ stainless steel drums protect clothes from rust stains came from Murray’s own isolated experience at one Sears store. Murray did not present any evidence to suggest that either defendant ever made the same
representations to other California consumers. Nor did he present any evidence to suggest that other California consumers suffered the same problems,

Also, he testified that the loose drum was most likely what caused his clothes to become exposed to the rust in the first place because the rust had only developed on the exterior portion of the drum front -- a part of the dryer that would not normally come into contact with any clothes. This admission -- that other problems with Murray’s dryer may have contributed to the rust stains he experienced -- left the named plaintiff vulnerable to fact-based defenses that could not be raised against other class members.  Similarly, because Murray purchased his dryer in September 2001, and did not file until November 2009, the potential statute of limitations issue made his claim not typical (as well as affecting adequacy). 

State Mass Tort Court Rejects General Causation Experts

A Pennsylvania state court excluded plaintiffs' expert testimony offered in coordinated cases alleging a denture adhesive caused personal injuries.  See  In re: Denture Adhesive Cream Litigation, No. 090604534 (Phila, Ct. Common Pleas)(J.New).

In 2009 the court had created the mass tort docket for these product cases. Defendants include manufacturers and retailers. Defendants moved to exclude under the Frye test the plaintiffs' four main general causation experts, who opined that the product's zinc conduct led to neurological complications; the court heard live testimony and oral argument. 

The court had considered some of the issues before, excluding the general causation opinions because they were based on inadequate data, including with regard to how much zinc is absorbed in the body.  Plaintiffs then submitted supplemental information which they alleged filled in the various analytical gaps. One item involved a publish Scottish study of 22 patients to which one of the experts applied a further analysis he termed a "cohort study", and another was a study by one of the experts of 24 subjects using denture products over a 30 day period.

The court concluded that the opinions involved "novel" science because the alleged link between zinc and neuropathy is reported in literature only in the past few years.  In analyzing the new data, the court stressed that the issue was not just the alleged link between zinc exposures and neuropathy, but the ability of a specific product to cause specific injuries. Not all zinc-containing dental creams are equal, said the court.

 The so-called cohort study did not describe the actual exposure dose of each subject. It didn't describe the type of adhesive used, the frequency it was used, or the duration between use and symptoms. Thus it is based on a method that is not generally accepted. Furthermore, it was not published and subject to peer review.

The experts alleged that zinc in the denture adhesive had blocked the users' bodies from being able to absorb copper, causing copper deficiency myeloneuropathy.  The second study, at best, linked product use to a short-term reduction in copper.  It did not say anything about severe copper deficiency or allegedly resultant neurological symptoms.  The court found it to be a "blatant, litigation driven attempt to remediate" the deficiencies in the prior expert testimony.

In sum, even with the "new" data, plaintiffs had failed to provide a sound and generally accepted methodology linking the product to the alleged injury.  Expert opinions excluded.

Supreme Court Issues General Jurisdiction Opinion

The U.S. Supreme Court rued last week that defendant DaimlerChrysler Corp. could not be sued in in California over an Argentine subsidiary’s alleged tortious conduct under the theory of general jurisdiction.  See Daimler AG v. Barbara Bauman et al., No. 11-965 (U.S. 1/14/14).

Plaintiffs were twenty-two residents of Argentina who filed suit in California Federal District Court, naming as a defendant DaimlerChrysler Aktiengesellschaft (Daimler),a German public stock company that is the predecessor to the petitioner, Daimler AG.  Their complaint alleged that Mercedes-Benz Argentina (MB Argentina), an Argentinian subsidiary of Daimler, engaged in various illegal conduct respecting unions from 1976 to 1983 in Argentina. Personal jurisdiction over Daimler was predicated on the California contacts of Mercedes-Benz USA, LLC (MBUSA), yet another Daimler subsidiary, one incorporated in Delaware with its principal place of business in New Jersey.  (MBUSA distributes Daimler-manufactured vehicles to independent dealerships throughout the United States, including California.)  

Daimler moved to dismiss the action for want of personal jurisdiction. Opposing that motion, plaintiffs argued that jurisdiction over Daimler could be founded on the California contacts of MBUSA. The District Court granted Daimler’s motion to dismiss. Reversing the District Court’s judgment, the Ninth Circuit held that MBUSA, which it assumed to fall within the California courts’ all-purpose jurisdiction, was Daimler’s “agent” for jurisdictional purposes, so that Daimler, too, should generally be answerable to suit in that State. Daimler moved for cert.

The Supreme Court held that Daimler was not amenable to suit in California for injuries allegedly caused by conduct of MB Argentina that took place entirely outside the United States.

California’s long-arm statute allows the exercise of personal jurisdiction to the full extent permissible under the U. S. Constitution. Thus, the inquiry here became whether the Ninth Circuit’s holding comported with the limits imposed by federal due process. International Shoe distinguished exercises of specific, case-based jurisdiction from a category known as “general jurisdiction,” exercisable when a foreign corporation’s continuous corporate operations within a state are so substantial and of such a nature as to justify suit against it even on causes of action arising from dealings entirely distinct from those activities. Since International Shoe, specific jurisdiction has become the centerpiece of modern jurisdiction theory. The Supreme Court’s general jurisdiction opinions, in contrast, have been few.

The Court said that even assuming, for purposes of this decision, that MBUSA qualifies as at home in California, Daimler’s affiliations with California were not sufficient to subject it to the general jurisdiction of that State’s courts. Whatever role "agency" theory might play in the context of general jurisdiction, the Court of Appeals’ analysis in this case could not be sustained. The Ninth Circuit’s agency determination rested primarily on its observation that MBUSA’s services were “important” to Daimler, as gauged by Daimler’s hypothetical readiness to perform those services itself if MBUSA did not exist. But if  mere “importance” in this sense were sufficient to justify jurisdictional attribution, observed the Court, foreign corporations would be amenable to suit on any or all claims wherever they have an in-state subsidiary or affiliate, an outcome that would sweep beyond even the sprawling view of general jurisdiction the Court has rejected in cases like Goodyear.  

Even assuming that MBUSA was at home in California and that MBUSA’s contacts were imputable to Daimler, there would still be no basis to subject Daimler to general jurisdiction in California, said the Court. The paradigm all-purpose forums for general jurisdiction are a corporation’s place of incorporation and principal place of business.  Plaintiffs’ reasoning, however, would reach well beyond these exemplar bases to approve the exercise of general jurisdiction in every State in which a corporation engages in a substantial, continuous, and systematic course of business. The Court felt that the words “continuous and systematic,” were misread by plaintiffs and the Court of Appeals; they were used in International Shoe to describe situations in which the exercise of specific jurisdiction would be appropriate. See 326 U. S., at 317. With respect to all-purpose jurisdiction, International Shoe spoke instead of  instances in which the continuous corporate operations within a state were so substantial and of such a nature as to justify suit on causes of action arising from dealings entirely distinct from those activities.  Id., at 318. Accordingly, the proper inquiry, the Court explained, was whether a foreign corporation’s affiliations with the State are so continuous and systematic as to render it essentially at home in the forum State.

Neither Daimler nor MBUSA was incorporated in California, nor did either entity have its principal place of business there. If Daimler’s California activities sufficed to allow adjudication of this Argentina-rooted case in California, the same global reach would presumably be available in every other State in which MBUSA’s sales were sizable. No decision of the Supreme Court ever sanctioned a view of general jurisdiction so grasping. The Ninth Circuit, therefore, had no warrant to conclude that Daimler, even with MBUSA’s contacts attributed to it, was at home in California, and hence subject to suit there on claims by foreign plaintiffs having nothing to do with anything that occurred or had its principal impact in California.

The Court referred to the "transnational context" of the dispute, essentially making the point that U.S. courts are not suppose to be widely open to cases being brought against foreign companies when the underlying facts of the case have essentially nothing to do with the U.S.  The Supreme Court now has confirmed that general jurisdiction is typically limited to a jurisdiction companies can expect to be sued in, essentially where they are at home.

 

Ice Cream Class Action Melts

Happy New Year to all our readers. Let's start 2014 with a delicious class action decision, a Late night snack for our readers.

A California court recently rejected a proposed statewide class in a suit accusing Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. of falsely advertising ice cream products as “all-natural.”  See Astiana v. Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc., No. 4:10-cv-04387 (N.D. Cal., 1/7/14).  Yes, we are starting off the year right where we left off, another all natural complaint.

Readers probably know that with a $5 correspondence course from Penn State in making ice cream, two regular guys named Ben and Jerry opened their first ice cream scoop shop in Burlington, Vermont, in 1978. 

Here, plaintiffs claimed that both the packaging and the advertising for the Ben & Jerry's ice cream products were deceptive and misleading to the extent that the cocoa in some of them was allegedly alkalized with a "synthetic" agent. Plaintiff filed the complaint in this action in 2010, alleging six causes of action – "unlawful business practices" in violation of Business & Professions Code § 17200; "unfair business practices" in violation of § 17200; "fraudulent business practices" in violation of § 17200; false advertising, in violation of Business & Professions Code § 17500; restitution based on quasi-contract/unjust enrichment; and common law fraud.  Everything but the ...pretty typical in these kinds of label attacks.

The parties originally reached a tentative settlement, which fell apart because of cy pres problems and S'mores issues regarding settlement distribution procedures.

Eventually, plaintiffs moved for class certification. Before certifying a class, the trial court must conduct a rigorous analysis to determine whether the party seeking certification has met the prerequisites of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23. Mazza v. American Honda Motor Co., Inc., 666 F.3d 581, 588 (9th Cir. 2012). The party seeking class certification must affirmatively demonstrate that the class meets the requirements of Rule 23. See Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S.Ct. 2541, 2551 (2011); see also Gen'l Tel. Co. of Southwest v. Falcon, 457 U.S. 147, 156 (1982).  As a threshold matter, and apart from the explicit requirements of Rule 23, the party seeking class certification must also demonstrate that an identifiable and ascertainable class exists. Mazur v. eBay Inc., 257 F.R.D. 563, 567 (N.D. Cal. 2009).

The court here found that the motion must be denied, for two primary reasons – plaintiff had not established that the class was ascertainable, and she had not established that common issues predominated over individual issues.

While there is no explicit requirement concerning the class definition in Rule 23, courts have held that the class must be adequately defined and clearly ascertainable before a class action may proceed. See Xavier v. Philip Morris USA Inc., 787 F.Supp. 2d 1075, 1089 (N.D. Cal. 2011); Schwartz v. Upper Deck Co., 183 F.R.D. 672, 679-80 (S.D. Cal. 1999). A class definition need not be Berry, berry extraordinary, but should be precise, objective and presently ascertainable. See Rodriguez v. Gates, 2002 WL 1162675 at *8 (C.D. Cal. May 30, 2002). That is, the class definition must be sufficiently definite so that it is administratively feasible to determine whether a particular person is a class member. See Xavier, 787 F.Supp. 2d at 1089.

Defendant contended that because cocoa can be alkalized using one of several alkalis – some of which are "natural" and some of which are allegedly "non-natural" (i.e., "synthetic") – it would be necessary to determine which class members bought an ice cream containing alkalized cocoa processed with a synthetic ingredient.  However, there was no way to identify which class members bought which type of ice cream, particularly given that Ben & Jerry's is a wholesale manufacturer that does not maintain records identifying the ultimate customers or their purchases. What a cluster it would be.

The district court agreed with the defendant that the class was not sufficiently ascertainable. The class was defined as persons who bought Ben & Jerry's labeled "all natural" which contained alkalized cocoa processed with a synthetic ingredient. However, plaintiffs provided no evidence as to which ice cream contained the allegedly "synthetic ingredient" (assuming that alkali can even be considered an "ingredient"). More importantly, plaintiffs had not shown that a means exists for identifying the alkali in every class member's ice cream purchases. The packaging labels said only "processed with alkali," because that is all the FDA required.

A second basis for rejecting the class was the predominance requirement. This inquiry requires the weighing of the common questions in the case against the individualized questions, and the predominance analysis under Rule 23(b)(3) can be more stringent than the commonality requirement of Rule 23(a)(2).  Rule 23(b)(3) focuses on the relationship between the common and individual issues. The inquiry is rigorous as it tests whether proposed class is sufficiently cohesive to warrant adjudication by representation. See AmChem Prods., 521 U.S. at 623-24. 

Defendant asserted that reliance, materiality, and causation were all inherently individual; for example, its experts established that consumer choice is affected by many different factors, and plaintiff had no evidence to show that "all natural" has any uniform meaning or that it would have any major impact on a consumer's decision to purchase (or not to purchase) a particular brand of ice cream. Defendant also contended that the likelihood of confusion from the label must be "probable," not just "possible," and that studies showed that at most 3% of consumers who saw "all natural" on the packaging expected that the alkali used to process the cocoa was "natural."

Defendant similarly argued that the only way to test materiality and reliance would be to determine how much each consumer would have de-valued the ice cream products given the alleged presence of the "synthetic" alkalizing agent. However, this also could not be done on a class-wide basis, because consumer choice is affected by myriad factors. 

Most importantly, the damages claim was Half-baked, as the evidence showed that no one paid a premium for the "all natural" Ben & Jerry's ice cream, as Ben & Jerry's charges its wholesale customers the same price regardless of flavor and regardless of the contents of the label. When Ben & Jerry's changed its label and removed the "all natural" label from some ice cream packages, the prices did not decrease (neither the wholesale nor the retail prices);  so there was no support for plaintiff's speculation that "all natural" ice creams command a premium.

The Court agreed. Whichever way one approached it, plaintiff had not met her burden of showing that there was a class-wide method of awarding relief that was consistent with her theory of deceptive and fraudulent business practices, false advertising, or common law fraud (or the alternative theory of restitution based on quasi-contract). Plaintiff had not offered any expert testimony demonstrating that the market price of Ben & Jerry's ice cream with the "all natural" designation was higher than the market price of Ben & Jerry's without the "all natural" designation. More importantly, plaintiff had not offered sufficient expert testimony demonstrating a gap between the market price of Ben & Jerry's "all natural" ice cream and the price it purportedly should have sold for if it had not been labeled "all natural" – or evidence demonstrating that consumers would be willing to pay a premium for "all natural" ice cream that was made with cocoa alkalized with a "natural" alkali, and did in fact pay such a premium.

Under Comcast, the plaintiff is required to provide evidentiary proof showing a class-wide method of awarding relief that is consistent with plaintiff's theory of liability. See 133 S.Ct. at 1432. Here, however, plaintiff provided no such damages evidence, and the failure to offer a damages model that was capable of measurement across the entire class for purposes of Rule 23(b)(3) barred her effort to obtain certification of the class. 

Federal Court Rejects Consumer Class Action

 A California court recently rejected the class certification motion by a Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. customer alleging the chain falsely advertised its meat as humanely raised and free of antibiotics and hormones. See Alan Hernandez v. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. et al., No. 2:12-cv-05543 (C.D. Cal. 2013). While the case was initially broader, plaintiff’s allegations came to center on the
representations allegedly made in Chipotle’s in-store menu signboards and Chipotle’s paper menus.

The court concluded that the proposed class action failed to satisfy the requirements of Rule 23(b)(3). Class certification under Rule 23(b)(3) is proper, inter alia, only when common questions present a significant portion of the case and can be resolved for all members of the class in a single adjudication. The predominance inquiry under Rule 23(b) tests whether proposed classes are sufficiently cohesive to warrant adjudication by representation. See Amchem Prods., Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591, 623 (1997).  Rule 23(b)(3) also requires the court to find that a class action is superior to other available methods for fairly and efficiently adjudicating the controversy.

Here, the court found that common questions did not predominate over individual issues, and the class action device was not a fair and efficient way to provide a fair opportunity for class members to obtain relief, or for Chipotle to defend itself against claims. Many key issues could only be handled individually. Most fundamentally, the questions of when a class member ate at Chipotle,
the exact location where he or she ate, and which meat (if any) he or she ate are all not subject to class treatment.  Here, the dispute concerned a very low price transaction that neither the class members nor Chipotle maintained any specific record of, or could be expected to recall. 

More importantly, the alleged misconduct took place only with regard to certain products at varying locations within limited time frames. That was critical, because certain stores were allegedly serving certain conventional meats only at certain times because of shortages. Therefore, a class member would need to know with some certainty – and Chipotle should be allowed some mechanism for confirming or contesting that certainty – the date, location, and particular meat purchased. That kind of certainty in a class action that  encompasses purchases more than five years ago and, said the court, was not practical. Credit card records could provide some evidence of class members’ purchases, but credit card records would not provide the critical detail of which meat was purchased in any given transaction. 

Further, the important question of whether a class member saw a point-of-purchase sign when a particular purchase was made cannot be handled on a class-wide basis. For each purchase when naturally raised meat was allegedly not being served, the court observed there were at least four possibilities: (1) the sign was there and the class member saw it, (2) the sign was there and the class member did not see it due to Chipotle’s conduct, (3) the sign was there and the class member did not see it due to the class member’s negligence, and (4) the sign was not there. Many of the individual issues regarding liability were also reasons why the class action mechanism was not fair and efficient in this case.

In a burst of realism, the court was "confident" that very few people in a class would be able to provide the necessary information. People will either (1) lie, (2) attempt to present the facts but be unable to do so accurately, or, most likely, (3) not know.  This would even impact a theoretical future settlement.  Money would be given out basically at random to people who may or may not actually be entitled to restitution. This is unfair both to legitimate class members and to Chipotle.

The decision is the latest instance of an emerging trend in consumer class action cases: a recognition of the often insurmountable task of reliably identifying disparate members of a proposed class where few, if any members, have documentary proof of their purchases.  Here, it is treated as part of the predominance inquiry, and in other cases as part of ascertainability.

 

Court Rejects Settlement Because of Cy Pres Issues

A federal court recently rejected a proposed settlement of an economic loss class action because of the details of its cy pres component.  See In re Hydroxycut Mktg & Sales Practices Litig. (Dremak v. Iovate Health Scis. Grp.),  No. 09-cv-1088 (S.D. Cal. 11/19/13).

The “Settlement Class” was defined as including those persons who purchased various Hydroxycut  Products between May 9, 2006 and May 1, 2009, inclusive.The settlement relief consists of a $10 million Cash Component and a $10 million Product Component. Settlement Class Members who opted to receive cash were to receive $25 for each Hydroxycut Product they purchased.  In lieu of cash, Settlement Class Members could elect to receive a Product Bundle for
each purchase of a Hydroxycut Product. Any amount remaining in the Cash Component after payment of Notice and Claim Administration Expenses, and Eligible Cash Claims would constitute the “Residual Settlement Amount.”  If any funds remained after six years from the Effective Date of the deal, the remainder was to be paid out pursuant to the cy pres doctrine to certain types of organizations (such as ones promoting community-based solutions for common and preventable diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and asthma).

The cy pres doctrine allows a court to distribute unclaimed or non-distributable portions of a class action settlement fund to indirectly benefit the entire class. See Six Mexican Workers v. Ariz.Citrus Growers, 904 F.2d 1301, 1305 (9th Cir. 1990). When employing the cy pres doctrine, unclaimed funds should be put to their next best use, e.g., for “the aggregate, indirect, prospective benefit of
the class.” Nachshin v. AOL, LLC, 663 F.3d 1034, 1038 (9th Cir. 2011). The Ninth Circuit has held that cy pres distribution must be “guided by (1) the objectives of the underlying statute(s); and (2) the interests of the silent class members.” Six Mexican Workers, 904 F.2d at 1307. A cy pres distribution is an abuse of discretion if there is “no reasonable certainty” that any class member
would benefit from it. Dennis v. Kellogg Co., 697 F.3d 858, 865 (9th Cir. 2012).  A court should not find that a settlement is fair, adequate, and reasonable unless the cy pres remedy accounts for the nature of the plaintiffs’ lawsuit, the objectives of the underlying statutes, and the interests of the absent class members.

Generally, a district court can approve a class action settlement if the court finds that the settlement is “fair, reasonable, and adequate.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(e). When the settlement is reached before formal class certification, settlement requires a higher standard of fairness and a more probing inquiry than may normally be required under Rule 23(e).

Here, the court concluded that the cy pres remedy did not satisfy the standards for cy pres relief set forth by the Ninth Circuit. and denied the motion for final approval of the settlement.  The court found that the proposed cy pres distribution in this proposed settlement did not benefit the class. At the hearing, defendant's counsel explained that under a separate master settlement agreement governing the personal injury cases in the multi-district litigation, personal injury claimants are to be paid out of a $14 million settlement fund. And cy pres distributions for personal injury claimants in this action reduce the amount that Iovate must pay into the personal injury fund, yet, said the court, providing no additional benefit to the personal injury claimants and no benefit at all to the class members who suffered no personal injury.

The court rejected the argument that causing a benefit in the form of "facilitating settlement" in this action or the separate personal injury actions is the type of “indirect benefit” that cy pres remedies are meant to provide. The focus, said the court, should be on whether the funds themselves are being used for the benefit of the class.

The cy pres remedy was also problematic, said the court, because it allowed for a disproportionate distribution of settlement funds to personal injury claimants. In doing so, the cy pres remedy fails to take into account the interests of the majority of absent class members who did not suffer any personal injury, and the nature of this action, which mostly concerned alleged unfair competition, consumer protection, and product warranty claims, not personal injury liability.

Because of the expenses and claims, it appeared that more than half the settlement might be used for cy pres distribution to the personal injury claimants. The court expressed concern that so little of the sizeable settlement fund directly benefitted the class. Under the terms of the settlement, most of the fund could be channeled into cy pres distribution.  The American Law Institute’s Principles of the Law of Aggregate Litigation provide that where a settlement involves individual distributions to class members and there are funds remaining after the distributions, the settlement should
presumptively provide first for further distributions to participating class members unless the amounts involved are too small to make individual distributions economically viable or other specific reasons exist that would make such further distributions impossible or unfair. See ALI Principles § 3.07(b) (2010).

Thus, the court found that the cy pres distribution was not guided by the interests of the class
members.  It appeared to the court that the cy pres relief was being used as a vehicle to help settle the personal injury cases, not to provide an indirect prospective benefit to the entire class.  The court also contrasted that class counsel was seeking $5 million in fees based in part on a percentage of the total fund.


 

Energy Drink Case Subject to Primary Jurisdiction

We have posted before about the important doctrine of primary jurisdiction.  Last week, a defendant obtained dismissal of a proposed class action over its energy drinks under this theory. See Fisher v. Monster Beverage Corp., No. 12-2188 (C.D. Cal. 11/12/13).

Plaintiffs sued individually and as putative class representatives for  allegedly "unfair and deceptive business and trade practices on behalf of anyone who purchased for personal consumption any of the Monster-branded energy drinks sold under the Monster Rehab® brand name and the original Monster Energy®."  Plaintiffs alleged various misrepresentations on the labels of the Original Monster and Rehab Varieties cans, including language that the drink "quenches thirst, hydrates like a sports drink, and brings you back after a hard day's night", that it would "RE-FRESH, RE-HYDRATE, REVIVE," and is "the ideal combo of the right ingredients in the right proportion to deliver the big bad buzz that only Monster can."  Plaintiffs alleged these statements were  misrepresentations because the cans do not hydrate like a sports drink, and allegedly cause dehydration; because "it is not the ideal combo of the right ingredients in the right proportion" and because the statement omits the potential health risks associated with such drinks.  Plaintiffs also alleged claims related to Monster's advertising "strategy."  Plaintiffs alleged that Monster specifically "targets" youth despite the caffeine levels in Monster Drinks.

The court tackled a number of challenges, including standing, preemption (some claims were preempted by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act), and the absence of particularity in many of the fraud allegations.  But our focus here is on primary jurisdiction.  The primary jurisdiction doctrine allows courts to stay proceedings or to dismiss a complaint without prejudice pending the resolution of an issue within the special competence of an administrative agency; it is most often invoked if a claim involves an issue of first impression or a particularly complicated issue Congress has committed to a regulatory agency.  The courts traditionally weigh four factors in deciding whether to apply the primary jurisdiction doctrine: (1) the need to resolve an issue that (2) has been placed by Congress within the jurisdiction of an administrative body having regulatory authority (3) pursuant to a statute that subjects an industry or activity to a comprehensive regulatory authority that (4) requires expertise or uniformity in administration.  The court determines that an otherwise cognizable claim implicates technical and policy questions that should be addressed in the first instance by the agency with regulatory authority over the relevant industry rather than by the judicial branch.

Defendants argued that the FDA has jurisdiction over issues involving food safety and labeling, and the FDA has specialized expertise in the "technical and policy" questions involved here; the FDA has commenced a science-based evaluation of the safety of caffeine-containing food products, including energy drinks. They also argued that the FDA has primary jurisdiction because the agency has special competence over the matters involving the alleged inadequate warnings and failure to warn issues in this case.  The court agreed that the matters at issue here have been placed by Congress within the jurisdiction of the FDA pursuant to statute and regulations that require the FDA's expertise. The FDA has regulatory authority over food labeling. The FDCA establishes a uniform federal scheme of food regulation to ensure that food is labeled in a manner that does not mislead consumers. Second, plaintiffs' claims ultimately involve "technical and policy claims" about the effects of caffeine and whether Monster should be allowed to advertise and label their products in a way that appeals to a younger demographic. Plaintiffs cited to studies examining the effects of "energy drinks" in general, demonstrating that issues raised in the complaint may affect an entire industry. 

Third, the FDA has taken an interest in investigating and resolving whether energy drinks, including Monster, contain proper levels of caffeine. The FDA's interest in regulating the safety of caffeine weighed in favor of exercising the primary jurisdiction doctrine.  Thus, the Court found that plaintiffs' claims were covered under the Primary  Jurisdiction Doctrine.  

 

 

Homeowner Class Decertified Under Statute of Repose

A federal court last week decertified a class of North Carolina homeowners who alleged breach of warranty against the manufacturer of window trim in a short, interesting decision.  See Hart v. Louisiana-Pacific Corp., No. 2:08-cv-00047 (E.D.N.C., 8/30/13).

Trimboard was a product allegedly sold for use on the exterior of homes. Plaintiffs alleged it was defective in design and manufacture because it allegedly would absorb water, warp, and bulge. The court had certified a homeowner class in July, 2011.

Then in July, 2013, the North Carolina Court of Appeals issued an opinion in Christie v. Hartley Const., Inc., 745 S.E.2d 60 (N.C. App. 2013), clarifying the state's statute of repose.  Per the appeals court, the statute bars claims for damages not filed within the repose period, even in the context of an alleged an express warranty that includes a longer term than the repose peiriod.

Defendants moved for decertification, contending that the recent decision of the Court of Appeals meant that the named plaintiffs' claims were barred by the applicable statute of repose under North Carolina law. "Summary judgment is proper if the pleadings or proof show without contradiction that the statute of repose has expired." Bryant v. Don Galloway Homes, Inc., 147 N.C. App. 655, 657 (2001).

It was undisputed that this suit was filed beyond the six-year statute of repose applicable to the claims of the named plaintiffs. Since any action for damages brought outside of the statute of repose is barred, summary judgment was therefore appropriate as to the claims of the named plaintiffs.

That of course raised issues of adequacy of representation, and more importantly, predominance. The task of  determining which absent plaintiffs would be permitted to bring an action for damages would
necessarily require an individualized determination of factors such as "the later of the specific last act or omission of the defendant giving rise to the cause of action or substantial completion of the improvement." N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-50(a)(5), under the statute. The necessity for such a determination did in fact destroy "typicality, ... predominance, [and] otherwise foreclose class certification." Gunnells v. Healthplan Services, Inc., 348 F.3d 417,427-28 (4th Cir. 2003).

Accordingly, pursuant to Rule 23(c)(1)(3) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and in light of the Court's broad discretion to certify or decertify a class action, Ward v. Dixie Nat. Life Inc. Co., 595 F.3d 164, 179 (4th Cir. 2010), the class certified by the court's July, 2011 order was decertified. 

 

Consumer Fraud Class Claim Dismissed in Beverage Case

Readers have seen our warning about the trend in food and beverage claims attacking virtually every aspect of the product's label as a supposed consumer fraud act violation. A federal court earlier this month dismissed just such a proposed class action challenging the labeling on VitaRain Tropical Mango Vitamin Enhanced Water Beverage.  See Maple v. Costco Wholesale Corp., No. 12-5166 (E.D. Wash., 8/1/13).

Plaintiffs alleged in their amended complaint that one defendant manufactured and bottled a product known as VitaRain Vitamin Enhanced Water Beverage. VitaRain came in four flavors: Tropical Mango, Raspberry Green Tea, Kiwi Strawberry, and Dragonfruit. The product was marketed and distributed by another defendant and sold at Costco warehouses throughout the
country. Plaintiffs alleged that the VitaRain Tropical Mango drink in particular was marketed as a natural product but in fact contained “unnatural” ingredients, including large amounts of “synthetic caffeine.” Specifically, plaintiffs alleged that the VitaRain Tropical Mango drink (1) lacked a front-facing disclosure that the beverage contained caffeine; (2) failed to disclose the relative amount of caffeine in the beverage; and (3) falsely claimed that the beverage is a “natural tonic” and
contains “natural caffeine.” Plaintiffs further alleged they “reasonably believed that they [had] purchased a Drink similar to vitamin water.” 

On behalf of a putative class consisting of all Washington residents who purchased the product over the four years preceding the filing of the lawsuit, the named plaintiff asserted claims for (1) violations of the Washington Consumer Protection Act; (2) misrepresentation; and (3) negligence.

Defendant Costco moved to dismiss the amended complaint, contending, inter alia, that some
of plaintiff’s claims were preempted by federal law; and that parts of the amended complaint failed to meet the pleading standards of Rules 8 and 9(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

To withstand dismissal, a complaint must contain “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). “Naked assertion[s],” “labels and conclusions,” or “formulaic recitation[s] of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Id. at 555, 557.  A claim has facial plausibility only "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

First an interesting civil procedure issue. Ordinarily, when the district court considers matters outside the pleadings it must convert a motion to dismiss brought under Civil Rule 12(b)(6) into a Civil Rule 56 motion for summary judgment. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(d). However, a court may consider certain materials without converting the motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment. See, e.g., United States v. Ritchie, 342 F.3d 903, 908 (9th Cir. 2003). Such materials include documents attached to the complaint, documents incorporated by reference in the complaint, or matters of judicial notice.  A document may be incorporated by reference into a complaint where the
plaintiff refers extensively to the document or the document forms the basis of plaintiff’s claim. In such cases, the defendant may offer that document and the district court may treat the document as part of the complaint for the purposes of a motion to dismiss. Here, the court concluded that judicial notice of the product label was appropriate and that it could consider the labeling without converting Costco’s motion to dismiss into one for summary judgment.

Defendants argued that plaintiff’s claims were expressly preempted by the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetics Act (“FDCA”), as amended by the National Labeling and Education Act (“NLEA”), 21 U.S.C. § 301 et seq. The FDCA “comprehensively regulates food and beverage labeling.” Pom Wonderful LLC v. Coca-Cola Co., 679 F.3d 1170, 1175 (9th Cir. 2012).  And specifically, they govern whether and how a label must disclose the presence of caffeine.  Here, the Amended Complaint sought "to create and impose”  two new requirements which would directly conflict with federal law: (1) a requirement that caffeinated beverages disclose the fact that they contain caffeine on the front label; and (2) a requirement that labels state the “relative amount” of caffeine by providing a “daily value” amount.  By virtue of imposing these new and conflicting requirements, defendants contended, plaintiff’s claims were preempted.  The court agreed; defendants showed that these food labeling requirements are expressly covered by the regulations. Federal law preempts any state law that would impose additional requirements on how food labels present nutrition information.  See Turek v. Gen. Mills, Inc., 662 F.3d 423, 426 (7th Cir. 2011).  Specifically, the court held that federal law preempts plaintiff’s claims that (1) defendants were required to disclose that the drink contained caffeine on the front label of the drink and (2) that defendants were required to state the “relative amount” of caffeine in the drink. Therefore Costco’s motion to dismiss was granted as to these claims.

Next, defendants contended that plaintiff had also failed to adequately plead causation, an element of the remaining consumer fraud-based allegations. Specifically, defendants argued that plaintiff had not alleged that he even read the complained-of labels before purchasing the VitaRain drink. The court noted that while the amended complaint contained detailed allegations about what was, and what was not, on the label of the VitaRain Tropical Mango drink he allegedly purchased, nowhere did he state that he actually read the label, or that his purchasing decision was driven by the alleged deceptive statements on the label.  Broad conclusory statements on causation. such as that class members have suffered "as a result of" purchasing the energy Drink, were insufficient, especially in light of Plaintiff’s failure to allege that he even read the allegedly deceptive labels prior to purchasing the drink.

Finally, on the misrepresentation claims, defendants suggested that plaintiff could not prove the reliance elements of his fraudulent misrepresentation and negligent misrepresentation claims because he had not alleged that he saw the alleged misrepresentations prior to purchasing
the drink. The court dismissed plaintiff’s misrepresentation claim for the same reason that the CPA claim was dismissed: Plaintiff failed to adequately plead reliance because he had not alleged that he based his purchasing decision on the complained-of labels or that he even read the labels
prior to purchasing the drink.  The court refused to credit the naked assertion that he would not have purchased the drink had the label not contained such statements in light of the missing averments.

Claims dismissed (with leave to amend).

 

Class Certification Denied in Minivan Case

A federal court last week denied class certification in a case alleging that vehicle axles were allegedly prone to cracking.   See Martin v. Ford Motor Co., No. 2:10-cv-02203 (E.D. Pa., 7/2/13).

Plaintiff filed suit against Ford on behalf of himself and others similarly situated claiming breach of express and implied warranties, unjust enrichment, and violations of state consumer protection laws. The claim related to alleged issues with the rear axle installed on 1998½ -2003 Ford Windstars.  Plaintiff moved to certify four classes of Windstar owners: an express warranty class, an implied warranty class, a consumer protection act class, and an unjust enrichment class.  Each included owners from several different states. Plaintiff moved to certify these four classes pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(2) and (b)(3), seeking injunctive relief and monetary damages on behalf of class members.

The court denied class certification in a lengthy and comprehensive opinion.  For our post, let's focus on the b(3) claim and the predominance element. Failure to satisfy the predominance requirement has doomed many an automotive defect cases. Federal courts have recognized that suits alleging defects involving motor vehicles often involve complicated issues of individual causation that predominate over common questions regarding the existence of a defect.

When a proposed class includes members from different states, there may be a choice of law problem that relates to predominance (as well as superiority and manageability). Several of the states in the express warranty class contain material differences in their legal definition of a breach of express warranty claim. Some of the group, but not all, required that a buyer show reliance on a statement or representation made by the seller as condition for recovery on a breach of express warranty claim. These differences undermine any finding of predominance. 

The court also found that a breach could not be proven without also inquiring into each individual class member’s Windstar experience, since the vast majority of Class members —approximately 83.2% — had not experienced any problems with their rear axles seven to twelve years after their vehicles were manufactured. In deciding whether Ford breached the express warranty that Windstars were “free from defects in material and workmanship,” a trier-of-fact could not solely look at evidence of Ford’s knowledge of the rear axle issues from 1997 through 2003, but must also consider how each axle performed through 2010. For example, a class member might own a 1998 Ford Windstar with 160,000 miles, which has been driven daily for twelve years without a problem. A second class member may have used his 2000 Windstar to travel constantly for business, putting 200,000 miles on the vehicle. A third class member may have only 50,000 miles on a 2003 Windstar because the class member drives the vehicle only on weekends. A fourth class member may have been forced to replace his original axle after only three months of use -- but because of a serious rear-end collision. None of these class members suffered an axle fracture. Were not these vehicles of different ages, with different mileage, in different conditions, which have been driven without a problem “free from defects”? These matters cannot be addressed by a trier-of-fact without consideration of the individual factual scenarios, said the court.

Even assuming breach could be proven on a class-wide basis, the calculation of damages for express warranty class members would be impossible without individualized inquiries into each claim.  The court cited to the Supreme Court's recent decision in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend that a model purporting to serve as evidence of damages in a class action must measure only those damages attributable to the theory of the case. If the model does not even attempt to do that, it cannot possibly establish that damages are susceptible of measurement across the entire class for purposes of Rule 23(b)(3). 133 S. Ct. 1426, 1433 (2013). Here, plaintiffs' damages model was based on injury to the resale price of a used Windstar; but that price would be based on a multitude of factors, of which the allegedly defective rear axle is but one. See, e.g., Carpenter v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 1999 WL 415390, at *4 (E.D. Pa. June 21, 1999) (value of a vehicle is dependent on a "whole host of individualized factors including age, mileage, repair and maintenance history and accidents or damage.’”); see also Chin v. Chrysler Corp., 182 F.R.D. 448, 463 (D.N.J. 1998)). The need to take into account this multitude of factors creates a proximate cause issue, and required individual proof. Good to see the lower courts applying this important Supreme Court guidance.

Similarly, proving breach of implied warranty, that the Ford Windstars were not “fit for the ordinary purposes for which such goods are used,” was a question of fact with multiple relevant factors raising individual issues. Facts relevant to this inquiry would include not only the allegedly common testing and
monitoring of the axle but, as stated above in discussing the express warranty class, the experience of each individual Class member with the Ford Windstar.  And even if breach could be proven by using only common facts, the calculation of damages for the implied warranty class would face the exact same obstacle; again, approximately 83.2% of Windstar owners have not experienced any problems with
their rear axles. Plaintiff claimed that these Class members suffered damages through a reduction
in the resale value of their vehicles after a safety recall was initiated. Even assuming the recall did affect the market price for used Windstars, plaintiff had not provided a method to calculate the decrease in value on a class-wide basis.

Next the consumer protection claim required plaintiffs to prove each class member suffered a cognizable injury. To determine whether a class member suffered an “ascertainable loss,” and whether that loss was “as a result of” Ford’s alleged concealment or omission of information regarding the Windstar’s rear axle, would require the trier-of-fact to consider facts unique to each individual class member.  That is, plaintiff would encounter the same insurmountable obstacles in his attempt to prove a class-wide “ascertainable loss” suffered “as a result of” Ford’s conduct as he would encounter attempting to prove class-wide damages for the express and implied warranty classes.  Simply put, for a class member whose rear axle has not fractured — which was the vast majority of class members — proving a used Windstar suffered a loss in value because of Ford’s safety recall requires an inquiry into the age, mileage, and overall condition of the vehicle. This individual fact-gathering process would be essential to a consumer protection claim, and therefore fatal to the predominance requirement for class certification under Rule 23(b)(3).

Finally, the first element of an unjust enrichment claim — whether a class member conferred a benefit on Ford — again required an inquiry into each class member’s experience with the Windstar. Moreover, another element — whether it would be unjust for Ford to retain money provided by class members in view of the allegedly defective rear axle — was also incapable of proof without reference to individual facts. Ford’s actions could only be considered unjust if money was retained after selling a defective product. To prove a defect required the trier-of-fact to consider Ford’s conduct alongside each class member’s experience with the Windstar. The vast majority of class members have had no problems with their rear axles. The trier-of-fact would therefore have to consider whether Ford’s retention of the full purchase price of a 1998 Windstar, for example, was "unjust" in a situation where the Windstar has been driven by a class member for twelve years without incident.

Certification denied.

Class Certification Denied in Auto Case

A federal court has declined to certify a proposed class of Ford Focus drivers who allege a suspension defect in their cars. Daniel v. Ford Motor Co., No. 2:11-02890 (E.D. Cal. 6/17/13).

Plaintiffs generally alleged that the 2005 to 2011 Ford Focus vehicles had a rear suspension “alignment/geometry defect” which leads to premature tire wear, which in turn leads to safety hazards such as decreased control in handling, steering, and stability. Plaintiffs sought to certify a class consisting of “[a]ll individuals who purchased or leased any 2005 through 2011 Ford Focus vehicle in
California and who currently reside in the United States.”

Before certifying a class, the trial court recognized it must conduct a “rigorous analysis” to determine whether the party seeking certification has met the prerequisites of Rule 23. See Mazza v. Am. Honda Motor Co., Inc., 666 F.3d 581, 588 (9th Cir.2012) (quoting Zinser v. Accufix Res. Inst., Inc., 253 F.3d 1180, 1186, amended by 273 F.3d 1266 (9th Cir. 2001)).

After motion practice, plaintiffs were left with warranty claims. Predominance was the key issue, and let's focus on the causation element -- the need for plaintiffs to show that the breach of warranty caused their alleged injury.

The court noted that when a warranty requires that a claimant show that something like tire wear (a condition caused by many things) is caused by a defect in the vehicles, the claims for breach of that warranty do not easily satisfy the Rule 23(b)(3) predominance test.  A determination whether the defective  alignment caused a given class member’s tires to wear prematurely would require proof specific to that individual class member.  Tires deteriorate at different rates depending on where and how they are driven; so, whether a set of tires wore out prematurely, and as a result of the alleged alignment defect, are individual causation/injury issues that make class-wide adjudication inappropriate.  

While named plaintiff presented evidence that her rear tires experienced the type of tire wear allegedly associated with the alleged suspension defect, even her experts admitted that driving habits, failure to properly maintain the vehicle, and other actions by a vehicle’s owner can cause or contribute to premature tire wear.  Resolving whether the alleged suspension defect caused the tire wear in the named class representative's vehicle would not resolve the same question for other class members who might have experienced different types of tire wear caused by different factors.


Therefore, concluded the court, whether the alleged suspension defect caused the proposed class members’ injuries was not a common question. Given the centrality of the causation issue, individual questions would predominate over questions allegedly common to the class; the court denied plaintiffs’ motion for class certification under Rule 23(b)(3).

 

Another Plaintiff Fails to Obtain Class Certification for Claims About Products Not Actually Purchased

We've posted before about the curious phenomenon of plaintiffs suing about the labeling on a product they never even purchased.  Recently class certification was denied in yet another case alleging false labeling on a product the named plaintiff did not buy  See Major v. Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., No. 12-03067 (N.D. Cal., 6/10/13). We flag this case for our readers, because of the court's emphasis on the Rule 23(a) element of typicality instead of the equally applicable notion of standing.

Plaintiff alleged that she purchased several of defendant’s products in California. Her Complaint stated that Plaintiff purchased various “Ocean Spray juices and drinks” that were allegedly improperly labeled "No Sugar Added," or were bearing improper nutrient content claims, or had misrepresentations that the products were free from artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.  She alleged the usual causes of action, including violation of California’s Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”), Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17200 et seq. (counts 1–3); violation of the False Advertising Law (“FAL”), Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17500 et seq., (counts 4–5); violation of the Consumers Legal Remedies Act (“CLRA”), Cal. Civ. Code § 1750 et seq. (count 6); restitution based on unjust enrichment or quasi-contract (count 7); and breach of warranty (8).

She sought certification of a class of similar purchasers. Rule 23(a)(3) requires that a named plaintiff’s claims be typical of those that would be advanced by the proposed class. Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(a)(3). The test for Rule 23(a) typicality in the Ninth Circuit is whether other members have the same or similar injury, whether the action is based on conduct which is not unique to the named plaintiffs, and whether other class members have been injured by the same course of conduct. See Wolin v. Jaguar Land Rover N. Am., LLC, 617 F.3d 1168, 1175 (9th Cir. 2010); Ries v. Arizona Beverages USA LLC, 287 F.R.D. 523, 539 (N.D. Cal. 2012).

In the context of cases involving several products at issue —like this one— district courts have held that the typicality requirement has not been met where the named plaintiff purchased a different product than that purchased by unnamed, absent class, plaintiffs. Wiener, 255 F.R.D. at 666; see also Gonzalez v. Proctor & Gamble Co., 247 F.R.D. 616 (S.D. Cal. 2007); Lewis Tree Serv., Inc. v. Lucent Techs. Inc., 211 F.R.D. 228 (S.D.N.Y.2002); Kaczmarek v. Int’l Bus. Machs. Corp., 186 F.R.D. 307, 313 (S.D.N.Y. 1999).

With that standard in mind, here the court found that plaintiff, the proposed class representative, had not met her burden of showing that her claims are typical of those of the proposed class members pursuant to Rule 23(a)(3).  The primary reason behind the court’s determination that the typicality requirement had not been met is that plaintiff’s proposed classes were so broad and indefinite that they encompassed products that she herself did not purchase. See Wiener, 255 F.R.D. at 666. In her deposition, plaintiff asserted that she purchased five of the defendants’ products. But the putative class definitions that plaintiff wanted the court to certify would have included a whole host of other products that plaintiff had nothing to do with. For example, the putative class would include any of defendant’s products “represented to contain no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives but which contained artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.”  The putative class also included entire lines of products; as an example, any product from the “Sparkling” line of products. However, in both of these examples, plaintiff failed to make an allegation that she purchased all of such products, all the products in these product lines. As such, the claims of the unnamed plaintiffs who purchased products plaintiff herself did not buy were not fairly encompassed by the named plaintiff’s claims.

The second basis of the finding that plaintiff's claims failed to meet the Rule 23(a) typicality requirement is the fact that the labels and nutrition claims on each of the products at issue was unique to that product itself. For example, plaintiff based her mislabeling causes of action with regard to the Diet Sparkling Pomegranate Blueberry drink product, in part, on the claims made on the specific label of this specific drink product -- language that included specific claims about blueberries, applicable only to drinks containing blueberries. The evidence needed to prove plaintiff’s claim that the Diet Sparkling Pomegranate Blueberry drink contained false or misleading labeling was not probative of the claims of unnamed class members who purchased products within the “Sparkling” line that did not contain blueberries. 

Certification denied.

 

Supreme Court Remands Two Class Actions in Light of Comcast

Earlier this week I spoke at a CLE seminar on the topic of class actions, and part of my focus was the recent Supreme Court decision in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 133 S. Ct. 1426 (2013).  Since that decision, the Court has granted cert, vacated, and remanded for reconsideration two class action cases involving allegations of defects in washing machines:  Whirlpool Corp. v. Glazer, No. 12-322 (U.S. 4/1/13); Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. Butler, No. 12-1067 (U.S. June 3, 2013).


In Glazer, the lower court had certified a class of purchasers of washing machines despite admitted variations in laundry habits; differences in remedial efforts; variation in service performed on the machines.  And despite the fact that a reported 97% of the class had never complained of a problem or suffered the alleged defect. 678 F.3d 409 (6th Cir. 2012).

In Butler, the lower court had granted certification of two classes of more than 100,000 members in six states who purchased 20 different models of machines; again many never had the problem alleged.

So where does Comcast, ostensibly an antitrust case, fit here?  The Court reaffirmed that a class action is an exception to the rule of individual adjudication. And to get there, Rule 23 is not merely a pleading standard. Just as Dukes made clear that a rigorous analysis of the Rule 23(a) prerequisites, such as commonality, is required, the same principles apply to Rule 23(b) elements, such as predominance. And a court cannot refuse to consider class certification arguments just because those arguments also might be relevant to the merits of plaintiffs' claims.

In Glazer the district court made noises about some of the defense arguments on certification going to the merits, and the Sixth Circuit had about two sentences on predominance -- suggesting the absence of the rigorous analysis required.

In Butler, 702 F.3d 359 (7th Cir. 2012), the Seventh Circuit suggested predominance was met because it would be more efficient to resolve the question whether the machines were defective in a single class trial; predominance is a question of efficiency.  That would seem to run afoul of Rule 23, which incorporates efficiency in the notion of superiority, but not as a definition of or synonym for predominance. Indeed the Advisory Committee notes suggest that efficiencies flow only when predominance is present. Prior Court opinions instruct that predominance implies a notion of cohesion.  And the Butler court's treatment of the need for individual damages trials seems flatly inconsistent with the Comcast Court's statements on the need for proof on a class-wide basis.

 Two to keep an eye on.

 

 

Another Un-natural "Natural" Claim Dismissed

We have posted before about the disturbing trend of plaintiffs parsing food labels to find something to complain about -- not that the product is unhealthy or harmful or doesn't taste good -- but a "gotcha" game raised to the level of a consumer fraud act violation or a breach of warranty class action.  So we like to note when common sense prevails in this arena.  A federal court recently held that a food manufacturer cannot be in breach of an express warranty for using the term "natural" on its label when that same label discloses the identity and presence of any ingredients the plaintiffs claim were not "natural."   See Chin v. General Mills Inc., No. 12-02150 (D.Minn. 6/3/13).


General Mills produces, markets, and sells a line of Nature Valley products, including “Protein Chewy Bars,” “Chewy Trail Mix Granola Bars,” “Yogurt Chewy Granola Bars,” “Sweet & Salty Nut Granola Bars,” and “Granola Thins.” By all accounts these are excellent products that taste great and offer nutritious ingredients. Plaintiffs were consumers who allegedly purchased one or more of the Nature Valley products. The plaintiffs alleged the products were deceptively labeled as “100 percent Natural” because they contained fructose corn syrup and high maltose corn syrup.  Plaintiffs alleged they relied on the representations, and would not have purchased the products or paid as much if they had known of the actual ingredients. Plaintiffs sought a national class, and sub-classes for New York and New Jersey.

The first problem was that plaintiffs sought relief for alleged representations made on bars that they never purchased; plaintiffs lacked Article III standing for these products and plaintiffs could not represent a class of consumers who purchased products that the named plaintiffs did not purchase. The named plaintiffs in a class action may not rely on injuries that the putative class may have suffered, but instead, said the court, must allege that they personally have been injured. Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 357 (1996); Thunander v. Uponor, Inc., 887 F. Supp. 2d 850, 863 (D. Minn. 2012).

The express warranty claim failed because the term “100% Natural” on a label cannot be viewed in isolation and must be read in the context of the entire package, including the ingredient panel. The specific terms included in the ingredient list must inform the more general term “Natural.” The specific terms determine the scope of the express warranty that was allegedly made to the plaintiffs. And here, a defendant cannot be in breach of an express warranty by including in the product an ingredient that it expressly informed consumers was included.  It is typical of plaintiffs in these cases to elevate one word or phrase in a label, while ignoring all the other information provided the consumer.

Finally, the fraud based claims were dismissed for failure to satisfy the heightened pleading requirements of Rule 9(b). Plaintiffs failed to plead how they were deceived by the “100% Natural” statement. Plaintiffs did not allege with any specificity what they believed “100% Natural” to mean.

Motion to dismiss granted.

 

 

House Committee Approves Asbestos Bill

Quick note for our readers who follow asbestos mass tort issues:  the House Judiciary Committee decided in a 17–14 party-line vote this week to reject  various proposed amendments to the Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency Act of 2013 (H.R. 982).  The FACT Act would require the various asbestos settlement trusts to make public disclosures detailing the claims to the trust and to provide certain information about claims on request (but not confidential medical records).  The amendments were proposed by Democrats opposing the bill.

The Full Committee Markup of H.R. 982 is here.  Hearing information regarding the 3/13 hearing on the bill is here

Passage of the Fact Act would allow defendants to properly assess a plaintiff’s complete exposure history. As it stands, plaintiffs often hide behind trust confidentiality to make solvent defendants believe that their products were far more responsible for the plaintiff’s disease than the true picture.  As asbestos liabilities force more and more companies to file for bankruptcy, legislators need to preserve assets for appropriate claimants; the secrecy and abuse associated with the trusts undermines this as well.

 

Prop 65 Reforms Proposed

Our readers know how Prop 65 has created numerous issues for product sellers and created much litigation mischief in the hands of overzealous plaintiffs. Interesting that earlier this week, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said he now advocates reforms to California's law to frivolous lawsuits that do nothing to protect consumers.

The administration, through the California Environmental Protection Agency, wants to work closely with the state Legislature to revamp Proposition 65 by ending frivolous “shake-down” lawsuits. 

Voters approved Proposition 65 in 1986. The measure requires the Governor to annually publish a list of chemicals allegedly "known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity." If a business in California sells a product containing such chemicals listed by the state in excess of certain levels, the business must provide warnings to users or in the workplace.

The Governor wants reforms to:
• Cap or limit attorney’s fees in Proposition 65 cases.
• Require stronger demonstration by plaintiffs that they have information to support claims before litigation begins.
• Require greater disclosure of plaintiff’s information.
• Set limits on the amount of money in an enforcement case that can go into settlement funds in lieu of penalties.

The administration is worried about "lawyers who bring nuisance lawsuits to extract settlements from businesses with little or no benefit to the public or the environment." Since 2008, nearly 2,000 complaints have been filed by so-called “citizen enforcers.” Goofy suits include litigation against banks for failing to prevent second-hand smoke near their ATM machines.

The devil is always in the details, so it will be important to keep an eye on this.

 

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.

 

 

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.

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.

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. 


 

Consumer Fraud Class Claim Over Dietary Supplements Dismissed

A federal court in Illinois recently ruled that a plaintiff in a putative class action failed to state a claim in his suit challenging the marketing of two dietary supplements. See Padilla v. Costco Wholesale Corp., No. 11-C-7686 (N.D. Ill.,  1/16/13).

Plaintiff  alleged a violation of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act (“ICFA”), 815 ILCS 505/2. He alleged that defendant distributed and marketed the Kirkland Signature™ line of dietary supplements in stores and on-line. These products included  Glucosamine with MSM products, and the Glucosamine/Chondroitin line of products.  Plaintiff asserted he purchased a bottle of Glucosamine with MSM.  And he alleged that that there was no competent and reliable scientific evidence that taking glucosamine either with chondroitin sulfate, or with MSM, results in the body metabolizing it into something that builds or nourishes cartilage or provides joint mobility or joint cushioning.  He asserted that clinical studies have found that glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, and MSM are not effective.  Thus, he was allegedly deceived by defendant's representations regarding the products, and he would not have purchased Glucosamine with MSM had he known the truth.

Defendant moved to dismiss the (latest) complaint..  The court noted that a complaint must allege enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face to survive a motion to dismiss. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 547 (2007).  For a claim to have facial plausibility, a plaintiff must plead factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009). Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice. Typically, the amount of factual allegations required to state a plausible claim for relief depends on the complexity of the legal theory alleged. See Limestone Dev. Corp. v. Vill. of Lemont, 520 F.3d 797, 803 (7th Cir. 2008).

The court concluded the Padilla failed to state an ICFA claim as to Glucosamine Chondroitin because Padilla did not actually purchase Glucosamine Chondroitin. Plaintiff proposed to pursue claims on behalf of himself and putative class members who purchased either Glucosamine with MSM and/or Glucosamine with Chondroitin.  To bring an ICFA claim, a plaintiff must either allege it was a consumer of the defendant or allege a close nexus with Illinois consumers. Padilla purchased a bottle of Glucosamine with MSM, according to the complaint, but never alleged he purchased of the Glucosamine/Chondroitin. Because Padilla did not purchase Glucosamine Chondroitin, Padilla had not sustained any actual damage from alleged representations about it.

As to Padilla’s ICFA claim based on Glucosamine with MSM, the clinical studies cited by plaintiff were insufficient to state a claim that the product representations were false or misleading. Although Padilla cited to clinical studies supposedly showing the dietary supplements were ineffective for the treatment of osteoarthritis, he failed to make a connection between the studies and the actual representations on the label.  The Glucosamine with MSM product label did not claim to be effective for the treatment of osteoarthritis. Thus, clinical studies regarding the ineffectiveness of glucosamine or chondroitin in the treatment of osteoarthritis did not have any bearing on the truthfulness of the actual representations made.  

The court thus dismissed with prejudice the claims over the Glucosamine/Chondroitin supplement, and the MSM claim were dismissed with leave to amend. 



 

State Supreme Court Clarifies Causation Standard in Asbestos Case

The unique and overwhelming features of the grandfather of all mass torts, asbestos, has created bad law in many jurisdictions, procedurally and substantively.  One important example is the issue of causation, and the questions that arise from an injury possibly associated with multiple  exposures to multiple products over many years.  Last year, we posted about a Pennsylvania decision that rejected the plaintiff position that an expert can opine that any level of exposure to a toxic substance is a substantial contributing factor to a disease that is governed by a dose-response relationship.

Recently, the Virginia Supreme Court adopted a new “multiple sufficient causes” analysis as the standard for Virginia mesothelioma cases involving multiple asbestos exposures. See Ford Motor Co. v. Boomer, No. 120283 (Va. 1/10/13).

Plaintiff was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a malignant cancer of the pleura of the lungs.  He asserted that his job duties required that he observe vehicle inspections wherein mechanics used compressed air to blow out brake debris (dust) to allow for a visual inspection of the vehicle's  brakes. He testified that he observed vehicle inspections in approximately 70 garages a month, for five to six hours a day, ten days each month. He testified that his rotations included supervising inspections at a Ford dealership. He said he also specifically remembered Oldsmobile dealers on his rotation. Plaintiff could not identify the type of brake linings being inspected, but presented some circumstantial evidence as to the likely manufacturer of the brake linings being Bendix.

Plaintiff's experts opined that the exposure to dust from Bendix brakes and brakes in Ford cars were both substantial contributing factors in his mesothelioma. And they opined that the current medical evidence suggests that there is no safe level of chrysotile asbestos exposure above background levels in the ambient air. However, plaintiff also testified that he worked as a pipefitter at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in the early 1940s. His own work and the work of those immediately around him involved packing sand into pipes so that the pipes could be bent to fit the ships. Defense experts opined that his profile was more consistent with a person who had exposure to amosite asbestos at a shipyard sixty years ago than a person exposed to chrysotile brake products.

The jury found in favor of the plaintiff; the trial court denied Bendix' and Ford's motions to strike the expert testimony and their motions to set aside the verdict or for a new trial. Bendix and Ford timely appealed, including on the issue that the court had instructed the jury to determine whether Ford's or Bendix' negligence was a "substantial contributing factor" to plaintiff's mesothelioma. Defendants challenged the use of the substantial contributing factor language as contrary to prevailing Virginia law as to causation.

The court reviewed the traditional Virginia law of causation, which in most instances requires proof that but for the defendant's actions the plaintiff would not have been injured.The 'but for' test is a useful rule of exclusion in all but one situation, said the court: where two causes concur to bring about an event and either alone would have been sufficient to bring about an identical result.  Thus, state law has long provided a means of holding a defendant liable if his or her negligence is one of multiple concurrent causes which proximately caused an injury, when any of the multiple causes would have each have been a sufficient cause.

Causation in a mesothelioma case, however, observed the court, presents a challenge beyond even that standard concurring negligence instruction. Mesothelioma is virtually a signature disease: it was uncontroverted at trial that in most situations the cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos at some point during an individual's lifetime. The long latency period of the disease, however, makes it exceedingly difficult to pinpoint when the harmful asbestos exposure occurred and, in the presence of multiple exposures, equally difficult to distinguish the causative exposures. Further complicating the issue, said the court, although numerous individuals were exposed to varying levels of asbestos during its widespread industrial use before safety measures became standard, not all persons so exposed developed mesothelioma.  It is not currently known why some are more susceptible than others to developing mesothelioma, or why even comparatively lower levels of exposure may cause mesothelioma in some individuals while others exposed to higher dosages never develop the disease. Thus, in the context of a lifetime of various potential asbestos exposures, designating particular exposures as causative presents courts with a unique  challenge.

Certainly, said the court, if the traditional but-for definition of proximate cause was invoked, the injured party would virtually never be able to recover for damages arising from mesothelioma in the context of multiple exposures, because injured parties would face the difficult if not impossible task of proving that any one single source of exposure, in light of other exposures, was the sole but-for cause of the disease. The lower court thus used a "substantial factor" test.  In the last several decades, with the rise of asbestos-based lawsuits, the "substantial contributing factor" instruction has become prominent in some other jurisdictions. See, e.g., Lohrmann v. Pittsburgh Corning Corp., 782 F.2d 1156, 1162-63 (4th Cir. 1986) (upholding Maryland's substantial contributing factor standard in an asbestosis case); Rutherford v. Owens-Illinois, Inc., 941 P.2d 1203, 1219 (Cal. 1997).

Here, the court rejected the “substantial contributing factor” analysis used by these several other jurisdictions.  The Court did not believe that substantial contributing factor has a single, common-sense meaning, and concluded that a reasonable juror could be confused as to the quantum of evidence required to prove causation in the face of both a substantial contributing factor and a proximate cause instruction. In sum, some jurors might construe the term to lower the threshold of proof required for causation while others might interpret it to mean the opposite. The court also agreed with the explicit rejection of substantial contributing factor language in the recent Restatement (Third) of Torts: Liability for Physical and Emotional Harm (2010).  The substantial-factor rubric, says the commentary, tends to obscure, rather than to assist, explanation and clarification of the basis of causation decisions. The latest Restatement provides a rule for finding each of two acts that are elements of sufficient competing causal sets to be factual causes without employing the substantial-factor language of the prior Torts Restatements. There is no question of degree in the new version.  It holds that if multiple acts occur, each of which alone would have been a factual cause of the physical harm at the same time in the absence of the other act(s), each can be regarded as a factual cause of the harm.

The court found this model, as explicated in the comments, quite consistent with its prior rulings regarding concurring causation. A defendant whose tortious act was fully capable of causing the plaintiff's harm should not escape liability merely because of the fortuity of another sufficient cause. So the but-for standard is a helpful method for identifying causes, but it is not the exclusive means for determining a factual cause. Multiple sufficient causes may also be factual causes.  The acts themselves do not have to be concurrent, so long as they are operating and sufficient to cause the harm contemporaneously. As to mesothelioma, said the court, the "harm" occurs not at the time of exposure but at the time when competent medical evidence indicates that the cancer first exists and  thus causes injury. 

 The court said that the separate comment under Restatement § 27, entitled "Toxic substances and disease," should not be applied here.  That approach allows for a finding of causation when multiple exposures combine to reach the threshold necessary to cause a disease, allowing parties who were responsible for some portion of that threshold to be held liable. While it may be the case that this dose-related approach to causation is indeed appropriate for some cancers or diseases, the court did not find it to be necessarily appropriate for mesothelioma from asbestos.

Based on this rule, plaintiff must show that it is more likely than not that his alleged exposure to dust from defendant's brakes occurred prior to the development of cancer and was sufficient to cause his mesothelioma. Given that this approach differs from that taken in the circuit court, the court did not find it appropriate to rule on the sufficiency of the evidence at trial at this time, and instead remanded. On remand, the experts must opine as to what level of exposure is sufficient to cause mesothelioma, and whether the levels of exposure at issue in this case were sufficient.

Another "Natural" Food Claim Falls to Common Sense

A  federal district court recently dismissed a putative class action alleging the defendant food company mislabeled its Florida's Natural products as 100% orange juice despite the alleged addition of compounds to mask the taste caused by pasteurization. See Veal v. Citrus World Inc., No. 2:12-cv-00801 (N.D. Ala. 1/8/13).

The plaintiff asserted that because the label did not mention that flavoring and aroma are added, consumers desirous of 100% pure and fresh squeezed orange juice had been deceived into purchasing Florida’s Natural.  The plaintiff did not aver that he personally ever consumed Florida’s Natural orange juice or that he suffered any ill health effects from consumption of the same, but rather alleged only that he purchased it, repeatedly, over the six years preceding the first complaint.  The essence of his claim concerned the question of how much processing is permissible in a product labeled as “fresh” “100%” or “pure.”

Despite plaintiff’s numerous allegations as to the general conduct of the orange juice industry, the court found the plaintiff had failed to state an actual, concrete injury. He stated he did not know store-bought orange juice was not fresh squeezed, but nowhere alleged any harm from its purchase or consumption. He did not even claim that upon learning packaged orange juice was not truly “fresh”, he had to resort to squeezing his own oranges. In other words, despite plaintiff’s protestations that he did not receive the product he believed he was purchasing, he made no allegation that he had stopped purchasing what he considered to be an inferior product in favor of
purchasing what he actually sought, which is apparently unpasteurized fresh squeezed orange juice.

In an attempt to save his claim and demonstrate an injury worthy of finding standing, the plaintiff argued that he did not receive the “benefit of the bargain” of what he believed he was actually purchasing. He professed to compare the cost of defendant’s orange juice to an orange juice concentrate, and alleged the difference between them is proof of his loss. This theory did not rise to the level of a “concrete and particularized” injury as opposed to a “conjectural or hypothetical” one. Plaintiff did not allege what the “higher value charged” was or what the orange juice supposedly “would have been worth” if it was “as warranted.” He did not show what products he actually bought, when he bought them, or where he bought them, much less what he paid.

From a legal standpoint, many courts have held that “benefit of the bargain” theories of injury like plaintiff’s, where a plaintiff claims to have paid more for a product than the plaintiff would have paid had the plaintiff been fully informed (or that the plaintiff would not have purchased the product at all), do not confer standing. See In re Fruit Juice Products Marketing and Sales Practices
Litigation, 831 F.Supp.2d 507 (D. Mass. 2011); see also Birdsong v. Apple, Inc., 590 F.3d 955, 961-62 (9th Cir. 2009) (noting potential for hearing loss from improper iPod use was not sufficient to state an injury for standing); cf. Rivera v. Wyeth-Ayerst Labs., 283 F.3d 315, 319-21 (5th Cir. 2002); McKinnis v. Kellogg USA, 2007 WL 4766060, *4 (C.D.Cal.2007); Sugawara v. Pepsico, Inc., 2009 WL 1439115 (E.D.Cal.2009). Young v. Johnson & Johnson, 2012 WL 1372286 (D.N.J.2012).

The plaintiff also complained that even though the FDA does require that defendant label its product as “pasteurized orange juice,” all of defendant’s other alleged representations were voluntary, and thus not within the protection of the FDA. Because the court found the plaintiff lacked standing to pursue his claims, the court did not have to rely on the impact of the extensive FDA regulations governing orange juice,  Nevertheless, the court noted, defendant labeled its orange juice in accordance with FDA regulations. The plaintiff could not dispute that the defendant’s product is “squeezed from our Florida oranges” or “100% orange juice.” Rather, his focus was that the squeezing and pasteurization is performed on a massive scale, and that the pasteurization process destroyed the flavor, causing ingredients already present in orange juice to be replaced in the marketed juice.

However, said the court, the fact that the plaintiff may have believed defendant hired individuals to hand squeeze fresh oranges one by one into juice cartons, then boxed up and delivered the same all over the country does not translate into a concrete injury to plaintiff upon his learning that beliefs about commercially grown and produced orange juice were incorrect.  By its very definition under FDA guidelines, pasteurized orange juice is orange juice (1) that has been processed and treated with heat, (2) in which the “pulp and orange oil may [have] been adjusted in accordance with good manufacturing practice,” and (3) which may have been “adjusted” by the addition of concentrated orange juice ingredients or sweeteners. Clearly, the defendant was selling pasteurized orange juice while labeling it “pasteurized orange juice.” Although the plaintiff objected to such labeling, in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, he purchased a product labeled as pasteurized orange juice and then complained that it was pasteurized.

 No standing, complaint dismissed with no leave to amend yet again.

Class Denied for Failure to Show Common Injury

A federal court recently denied class certification in the MDL coordinating claims over an alleged defect in hybrid vehicles’ braking systems.  See IN RE: TOYOTA MOTOR CORP. HYBRID BRAKE MARKETING, SALES PRACTICES and PRODUCTS LIABILITY LITIGATION, No.: SAML 10-2172-CJC (C.D. Cal., 1/09/13). The basis of the ruling, that a substantial majority of class members never suffered an actual injury caused by the defect, will be of interest to our readers.

Plaintiffs alleged that a defect in the anti-lock brake system of their vehicles causes the ABS to improperly engage when it is not needed, resulting in increased stopping time and distance.  In February 2010, Toyota voluntarily recalled the vehicles and offered to install a software update to remedy the braking defect. Toyota asserted the software update accomplished its intended purpose, and remedied the defect, but plaintiffs claimed that the braking defect was not cured.

Plaintiffs brought five separate class actions in February 2010, later consolidated into an MDL, alleging Toyota had fraudulently induced them to purchase their hybrids by concealing the alleged defect in the braking system. Plaintiffs then moved to certify a class based on Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3), consisting of individuals who purchased or leased the Class Vehicles in California or Texas prior to February 8, 2010. Toyota opposed certification of any class, contending, among other things, that Plaintiffs cannot satisfy the predominance requirement of Rule 23(b)(3).
The court concluded Toyota was correct.

Although there were serious questions as to whether plaintiffs could satisfy the commonality, typicality, and adequacy requirements of Rule 23(a), the court concluded it need not  address those questions because plaintiffs clearly could not satisfy the predominance requirement of Rule 23(b)(3). It is beyond dispute that the critical issue involved in this case was whether there was a manifest defect in the ABS that caused an actual injury to each member of the proposed class. Unless plaintiffs could demonstrate such a manifest defect resulting in actual injury, they could not succeed on any of their five product liability claims. The resolution of this crucial issue, however, could not be accomplished through common or generalized proof as is required to maintain a class action. It must be done by an individualized and particularized inquiry for each member of the proposed class.

Most problematic for plaintiffs, said the court, was that they sought to certify a class in which the
substantial majority of class members never suffered an actual injury that was caused by a manifest defect in the ABS. Toyota presented substantial evidence that the updated software installed in the Class Vehicles as part of the national recall rectified any actual or perceived problem with the braking performance of the ABS. Plaintiffs presented no evidence to contradict Toyota’s evidence in this regard.  Indeed, plaintiffs did not even retain an expert to render an opinion on the safety and performance of the ABS postrecall. Plaintiffs instead argued that they suffered an actual injury because they would not have paid that same purchase price for each of their vehicles had they known of the problem with the ABS. Plaintiffs’ benefit-of-the-bargain argument was insufficient as a matter of law. Merely offering a creative damages theory does not establish the actual injury that is required to prevail on their product liability claims. And in this case, the class reps and, apparently, the majority of the purported class they seek to represent, received exactly what they paid for — that is a vehicle with a safe and operable ABS. After the updated software was installed in their vehicles, the class reps admitted they had no problem with
the braking performance of their vehicles. They were able to apply their brakes and stop their vehicles without incident. They never sold their vehicles. They never incurred any expense as a result of any problem with the ABS in their vehicles. Simply stated, the majority of the class members suffered no actual injury, let alone a common one resulting from the same manifest defect.

Moreover, since the number of members of the proposed class that allegedly suffered an injury was tiny, the proposal to certify a class of thousands of owners of the Class Vehicles, then determine which few suffered an actual injury that resulted from a manifest defect in the ABS, would render the class action device nothing more than a façade for conducting a small number of highly individualized, fact-intensive cases. In re Cannon Cameras, 237 F.R.D. 357, 360 (S.D.N.Y. 2006). Such a class action is certainly not a superior, fair, and efficient method for resolving the parties’ controversy.

No Duty on Manufacturer to Design A Product that Cannot be Misused

Duty, foreseeability, and causation.  A recent decision by the Fourth Circuit involves these important tort concepts. See Durkee v. Geologic Solutions Inc., No. 12-1360 (4th Cir., 1/3/13).  Plaintiffs injured in a motor vehicle accident sued, trying to hold the maker of an in-vehicle texting system liable for their harm.

The product liability claims arose from a motor vehicle accident in North Carolina in which a fully loaded tractor-trailer ran into vehicles that were slowed or stopped in front. Appellants alleged that the truck driver became distracted by the presence of a texting system located in the cab of his truck. The texting system had been manufactured by defendant and appellants contended that the defendant owed them a legal duty of care because injuries to the traveling public were reasonably foreseeable based on the texting system’s design.  Specifically they pointed to the facts that the system (1) required the driver to divert his eyes from the road to view an incoming text from the dispatcher, and (2) permitted the receipt of texts while the vehicle was moving.

The district court granted the motions to dismiss, concluding that the accident was caused by the driver’s inattention, not the texting device itself, and that manufacturers are not required to design a product incapable of distracting a driver.

On appeal, appellants challenge the district court’s conclusion that defendant owed them no duty of care. The court of appeals concluded that the district court properly dismissed appellants’ claims, relying on the state tort law, see Kientz v. Carlton, 96 S.E.2d 14, 18 (N.C. 1957), holding that the duty owed by product manufacturer does not require him to guard against hazards apparent to the casual observer or to protect against injuries resulting from the user’s own patently careless and improvident conduct.

The district court correctly concluded that the accident was caused by the driver's inattention, not the texting device itself. "Misuse” in the sense of improper or careless use of the system by the driver, rather than a use that was unintended by the manufacturer. The fact that injuries to the traveling public were reasonably foreseeable based on the system's design does not create a duty.

Score one for personal responsibility.  

Foreign Manufacturer Liability Act Unlikely to Pass Soon

We have posted before about efforts to pass legislation that would impact the ability of U.S. consumers to sue foreign manufacturers.

As the end of the year approaches, it appears that the latest version, the Foreign Manufacturers Legal Accountability Act (FMLAA) of 2011, will not be approved. Senate Bill 1946 and House of Representatives Bill 3646 are among the latest attempts to impact suits against foreign product makers.  Both would require foreign manufacturers importing products into the U.S. to establish a registered agent to accept service of process. And the registration of the agent would constitute consent to the personal jurisdiction in the U.S.  

Earlier versions of the legislation gained support in the wake of issues relating to products from China and, especially, the Chinese drywall litigation. Supporters of the legislation included some domestic industries, such as textiles. They also garnered opposition from foreign governments, some U.S. manufacturer groups, and non-U.S. manufacturers in the European Union and the Confederation of Indian Industry, and others. Even supporters noted that the bills did not directly address another related issue, the enforcement of U.S. judgments overseas. 

 

Toy Class Rejected on Commonality Grounds

Christmas ought to be the toy season, after all Suzy wants a dolly and Johnny wants a truck. But the plaintiff bar wants it to be season of toy litigation.  Fortunately, a California court recently refused to certify a proposed class of consumers who sued alleging that venerable Tinkertoys were falsely advertised.  See O'Brien v. Hasbro Inc., No. BC438958 (Superior Court, County of Los Angeles, CA).

Plaintiffs' claim was that the packaging implied that the items pictured could be built with the parts contained in the package.  The court's reasoning in rejecting the the claim under California's Unfair Competition Law was interesting.  The court focused on the commonality issue, and whether the  plaintiffs could show through common proof that the entire class had been confused by the "Classic Tinkertoy Construction Set" packaging.

The evidence was that less than 100 consumers had ever complained to Hasbro about the issue. The court noted recent appellate decisions in which classes had been decertified when only a tiny percentage of the class actually had reported the alleged problem.

Even if traditional reliance is not an element of a claim, there is still going to be a requirement of injury.  If a class member is not deceived, then he or she has been injured.  And the fact that a tiny percentage of consumers claim to have been confused does not mean that plaintiffs can show on a common basis that all class members were deceived.

An interesting one to watch if it goes on appeal.

Amicus Weighs In On Daubert Issue in Court of Appeals

The Product Liability Advisory Council weighed in as amicus earlier this month, asking the Eleventh Circuit to reverse a district court ruling that had allowed unreliable expert testimony in a case involving Jet Skis. See Megan Sands v. Kawasaki Motors Corp. U.S.A. et al., No.12-14667 (11th Cir.).

The PLAC brief  is part of the litigation arising from a complaint originally filed in Florida in 2007 by Georgia college student Megan Sands, who was riding as a passenger on a Kawasaki 2003 Ultra 150 Jet Ski in the Bahamas when she was thrown backward from her seat into the water.  She alleged this caused her to suffer severe, extensive and permanent damage to her lower extremities. Sands alleged that the device was defective because it did not have either a raised seat back or a “sissy bar” to prevent passengers from falling backward, or a kill switch that would allow an ejected passenger to cut off the engine.The case went to trial, resulting in a favorable verdict for Kawasaki on strict liability and negligent failure to warn claims but a finding in favor of Sands on design defect claims. Defendant appealed.

The amicus brief focused on the trial court's gate-keeping obligations under the Daubert standard, and the testimony of plaintiff's expert Burleson concerning an alternative seat design for the jet ski. PLAC argued that he presented no testing or engineering analysis to show that the alternative design would have improved the overall safety and utility of the product. Instead, his opinion rested
solely on an unsupported, conclusory statement in his report, which was precisely the kind of "analytical leap" and ipse dixit condemned in prior cases.  Kawasaki did not challenge the
admissibility of Burleson's assertion that his seat back concept, if used, might have eliminated or reduced the risk of injury to this plaintiff. Rather, as Kawasaki had argued below, Burleson had not tested whether a seatback would pose other dangers of equal or greater magnitude to the danger it would supposedly address.

The trial court appeared to describe the issue merely as whether "adequate testing" was conducted, but the testing evidence was not responsive to the specific objection that Kawasaki had raised. Neither the Plaintiff nor the trial court, said PLAC, ever identified any test or other engineering data supporting Burleson's conclusory assertion about the overall safety of the alternative design.

PLAC also focused on the trial court's statement that it was "unable to say that Mr. Burleson's testimony regarding a fixed seatback is unreliable," which sounded like the court switched the burden to show unreliability to Kawasaki. The absence of an admission by Burleson that the
alternative design would introduce a risk of other hazards should not have permitted the jury to
conclude that the alternative design was reasonable. Substantive tort law places the burden on the plaintiff to establish that the proposed alternative design would have greater overall safety than the existing design, and procedural law  imposes the burden on the proponent of expert testimony to establish its reliability. PLAC argued that a trial court does not have discretion to switch the burden under Rule 702 from the proponent of expert evidence to the opponent of such evidence. 

One to keep an eye on.

 

Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Comcast

We alerted readers before about the Supreme Court consideration of the role of Daubert at the class certification stage.   See Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, U.S., No. 11-864 (cert. granted 6/25/12). The Court had indicated it was interested in the question "whether a district court may certify a class action without resolving whether the plaintiff class has introduced admissible evidence, including expert testimony, to show that the case is susceptible to awarding damages on a classwide basis." Readers will recall that in Wal-Mart Stores Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011) the Supreme Court in dicta referenced the question. Justice Scalia observed that the district court had "concluded that Daubert did not apply to expert testimony at the certification stage of class-action proceedings," but the majority replied that "we doubt that is so." 131 S. Ct. at 2554. Thus, Dukes strongly suggested that it was appropriate for defendants to make the expert challenge at the class certification stage, and important for the court to resolve the issue then.

The justices heard arguments from both sides November 5th.  The district court in Comcast originally certified a class; following the court of appeals' decision in Hydrogen Peroxide, 552 F.3d 305, the district court granted in part Comcast‘s motion to reconsider its certification decision. After further briefing, plaintiffs got the case re-certified after convincing the district court that they could show that they had an expert methodology to prove damages on a classwide basis. On the current appeal, the Third Circuit agreed that the lower court had applied the "rigorous analysis," adding that at the class certification stage, "we are precluded from addressing any merits inquiry unnecessary to making a Rule 23 determination.” The Petitioners argued that the Third Circuit affirmed the certification order after expressly declining to consider several “merits” issues necessary to determine whether, as required by Rule 23(b)(3), common questions predominate over individual ones. The focus on damages, which some have viewed as narrowing the issue presented, still is a question that arises not just in antitrust cases, but also in mass torts, which are front and center for our readers.

Plaintiffs seemed to get more questions from the bench than did defendant, especially about any problem with allowing potentially inadmissible evidence to form the basis for the crucial class certification decision. 

Comcast emphasized flaws in the expert's damages model, including that the damage model was not linked to the class theory certified by the lower court, that the alleged monopolization of the Philadelphia area through clustering deterred competitors, or “overbuilders,” from competing. The district court should not have relied on it to certify the class. Plaintiffs argued waiver, that the company failed to bring up Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals Inc., 509 U.S. 469 (1993), until it was too late. That focus led Justice Kagan to note, “I am still in search of a legal question that anybody disagrees about here.” Justice Elena Kagan observed it seemed the parties apparently agreed that if the Daubert question was not waived, the lower court should have held a hearing on the admissibility of the expert opinions. Comcast emphasized it had argued to the trial court that this model did not work, ought to be precluded, and was not a valid methodology.

Plaintiffs argued that allowing district courts to defer admissibility determinations under Daubert  until after the class certification stage is consistent with the broad discretion given judges on evidentiary issues.  But that failed to address the pressure that class certification puts on defendants to settle, a point that was not a focus of the arguments. Plaintiffs also seemed to be arguing for a standard in which the district court has to decide simply that it is more likely than not that the damages model/expert opinion will be admissible at trial, and will meet the standard that’s required to get to a verdict.  But Justice Sotomayor asked "can a district court ever say that it’s persuaded by unreliable or not probative evidence.” Justice Alito similarly asked how could this expert "report be probative if it did not satisfy Daubert?”
 

Comcast argued that the trial court needed to conduct more than a limited Daubert hearing, agreeing with what defendant called the holding of the Seventh Circuit in American Honda that the question at the class cert hearing is not solely one of whether the evidence would be admissible, but also  -- keeping in mind that the focus of the class certification hearing is to decide whether the case should be tried as a class --  whether it is a methodology that sufficiently fits the facts and is reliably based on a scientific method so that plaintiffs will be capable of proving, class-wide, this issue at trial.

Justice Scalia asked about a hybrid approach where the court would focus at the class stage on reliability, and leave other Daubert inquiries (like fit)  for trial. But a focus of Justice Ginsburg's questions right out of the box was whether any finding of reliability was necessary on damages. She noted that in discrimination law contexts, courts may, if the liability questions can be adjudicated on a class basis, have the damages question adjudicated individually.  Of course, that view of class actions seems to slight the manageability requirement in a (b)(3) context, and invites truncated procedures that violate a defendant's due process rights.

One to watch for sure.
 

 

"Doe" Wins Challenge to CPSC Database

Readers may recall we have posted before about an unnamed company that had filed a suit, under seal, to challenge aspects of the Consumer Product Safety Commission's new public database. The federal district court found for the company earlier this week, ruling that the agency's attempt to publish an incident report on the database about the company's product was arbitrary and capricious, and an abuse of discretion. See Company Doe v. Tenenbaum, No. 8:11-cv-02958 (D. Md.10/9/12).

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 an adequate 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.

Much of the opinion is redacted, but the suit related to material inaccuracies with respect to a report of alleged injury that found its way into the database. The company protested inclusion of the report, and presented evidence regarding the alleged injury and alleged risk of harm. The CPSC apparently redacted the report twice in an attempt to make it not materially inaccurate. Plaintiff then sued, saying the issues had not been fixed, and later used results of the CPSC's ongoing investigation of the product to renew its objections.  Eventually, the CPSC rejected the company's final objection to the many-times redacted report.

The court cannot substitute its judgment for the agency's but can overturn arbitrary and capricious agency actions.  The court found that the publication decision was an abuse of discretion, because it violated the requirement that the harm "relate to" the use of the product, and would violate the prohibition of publication of materially inaccurate information.  Related to was correlated with associated with or connected with, and the CPSC initial agreements to redact much of the report as inaccurate undercut the later argument that a sufficient "relation to" had been demonstrated to let the final version be published. And mere speculation about a causal link was not sufficient evidence of an actual connection. Similarly a theoretical possibility or mere mathematical possibility was not proof of a sufficient relationship.

On the second prong, the court attempted to put itself in the shoes of the average consumer, and to use inferential reasoning to conclude the report was materially inaccurate and misleading. Interestingly, the court found that the CPSC standard disclaimer that it does not guarantee the accuracy of outside submitted reports, this was "boilerplate" that would not be of interest to the average consumer.

Finally, the court rejected the CPSC's "doomsday" arguments about the impact of the case on the database. The regulations expressly permit a challenge to materially misleading reports, and the court referenced a 2011 GAO report on the evealuation of reports, so a finding that a report is indeed inaccurate would not bring the "apocalypse."  Nonetheless, the ruling appears to represent a clear victory for consumer product manufacturers who are worried about inaccurate consumer complaints.  The decision does not strike at the idea of the database itself as much as it may encourage the CPSC to take a closer look at any reports that a manufacturer challenges as materially inaccurate or misleading.

Panel Rejects MDL Status for Brass Plumbing Claims

We have posted before about the MDL process and the importance of the initial decision by the Panel on ordering coordination. Last week the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation declined to consolidate the suits by plaintiffs alleging injuries over brass plumbing fittings.See In re Uponor Inc., F1960 Plumbing Fittings Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 2393 (JPML 9/27/12).

We like to flag for readers, for any insights they may offer, the less common decisions rejecting MDL status, see also here and here.

The plaintiffs alleged in this litigation that high-zinc-content brass components on the plumbing fittings failed, due to corrosion that caused the loss of zinc. This resulted, they said, in various forms of property damage, including the loss of integrity of the components, leaks, loss of water pressure, and other problems.This litigation currently consists of nineteen actions pending in
seven districts, but the Panel was notified of four additional, potentially related actions.

All involved homeowners supported plaintiff’s motion. The Uponor/Wirsbo defendants also supported the motion but  other responding defendants, which are various plumbing and supply defendants,  builders, or installers, opposed the motion and, alternatively, suggested a different transferee forum.

The Panel rejected the motion, noting that "several practical considerations" make the request to centralize unworkable. Most fundamentally, this request rested on a factual assumption – that F1960 fittings are involved in every action – that required the Panel to make a determination not apparent on the face of most complaints. Very few complaints actually mentioned the F1960
standard. Instead, plaintiffs typically framed their complaints as broadly involving high zinc yellow brass fittings and other attendant components. The exceedingly general language that the homeowners employed in most actions to describe the defective components at issue
made it impossible in most cases to transfer “F1960 claims” and then separate and remand, other product claims.

But even assuming that the court could separate and remand the non-F1960 claims, the proposed transfer would still double the forums in which numerous local defendants would have to litigate, or [in an important practical observation]  at a minimum, monitor. Centralization might thus force many local defendants – builders, plumbers, suppliers – to prosecute their indemnity claims against the manufacturer in the MDL, while still having to defend claims that they supplied, built homes with, or installed defective plumbing components elsewhere.

Fragmentation of this litigation, said the Panel, also would increase the risk that the involved
courts will rule inconsistently on identical issues of state law, such as issues of compliance with Nevada’s unique state pre-litigation statute regarding construction defects. The potential inefficiencies and inconvenience associated with centralizing this litigation, separating out F1960 claims etc.,  outweigh any possible benefits of, or added efficiencies to, resolving common claims regarding the F1960 fittings.

"Centralization is not a cure-all for every group of complicated cases."  The actions here were in
distinct procedural postures, and most of the advanced actions seem to be progressing well in the District of Nevada.

Thus, moving parties failed to convince the Panel that Section 1407 transfer of F1960 claims will benefit the parties and witnesses, or that centralization will produce sufficient clarity or efficiency in this already complicated litigation to outweigh the added inconvenience, confusion and cost that would be imposed on numerous parties.
 

 

Local Product Warning Ordinance Violates First Amendment

When we touch on Constitutional issues, most often we are posting about due process concerns raised by procedural shortcuts, proposed for administrative or efficiency reasons, at the potential expense of a defendant's rights.  Today we get to actually write about a First Amendment issue, as the Ninth Circuit recently blocked San Francisco’s attempt to implement its local cellphone radiation warning ordinance because it violates the First Amendment. See CTIA – The Wireless Association v. City and County of San Francisco, Calif., No. 11-17773 (9th Cir.).  It is a wonderful reminder about this freedom, which separates our nation from much of the world. 

San Fransisco passed an ordinance imposing warning language standards on cell phone retailers, specifically requiring cell phone sellers to make certain disclosures to consumers about radio-frequency energy emissions from cell phones. S.F. Ordinance 156-11 was originally set to take effect in October 2011, but CTIA – The Wireless Association filed suit challenging the constitutionality of the law. CTIA contended the San Francisco law conflicted with the FCC's safety standards and violated rights of free speech by forcing retailers to communicate alarmist messages about cellphone radiation. 

The district court enjoined enforcement of part of the ordinance, and both sides appealed.  The Ninth Circuit panel affirmed the injunction and noted two problems with the ordinance. First, under the standard established in Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel, 471 U.S. 626 (1986), any governmentally compelled disclosures to consumers must be “purely factual and uncontroversial.” Id. at 651. The law here required cellphone retailers to provide every customer with an informational "fact sheet" about the possible health risks of radio-frequency energy emissions from cellphones.  That fact sheet contained more than just facts. It also contained San Francisco’s recommendations as to what consumers should do if they want to reduce exposure to radio-frequency energy emissions. This language could be interpreted by consumers as expressing San Francisco’s opinion that using cell phones is dangerous. The FCC, however, has established limits of radio-frequency energy exposure, within which it has concluded using cell phones is safe. See, e.g., Guidelines for Evaluating the Envt’l Effects of Radio-frequency Radiation, 11 F.C.C.R. 15123, 15184 (1996).  Even the findings made by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on which the challenged ordinance was predicated acknowledged that there "is a debate in the scientific community about the health effects of cell phones,” and the district court observed that “San Francisco concedes that there is no evidence of cancer caused by cell phones.” The court of appeals could not say on the basis of this record that the fact sheet was both “purely factual and uncontroversial.” Zauderer, 471 U.S. at 651.

The ordinance also required retailers to prominently display an informational poster in their stores, and to paste an informational sticker on all display literature for cellphones warning about the possible health risks of radio-frequency energy emissions from cellphones. The district court enjoined the original ordinance compelling distribution of these broader materials.  Since the ordinance sought to compel statements that are even more misleading and controversial than the  fact sheet, the original injunction must be affirmed, said the appeals court.

"Go" Power Defeats Proposed Class Action

We have posted several times on the disturbing trend of plaintiffs seeking to turn virtually every advertising claim, label statement, or good old fashioned "puffing" about a product into an expensive consumer fraud class action. It is with great interest that we note for the loyal readers of MassTortDefense those putative class actions in which the courts require plaintiffs to fully meet all the underlying elements of the claim, and apply some common sense to those elements.

Recently, a New Jersey federal court dismissed a putative class action that alleged that the manufacturer overstated a cereal's ability to help lower cholesterol. Myers et al. v. General Mills Inc., No. 3:09-cv-02413 (D.N.J.).

Plaintiffs were consumers of Cheerios who resided in California, New Jersey, and New York, seeking to sue on behalf of all similarly situated individuals in the United States. Plaintiffs alleged General Mills deceived customers by marketing, advertising and promoting Cheerios as having the ability to prevent, mitigate, or treat high cholesterol. According to plaintiffs, defendant advertised that Cheerios could help lower a person’s cholesterol by 4% in six weeks when part of a healthy breakfast.  (We fondly remember the simple days of  "Big G, Little O. Get "Go" power with Cheerios!")

Defendant moved for summary judgment, alleging that plaintiffs did not suffer any concrete or particularized injury and thus did not have standing to sue. See Koronthaly v. L’Oreal USA, Inc., 374 Fed. Appx. 257 (2010). To prove constitutional standing, a plaintiff must demonstrate (1) an injury-in-fact that is actual or imminent and concrete and particularized, not conjectural or hypothetical, (2) that is fairly traceable to the defendant’s challenged conduct, and (3) is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision. Summers v. Earth Island Inst., 129 S.Ct. 1142, 1149 (2009). 

Plaintiffs sought a full refund for all boxes of Cheerios that plaintiffs purchased during the relevant time-frame, on the typical theory that plaintiffs “would not have purchased Cheerios” but for defendant’s alleged deceptive practices. That assertion, however, did not comport with the testimony of the plaintiffs themselves.  Generally, the out-of-pocket theory applies only when the seller's misrepresentations render the product essentially worthless. Plaintiffs admitted they purchased their Cheerios for crunchiness, taste, convenience, as well as to help lower their cholesterol. Moreover, Ms. Theodore, like many mothers, selected Cheerios due to its healthy, simple ingredients for her children. The contention that these plaintiffs would not have purchased Cheerios but for defendant’s alleged misrepresentation was also contradicted by the testimony that Mr. Myers, Ms. Acevedo and Ms. Theodore still eat or purchase Cheerios today, and for various reasons including the ingredients (Theodore), and the taste (Myers and Acevedo) and convenience.  As such, plaintiffs failed to adequately show that they were entitled to full purchase price refunds, especially when they ate the Cheerios after learning of the alleged issues, and are still eating them today for other reasons.
 

Plaintiffs alternatively sought the difference between what plaintiffs paid for Cheerios and the price that plaintiffs supposedly would have paid for Cheerios, if defendant had not engaged in the alleged misrepresentation; readers will recognize this as the other typical injury theory, the so-called benefit of the bargain approach. This theory of relief was equally flawed, said the court. Plaintiffs purchased a food product, and got the exact product with the exact ingredients listed on the label.  At most, plaintiffs simply claimed that their expectations of the cereal were disappointed. Dissatisfaction with a product, however, is not a quantifiable loss that can be remedied under the CFActs. Even a technical alleged violation of FDA food labeling regulations would not show that plaintiffs purchased boxes of Cheerios that did not contain the ingredients listed on the Cheerios boxes. And, again, several plaintiffs consumed all of the Cheerios purchased for various other reasons such as convenience and crunchiness. Plaintiffs therefore failed to adequately allege that they suffered “benefit of the bargain” damages.
 

The court granted summary judgment, including on the class allegations, which clearly failed on typicality and commonality. 

State Supreme Court Affirms Exclusion of Experts' Inferential Opinions

Follow our train of thought: we have posted about the misuse of the differential diagnosis concept, as plaintiff experts morph it from an accepted tool for deciding what is wrong with a patient to a method for explaining why and how the patient suffered his injury/illness.  Now, three computer experts sought to opine that a software flaw prevented a health monitor alarm from sounding, claiming their methodology was just "like a medical differential diagnosis"!  Fortunately, the South Carolina Supreme Court rejected that attempt last week.  See Graves v. CAS Medical Systems Inc., No. 27168 (S.C., 8/29/12).

Their doctor ordered that the plaintiffs use a monitor manufactured by CAS to track their infant child's breathing and heart rates as a precaution. The monitor was designed to sound an alarm, if the subject were to experience an apneic, bradycardia, or tachycardia event. Once the breathing or heart rate returns to normal, the alarm stops. Each machine also keeps a log of any events, which is the term for when the alarm sounds, and records the pertinent data and vital signs. As an additional safety measure, CAS installed not only a back-up alarm, but also a feature that records whether the alarm sounded. This system operates primarily through an independent and separate microphone specifically designed to listen for the alarm. If it hears the alarm, it then makes a notation in the monitor's internal log. If it does not hear the alarm, then it records "Front alarm not heard," and the monitor will sound the backup alarm. A microphone listens for this back-up alarm as well and records whether it was heard. If the back-up alarm fails, all the lights on the front of the monitor flash.

Tragically, the child died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), which essentially means that no attributable cause of death exists. Plaintiffs claimed the monitor's alarm never sounded that night. Additionally, they testified that all the lights on the front of the monitor were on, although they were solid and not flashing. Another family member who was asleep downstairs also allegedly could not recall hearing the alarm go off.  Plaintiffs further testified the machine was not turned off until the next day, when the monitor was removed for testing.

Plaintiffs filed a strict liability design defect claim against CAS, contending the monitor's software design caused the alarm to fail.  Their claim revolved around what is known as "spaghetti code," which is when computer code is unstructured and can result from the overuse of "goto" or "unconditional branch" statements, which causes a signal working its way through the code to jump around instead of following a linear path.  This in turn caused the signal to be pushed off course and never reach its destination.

To support this theory, the Graves designated three software experts to testify regarding the alarm's alleged failure. In arriving at their conclusions that a software defect caused the alarm to fail, none of the experts did much actual testing of the software. Instead, they used a "reasoning to the best inference" analysis, which was "similar to a differential diagnosis" in the medical field. In this case, three potential causes were identified: hardware error, complaint error, and software error. Complaint error means that the monitor was misused or the alarm did sound and the Graves failed to hear it.  All the experts were able to dismiss hardware error as a cause because the machine was tested and shown to be functioning properly. Thus, the question became whether complaint error or a software error occurred.

The experts excluded complaint error because the machine was hooked up properly, and they did not believe anyone would sleep through the alarm. In other words, because the Graves claimed the alarm did not wake them, that means it must not have gone off. After being confronted with the fact that the monitor listens for the alarm and separately records whether it was sounded, the experts opined that it must be "certain" the internal logs showing the alarm actually did sound were not reliable "in light of the undisputed testimony that the alarm did not function." That left software error as the most likely cause of the alleged failure, they opined.

Defendant moved to have all these experts excluded, arguing none of them met the reliability factors for scientific testimony set forth in State v. Council, 335 S.C. 1, 515 S.E.2d 508 (1999). CAS also moved for summary judgment, contending that without this expert testimony plaintiffs had no evidence of a design defect. The trial court agreed that their opinions were unreliable both as scientific evidence and as nonscientific evidence and thus were inadmissible. Having excluded the opinions of all the Graves' experts, the lower court granted CAS's motion for summary judgment.

The state Supreme Court noted that this was its first opportunity to assess the reliability of an opinion rendered using the "reasoning to the best inference" methodology, so looked for guidance to the analysis of the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, which had already done so. In Bitler v. A.O. Smith Corp., 400 F.3d 1227 (10th Cir. 2004), the court held that "[e]xperts must provide objective reasons for eliminating alternative causes" when engaging in this analysis. Id. at 1237. Furthermore, "an inference to the best explanation for the cause of an accident must eliminate other possible sources as highly improbable, and must demonstrate that the cause identified is highly probable." Id. at 1238. Although the expert need not categorically exclude all alternate causes, that does not relieve the expert of his burden to prove the alternate cause is at least highly improbable based on an objective analysis. See id. at 1237–38 & n.6. The court found this objectivity requirement consistent with the quality control element of State v. Council.

Here, there was evidence that the alarm worked properly and the plaintiffs failed to hear it. In addition to the monitor's recordation of hearing the alarm sound, the family pediatrician testified he believed plaintiffs slept through it, the court noted. The doctor was aware of just how exhausted the parents were. Although the alarm is loud, if one is tired enough, he testified that it is possible to sleep through it. His opinion was bolstered by the fact that the machine seems to have worked just as it was supposed to and recorded the breathing issues perfectly. The log also seems to show the alarm managed to stimulate the baby into breathing normally at times.

This evidence does not mean that is exactly what happened.  But there was enough that an expert needed to take it into account.. Instead, the experts simply assumed the alarm did not sound and provided no reason for discounting the evidence to the contrary other than the assertion of the persons alleging a failure. Thus, they did not objectively discount the evidence of complaint error as required. See Clark v. Takata Corp., 192 F.3d 750, 757 (7th Cir. 1999) ("Simply put, an expert does not assist the trier of fact in determining whether a product failed if he starts his analysis based upon the assumption that the product failed (the very question that he was called upon to resolve), and thus, the court's refusal to accept and give credence to [the expert's] opinion was proper.").

The trial court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the opinions, and summary judgment was warranted. 

Court of Appeals Reverses Daubert Decision

A tip of the hat to our DRI colleague Mike Weston for alerting us to an interesting 10th Circuit opinion from a couple weeks ago, Hoffman v. Ford Motor Co., 2012 WL 3518997 (10th Cir. Aug. 16, 2012).

Plaintiff was injured in a rollover car accident, and sued the car manufacturer alleging that a defect in the seat belt buckle caused it to release during the accident and allow her to be ejected from the vehicle.  In support of this theory, plaintiff presented the opinion of Dr. Good, a mechanical engineer, who theorized that the buckle most probably inertially unlatched during the accident due to an alleged design defect.  He ran a series of tests on buckles allegedly similar to the one in the accident, but ran into issues when he needed to make a comparison of the data from his lab tests to data from crash rollover tests to determine if the situation measured in the lab could actually occur in the real world.  Specifically, there was an absence of available data from relevant rollover crash tests (which present dynamic, multi-dimensional forces working on the component), and so he compared his results to data from planar crash data -- ones focused on only the horizontal plane (for example, a frontal car crash).

Ford moved to exclude the opinions as unreliable under Daubert, but the district court  (without a hearing) denied the motion, concluding Ford had failed to prove that the differences between the lab test results and the real world rollover accidents were significant.  Defendant appealed. (Note, whether she was even wearing her seat belt at all was hotly contested at trial. For purposes of the Daubert issue, the court assumed she was.) 

The court of appeals concluded that in permitting the testimony, the district court had not been "a sufficiently exacting gatekeeper; Daubert requires more precision."  Plaintiff failed to present a sufficient scientific connection between the accelerations and forces the expert found necessary to unlatch the buckles in the lab, and the acceleration and forces that would have occurred in the actual accident on the street. 

Specifically, the court of appeals held that the trial court should NOT have chastised the defendant for failing to show how the deficiency mattered, the failure to use rollover crash data. And the trial court should not have deemed it "unfair" for Ford to criticize the plaintiff because of the limited amount of rollover crash data available to the expert.  The state of the science is what it is.  And Ford did more than point out a deficiency in the method; it also explained why the deficiency rendered the testing and comparison suspect.  More importantly for our readers, "it was not Ford's burden to show Good's inertial unlatch opinion was unreliable and irrelevant.  Rather, it was plaintiff's burden to show reliability and relevancy."

It was undisputed engineering science that once a component is tested, the results must be applied to the whole vehicle setting; the lab results must be compared to data from the real world. Merely showing that similar buckles can be made to unlatch under certain lab conditions is irrelevant to whether the buckle at issue unlatched in the accident absent proof that the lab conditions were present and can be adequately and accurately related to the actual rollover-type accident.  Plaintiff's expert failed to explain adequately how the acceleration and forces present in the planar crash tests were similar enough to those present in a rollover accident. Nowhere did he show how his comparison was scientifically valid. Thus, his opinion was based on mere speculation, or on the assumption, that the levels of forces he found necessary to unlatch buckles in the lab were substantially similar to those that occurred in the subject accident.

Absent such evidence, plaintiff could not meet her burden.  Since plaintiff had a full and fair opportunity to present the case, and made no attempt to add or substitute other evidence, the court of appeals remanded with instruction for the district court to enter judgment as a matter of law for defendant.

 

 

Denial of Class Certification Affirmed in Cellphone Case

The Eleventh Circuit last week upheld a trial court’s refusal to certify a class action accusing the defendant of improperly reactivating lost or stolen cellphones.  See Robinson et al v. T-Mobile USA Inc., No. 12-10170 (11th Cir. 2012).

MassTortDefense has often wondered why the issue of damages seems to get insufficient weight in the class certification decision. Would a class be satisfied with proving its case except damages? Would an award of zero damages to a class be devastating to a defendant? Shouldn't it matter that each plaintiff get a fair an accurate amount of damages to compensate for the alleged conduct of defendant? Doesn't a defendant have a right to dispute claimed damages regarding each class member? Here, the trial court determined that plaintiffs failed to offer a viable method for how proposed damages were to be calculated, and plaintiffs paid too little attention to this issue on appeal as well.

The plaintiffs filed a proposed class action against T-Mobile asserting state-law claims of conversion, trespass to chattels, and unjust enrichment. They alleged that: (1) they had reported to T-Mobile that their cell phones had been lost or stolen; (2) an unknown person brought their lost or stolen phones to T-Mobile; and (3) T-Mobile unlawfully reactivated the phones without the plaintiffs’ permission.

The district court denied the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification on five grounds. The first ground was that the plaintiffs had not satisfied their preliminary burden of establishing that their
proposed class was clearly ascertainable. Before a district court may grant a motion for class certification, a plaintiff seeking to represent a proposed class must establish that the proposed class is “adequately defined and clearly ascertainable.” DeBremaecker v. Short, 433 F.2d 733, 734 (5th Cir. 1970)1; cf. John v. Nat’l Sec. Fire & Cas. Co., 501 F.3d 443, 445 (5th Cir. 2007) (“The existence of an ascertainable class of persons to be represented by the proposed class representative is an implied prerequisite of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23.”).  Here, the court reasoned, in part, that the plaintiffs had “made no effort to separate out those putative class members who may very well be barred from pursuing class claims due to the existence of valid arbitration agreements or class action waivers that potentially prohibit such litigation.”

The second ground on which the district court denied class certification was that the plaintiffs had not satisfied the Rule 23(a)(1) numerosity requirement. The court reasoned that the plaintiffs had offered no evidence showing numerosity, nor made any “effort to account for those putative class members who waived their right to pursue relief against T-Mobile on a class-wide basis or who are bound by their agreement to arbitrate disputes with T-Mobile.”

The third ground the district court stated for denying class certification was that the plaintiffs had failed to satisfy the predominance requirement in Rule 23(b)(3) because there were “significant state-wide variations in the law” of conversion and in the law regarding other issues, such as the enforceability of class-action waivers.

The fourth ground the court stated for denying class certification was that  the plaintiffs had failed to establish superiority under Rule 23(b)(3). The court based that determination, in part, on the plaintiffs’ failure “to suggest how to manage the rather thorny issue of putative class members whose rights to litigate their conversion claims as part of a class proceeding in this forum may have been cutoff by either a class action waiver provision, an agreement to arbitrate, or both.”
 

The fifth reason was that “damage-related concerns evidence a predomination of individualized inquiries and render the proposed class unfit for certification under Rule [23](b)(3).” The district court explained what those damage-related concerns were. Here, plaintiffs contended that “in this era of Ebay and other public online sites selling used phones by the millions, determining a particular model phone’s value is a relatively simple matter of online research.” However, they certainly offered no concrete proposal or methodology about how to effectively and accurately manage such online research on a nationwide basis. For example, when conducting online research, would 2011 be the year to use for establishing the value for a used phone of a certain model or would the year in which the phone was misplaced or stolen be the more appropriate time frame? Plaintiffs also ignored how individualized issues relating to the age of the phone, what contents or applications were previously on the phone, and whether the original owner was a heavy or light user of the phone, might affect the value of the used phone.  Additionally, plaintiffs did not address whether loss of use of the phone should be compensable and, if so, suggest how it might be reduced to a formula-type calculation.  

The district court’s determination that the plaintiffs had not established the predominance of common issues under Rule 23(b)(3) because of individual damage-related issues was an alternative, independent ruling -- and one that prevailed on appeal. Class certification would have been denied for that reason regardless of the variations instate law relating to conversion and regardless of the enforceability of class-action waivers.

Then on appeal, plaintiffs failed to adequately challenge in their opening brief the district court’s  independent, alternative ruling that damage-related concerns evidence a predomination of individualized inquiries and render the proposed class unfit for certification under Rule [23](b)(3). The plaintiffs’ opening brief failed to clearly argue the predominance issue involving variation in damages. They also failed to raise it in their reply brief after T-Mobile had argued in its answer brief that one of the reasons the court of appeals should affirm the denial of class certification was
that variation in damages destroyed the predominance of common issues, as the district court had ruled.  By failing to challenge in their brief the district court’s ruling, the plaintiffs had abandoned any contention that the court erred in denying class certification on that ground.

Decision affirmed.

Court of Appeals Vacates Class Certification in Tire Case

Last week, the Third Circuit reversed a trial court's certification of a class of consumer who alleged their vehicles were equipped with allegedly defective run-flat tires. Marcus v. BMW of North America LLC, Nos. 11-1192, 11-1193 (3d Cir.,  8/7/12).

As their name suggests, run-flat tires  can “run” while “flat.” Even if an RFT suffers a total and abrupt loss of air pressure from a puncture or other road damage, the vehicle it is on remains operable.  Plaintiff alleged he experienced four “flat” tires during his three-year lease of a BMW equipped with this tire technology.  In each case, the RFT worked as intended. That is, even though the tire lost air pressure, Marcus was able to drive his car to a BMW dealer to have the tire replaced. He nonetheless sued BMW and the tire maker Bridgestone, asserting consumer fraud, breach of warranty, and breach of contract claims. in part because the tires needed to be replaced rather than repaired.  The District Court certified plaintiff’s suit under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3) as an opt-out class action brought on behalf of all purchasers and lessees of certain model-year BMWs equipped with Bridgestone RFTs sold or leased in New Jersey with tires that “have gone flat and been replaced.” Defendants appealed.

The requirements set out in Rule 23 are not mere pleading rules. The party seeking certification bears the burden of establishing each element of Rule 23 by a preponderance of the evidence. The Third Circuit has repeatedly emphasized that actual, not presumed, conformance with Rule 23 requirements is essential. Newton v. Merril Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., 259 F.3d 154, 167 (3d Cir. 2001) (quoting Gen. Tel. Co. of the Sw. v. Falcon, 457 U.S. 147, 160 (1982)).  To determine whether there is actual conformance with Rule 23, a district court must conduct a “rigorous analysis” of the evidence and arguments put forth. When doing so, the court cannot be bashful. It must resolve all factual or legal disputes relevant to class certification, even if they overlap with the merits — including disputes touching on elements of the cause of action.

The term "game-changer" is often misused and overused as a buzz word in the business world by those who want sound trendy, but the Third Circuit here correctly recognized that, as a practical matter, the certification decision is "typically a game-changer, often the whole ballgame," for the parties and counsel. That is, denying or granting class certification is often the defining moment in class actions. 

The Third Circuit first addressed the issue of numerosity.  When a plaintiff attempts to certify both a nationwide class and a state-specific subclass, as plaintiff did here, evidence that is sufficient to establish numerosity with respect to the nationwide class is not necessarily sufficient to establish numerosity with respect to the state-specific subclass. See Vega v. T-Mobile USA, Inc., 564 F.3d 1256, 1266-68 (11th Cir. 2009) (plaintiff could not simply rely on the nationwide presence of T-Mobile to satisfy the numerosity requirement without Florida-specific evidence).  The District Court found that the New Jersey class met the numerosity requirement because “it is common sense" that there will probably be at least 40 class members in New Jersey. The court of appeals noted that this may be a bet worth making, but it cannot support a finding of numerosity sufficient for Rule 23(a)(1);  a district court must make a factual determination, based on the preponderance of the evidence, that Rule 23’s requirements have been met. Mere speculation is insufficient.

The second major issue was predominance. A plaintiff must demonstrate that the elements of the legal claim capable of proof at trial through evidence that is common to the class predominate over the issues that must be litigated through proof individual to its members. The court’s  obligation to consider all relevant evidence and arguments on a motion for class certification  extends to expert testimony on the common or individual nature of issues and proof, whether offered by a party seeking class certification or by a party opposing it. Expert opinion with respect to class certification, like any matter relevant to a Rule 23 requirement, calls for rigorous analysis. Weighing conflicting expert testimony at the certification stage is not only permissible, it may be integral to the rigorous analysis Rule 23 demands.  

Here, the District Court then found plaintiff could show, without resort to individual proofs, that the alleged common defect (RFTs go "flat" too easily) caused the class members’ damages. But that causation finding was an abuse of discretion.  Central to plaintiff's claim was what caused class members’ tires to go flat and need replacement. Causation was pivotal to each of Marcus’s claims. The District Court failed to analyze an undisputed, fundamental point: any tire can “go flat” for myriad reasons. Even “defective” tires can go flat for reasons completely unrelated to their defects. Critically, to determine why a particular class member’s Bridgestone RFT had “gone flat and been replaced” requires an individual examination of that class member’s tire. But these individual inquiries are incompatible with Rule 23(b)(3)’s predominance requirement.

For example, of the two tires plaintiff presented for inspection in his lawsuit, one went “flat” and was replaced because he ran over a jagged chunk of metal, and the other because he ran over a sharp object that tore and gouged the tire and damaged the sidewall. All the experts agreed that the two tires could not have been repaired and that any tire (run-flat or conventional, defective or not) would also have been damaged under the circumstances. Thus, even if Marcus could prove that Bridgestone RFTs suffer from common, class-wide defects, those defects did not cause the damage he suffered for these two tires: the need to replace them. In this sense, Marcus was no different than a class member who, seconds after buying his car, pulled off the dealership lot and ran over a bed of nails -- neither could claim a “defect” caused his tires to go flat and need replacement.

One other key aspect of the opinion for our readers: the court of appeals also raised an issue should plaintiffs attempt to get a different class certified on remand.  Many courts have recognized that an essential prerequisite of a class action, at least with respect to actions under Rule 23(b)(3), is that the class must be currently and readily ascertainable based on objective criteria. See, e.g., John v. Nat. Sec. Fire & Cas. Co., 501 F.3d 443, 445 (5th Cir. 2007).  If class members are impossible to identify without extensive and individualized fact-finding or “mini-trials,” then a class action is inappropriate. Some courts have held that where nothing in company databases shows or could show whether individuals should be included in the proposed class, the class definition fails. See Clavell v. Midland Funding LLC, No. 10-3593, 2011 WL 2462046, at *4 (E.D. Pa. June 21, 2011); Sadler v. Midland Credit Mgmt, Inc., No.06-C-5045, 2008 WL 2692274, at *5 (N.D. Ill. July 3, 2008); In re Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Wage & Hour Litig., No. C 06-2069 SBA, 2008 WL 413749, at *8 (N.D. Cal. Feb. 13, 2008); Deitz v. Comcast Corp., No. C 06-06352 WHA, 2007 WL 2015440, at *8 (N.D. Cal. July 11, 2007).

The ascertainability requirement serves several important objectives. First, it eliminates serious administrative burdens that are incongruous with the efficiencies expected in a class action by insisting on the easy identification of class members.  Second, it protects absent class members by facilitating the “best notice practicable” under Rule 23(c)(2) in a Rule 23(b)(3) action. See Manual for Complex Litigation, § 21.222 (4th ed. 2004). Third, it protects defendants by ensuring that those persons who will be bound by the final judgment are clearly identifiable. See Xavier v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., 787 F. Supp. 2d 1075, 1089 (N.D. Cal. 2011). Ascertainability is needed for properly enforcing the preclusive effect of final judgment. The class definition must be clear in its applicability so that it will be clear later whose rights are merged into the judgment; that is, who gets the benefit of any relief and who gets the burden of any loss. If the definition is not clear in its applicability, then satellite litigation will be invited over who was in the class in the first place.

If plaintiff attempts to certify a class on remand, the District Court would have to resolve the critical issue of whether the defendants’ records can ascertain class members and, if not, whether there is a reliable, administratively feasible alternative. The Third Circuit cautioned against approving a method that would amount to no more than ascertaining by potential class members’ say so. For example, simply having potential class members submit affidavits that their Bridgestone RFTs have gone flat and been replaced may not be “proper or just.”  Defendants would be able to cross-examine an individual plaintiff at trial about whether and why his tires “have gone flat and been replaced.” So, forcing defendants to simply accept as true absent persons’ declarations that they are members of the class, without further indicia of reliability, "would have serious due process implications."

 

CPSC Commissioners Testify At Hearing Regarding Database

Issues about the product complaint database set up by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission bubbled over again last week.  We have posted on the topic before.

The CPSC-operated database allows consumers, government agencies, and others to submit reports of alleged injury or death allegedly caused by a product. Since the beginning of the database notion, there have been serious concerns about the accuracy and confidentiality of reports of alleged injury submitted and conveyed back to the public in the database. There has always been an apparent lack of attention to legitimate issues of a manufacturer's goodwill and reputation, to the costs of unnecessary panic among product consumers, and the mischief that some plaintiffs' lawyers might cause with unwarranted increase in litigation against manufacturers.  Obviously, false or inaccurate information does not serve the interests of consumers. And CPSC allows reports by parties who are more likely to have an agenda that goes beyond merely advising CPSC of an incident. The possibility that someone might attempt to seed the database with inaccurate or misleading information to provide ostensible support for lawsuits is a real concern for many observers.

As we noted, an anonymous company sued the CPSC last Fall over an apparently false report in the database.

Last week, Commissioner Anne Northup testified before a Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade of the House Energy and Commerce Committee at a hearing on “Oversight of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.” She addressed generally the issues with CPSC regulatory approaches. Commissioner Nord also testified, and she has reported that many of the complaints on the database were filed by law firms.

Chairwoman Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., noted that the public database remains a source of controversy. Manufacturers continue to express their concern that most of the complaints are not vetted by the CPSC before they are made public, "opening the door to all kinds of mischief, whether to fuel law suits or to try and ruin a competitor’s brand."

Video of the hearing here.

State Supreme Court Approves Exercise of Jursidiction - Again

Regular readers of MassTortDefense know that one issue we try to keep an eye on is the exercise of personal jurisdiction over foreign product sellers in the U.S. courts, particularly following the Supreme Court decisions in Nicastro and Goodyear.  Readers may recall from our earlier posts that Nicastro resulted in a plurality opinion which tracked Justice O'Connor's plurality opinion in Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court of California, 480 U.S. 102 (1987), concurring in the notion that the foreign product manufacturer lacked sufficient minimum contacts to allow a New Jersey court to exercise jurisdiction over it, but concluding 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 in the case, is not sufficient.

Last Fall, we posted on an Oregon case involving an allegedly defective wheel chair, in which the state court had exercised jurisdiction over the foreign manufacturer. The case arose from a fire allegedly caused by a battery charger manufactured by CTE, a Taiwanese company; the battery charger was incorporated into a motorized wheelchair. Plaintiffs allege that the fire began in the chair, because of a defect in the charger. CTE sought dismissal on the grounds the state court lacked personal jurisdiction. The trial court denied the motion, and the Oregon Supreme Court denied defendant's petition for a writ of mandamus on the issue. But the Supreme Court granted review, vacated the Oregon opinion denying the manufacturer's challenge to jurisdiction, and remanded the case for further consideration in light of J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v. Nicastro.

We mused: "On remand, it will be interesting to see what the state court does, given what many observers see as their recent resistant approach on directions from the high Court on remands."

We now have an answer, as the state court again held that the sale of the battery chargers in Oregon via an Ohio wheelchair manufacturer was sufficient to establish minimum contacts with Oregon, subjecting the foreign company to personal jurisdiction there.  See Willemsen v. Invacare Corp., No. SC S059201 (Ore., 7/19/12).


Plaintiffs relied on the specific jurisdiction branch of personal jurisdiction, which depends on an
affiliation between the forum and the underlying controversy, principally, activity or an occurrence that takes place in the forum State and is therefore subject to the State's regulation. In contrast to general, all-purpose jurisdiction, specific jurisdiction is confined to adjudication of  issues  deriving from, or connected with, the very controversy that establishes jurisdiction.

In this case, plaintiffs argued that the sale of Invacare wheelchairs and CTE battery chargers in Oregon provided sufficient minimum contacts with this state for Oregon courts to assert specific jurisdiction over CTE for injuries that its battery chargers allegedly caused there. One difficult issue in this case arose from the fact that CTE sold its battery chargers to Invacare in Ohio, not Oregon, and with the expectation that Invacare would sell its wheelchairs together with CTE's battery chargers nationwide, not just Oregon. Defendant contended that, because Invacare (and not CTE) is the one that targeted Oregon, CTE had not purposefully availed itself of the privilege of doing business in Oregon and, as a result, the Oregon courts may not assert jurisdiction over it. The argument was that the the mere fact that it may have expected that its battery chargers might end up in Oregon is not sufficient to give Oregon courts specific jurisdiction over it.

Defendant relied heavily on the Nicastro plurality's view that the mere fact that it was foreseeable that a defendant's products might be distributed in one or all of the 50 states was not enough; rather, the plurality would have required evidence that the out-of-state defendant had "targeted" the forum state in some way. But the Oregon court focused on Justice Breyer's concurring opinion in Nicastro, which it read to mean only that nationwide distribution of a foreign manufacturer's products is not sufficient to establish jurisdiction over the manufacturer when that effort results in only a single sale in the forum state. In this case, the record showed that, over a two-year period, Invacare sold 1,102 motorized wheelchairs with CTE battery chargers in Oregon. In the court's view, the sale of over 1,100 CTE battery chargers within Oregon over a two-year period showed a regular flow or regular course of sales in Oregon.

Defendant argued that these sales figures in Oregon were a miniscule fraction -- both in sheer numbers, as well as the proportion of end product sales in the forum -- of what a Supreme Court
majority would have found to be insufficient in Asahi. But the court concluded that the decision in Asahi "provides little assistance to CTE."

It would not be a surprise if this case found its way back to the US Supreme Court again.
 

Product Seller (Still) Has No Duty To Protect From Criminal's Use Of Product

Country music fans among our readers may recall the Garth Brooks' song "Longneck Bottle."  That tune, from his CD "Sevens," reached No. 1 on the country charts in 1997.  In it, the singer pleads for the long neck bottle to stay clear of his hand.  Today's post might be sub-titled, "longneck bottle stay clear of my face."  In Gann v. Anheuser-Busch Inc., No. 11-00017 (Tex. App. 7/26/12), a plaintiff asserted liability against the maker of a longneck glass beer bottle for injuries allegedly suffered when she was struck in the face by a bar patron wielding the bottle as a weapon.

While celebrating a friend’s birthday "at a bar known for its violence," according to the court, Gann was assaulted by a patron wielding a Budweiser “longneck” glass beer bottle. She sued for an alleged design defect in the bottle, with the typical strict liability and negligence counts.  The trial court granted summary judgment to defendants, and plaintiff appealed.

In a strict products liability action in which a claimant alleges a design defect, a Texas claimant must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that: (1) the defect renders the product “unreasonably dangerous;” (2) the defect was a producing cause of the personal injury, property damage, or death for which the claimant seeks recovery; and (3) there was a safer alternative design. TEX.CIV.PRAC.&REM.CODE ANN. § 82.005(a)(West 2011); Timpte Indus., Inc. v. Gish, 286 S.W.3d 306, 311 (Tex. 2009). To determine whether a product was defectively designed so as to render it unreasonably dangerous, the courts apply a risk-utility analysis that requires consideration of the following factors:
(1) the utility of the product to the user and to the public as a whole weighed against the gravity and likelihood of injury from its use;
(2) the availability of a substitute product which would meet the same need and not be unsafe or unreasonably expensive;
(3) the manufacturer’s ability to eliminate the unsafe character of the product without seriously impairing its usefulness or significantly increasing its costs;
(4) the user’s anticipated awareness of the dangers inherent in the product and their avoidability because of general public knowledge of the obvious condition of the product, or of the existence of suitable warnings or instructions; and
(5) the expectations of the ordinary consumer.

Defendant made an interesting threshold, no-duty, argument, that rings true to MassTortDefense. As a matter of law, Anheuser-Busch had no legal duty to design the longneck bottle against purposeful and criminal misuse because it satisfied its one and only legal duty: to design the bottle to ensure that the bottle was safe for its intended and ordinary use – storing beer.
In support of its argument, Anheuser-Busch cited to Venezia v. Miller Brewing Co., 626 F.2d 188 (1st Cir. 1980), a case we used when teaching products liability in law school. In Venezia, the federal appeals court applied Massachusetts law to hold that the plaintiff, who was injured by the broken shards of the beer bottle he deliberately threw against a pole, could not recover from Miller Brewing under a theory of negligent design, because the deliberate misuse of the beer bottle could not be characterized as an intended or ordinary use of the beer bottle. 626 F.2d at 189, 191-92.  The Texas court of appeals felt that it need not address this issue of duty however, given the other fatal flaws in plaintiff's case.

Specifically, plaintiff argued that beer bottles are used commonly in assaults in the local community, that the longneck portion of the bottle is merely cosmetic, and that Anheuser-Busch also can use stubby glass bottles and plastic bottles as suitable containers for beer. However, contrary to her assertion, Gann failed to produce evidence raising a genuine issue of fact that the risk of injury from the longneck bottle outweighed its utility, and therefore that the bottle was defectively designed so as to render it unreasonably dangerous. Specifically, plaintiff failed to adequately address: (1) whether manufacturing a stubby glass bottle or plastic bottle is sufficiently economically feasible; (2) whether eliminating the allegedly unsafe character of a longneck bottle significantly impaired its usefulness or significantly increased its costs; and (3) what the expectations of the ordinary consumer are with regard to this kind of bottle.

Turning to the negligence count, the threshold inquiry in a negligence case is duty. Centeq Realty, Inc. v. Siegler, 899 S.W.2d 195, 197 (Tex. 1995). Generally, no person has a legal duty to protect another from the criminal acts of a third person. Timberwalk Apartments, Partners, Inc. v. Cain, 972 S.W.2d 749, 756 (Tex. 1998). (One exception to this rule may apply when a person controls the premises where the criminal acts occur.)   Whether a duty exists is a question of law for the court to decide from the facts surrounding the occurrence at issue. (Other courts may analyze this issue as one of causation, with the criminal act of the third-party breaking the chain of causation from defendant's alleged negligence to plaintiff's alleged injury.)

Plaintiff argued that because defendants did not contest that the use of longneck bottles as weapons in bars has happened, and thus was arguably foreseeable (cue "Friends in Low Places"?), the defendants then had a legal duty to protect her from being assaulted in such a situation. Even conceding that it is reasonably foreseeable that a longneck bottle might be used as a weapon, plaintiff failed to show why the general principle that no person has a legal duty to protect another from the criminal acts of a third person was inapplicable in this case. Mere foreseeability that a legal product might be used in a crime does not create a duty that overshadows the intervening criminal act. Summary judgment affirmed. 
 

Federal Court Rejects Truck Class Action Because Defendant Actually Has Right To Defend

A federal court recently rejected plaintiffs' class certification bid in a suit against Ford Motor Co. relating to diesel engines in some vehicles. Corder v. Ford Motor Co., No. 3:05-CV-00016 (W.D. Ky., 7/25/12).

Corder brought an action against Ford for allegedly violating the Kentucky Consumer Protection Act (“KCPA”). Corder alleged that the diesel engines installed in model year 2003 F-Series Super Duty Trucks and Excursions were "highly problematic."  Plaintiff then allegedly purchased a model year 2004 Ford F-250 Super Duty Truck with what he claimed was a “2003 engine” that did not have the improvements that were in the “2004 engine” According to plaintiff, non-disclosure of installation of the “2003 engine” in his model year 2004 truck was an unfair, false, misleading, or deceptive act within the meaning of the KCPA.

Ford noted that it makes running changes to its vehicles, including the engines, throughout the year. Purchasers of 2004 model year trucks built prior to October of 2003 received multiple slightly different engines, and all of those engines were improved over engines installed on most 2003 vehicles.

Following initial discovery, Ford moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted the motion, finding that Corder had not shown that Ford’s actions were false, misleading, or deceptive within the meaning of the KCPA, nor had Corder shown that he suffered an “ascertainable loss,” as is required to maintain a private action under the KCPA. The Sixth Circuit disagreed. Corder v. Ford Motor Co., 285 F. App’x 226 (6th Cir. 2008).  Upon remand, Corder filed a motion to certify a national class, but the district court found that a national class was not viable because the laws of each of the states in which the putative class members purchased their vehicles would have to be applied, which would lead to significant problems of individualized proof and manageability.

Plaintiff then amended, seeking to represent a class of only Kentucky residents. The court concluded that Rule 23(b)(3) was still not met. In order to meet the demand of Rule 23(b)(3) that common issues predominate, a plaintiff must show that the issues in the class action that are subject to generalized proof, and thus applicable to the class as a whole, predominate over those issues that are subject only to individualized proof. Beattie v. CenturyTel, Inc., 511 F.3d 554, 564 (6th Cir. 2007). The predominance requirement in Rule 23(b)(3) guards against certifying class actions that could overwhelm or confuse a jury or compromise a party’s defense. Thus,  certification is not appropriate unless it is determinable from the outset that the individual issues can be considered in a manageable, time-efficient, and fair manner.

For Ford to be liable for damages under the KCPA, plaintiff had to establish that: (1) the person purchased or leased a Ford vehicle in question primarily for personal, family, or household purposes; (2) the person suffered an ascertainable loss; and (3) the loss was a result of an unfair, false, misleading or deceptive act or practice.

In this case, the need to determine the primary purpose for each customer’s purchase required an individualized inquiry that would overwhelm any alleged common issues. The trucks
at issue were not the type of product about which it may be inferred that all, or even the vast majority, were purchased primarily for a personal, family, or household purpose.  Indeed there was evidence suggesting that a large number of the purchasers of the trucks at issue bought them primarily for commercial use. And the Ford Design Analysis Engineer stated that it was “designed for heavy-duty use, including commercial use, and was too large to fit in many home garages."  The court noted that the burden on a class certification motion belongs to the plaintiff, In re Whirlpool Corp. Front-Loading Washer Prods. Liab. Litig., 678 F.3d 409, 416 (6th Cir. 2012), but Corder offered no evidence controverting the suggestion that numerous customers purchased their trucks either partially or wholly for commercial purposes. Litigation of that issue would  require individualized inquiries into numerous class members. Clearly, the question of why any particular customer purchased the pickup truck was not something that can be resolved on a classwide basis.

Moreover, this element was a subjective one by its terms, focusing on the reasons underlying a
particular person’s reasons for purchasing a truck. Indeed, the statute did not restrict claims
to those purchasers whose only purpose was personal, family, or household related, but required
only that such a purpose be the primary one. That a purchaser can have a commercial purpose for the purchase of a truck, so long as that is only a secondary purpose, made the individualized inquiries and their resolution by a jury all the more detailed and complicated.

So far, a solid but not particularly uncommon analysis.  What is especially worthwhile for readers of MassTortDefense is that  plaintiff, as is growing more common, suggested that the court could simply use questionnaires, claim forms, or “judicial notice” to resolve the primary use inquiry. But none of those suggestions allowed for Ford to do what Ford was entitled to do: litigate the issue before a jury with respect to each customer for whom the relevant facts and inferences to be drawn therefrom are disputed. The requirement that a person have purchased a product primarily for personal, family, or household use prior to a finding of liability under KRS § 367.220 is an explicit element of the statute. Ford, of course, had every right to demand a full litigation of that element of the cause of action, and for each putative class member no less. The Rules Enabling Act forbids interpreting the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, including Rule 23, to “abridge, enlarge or modify any substantive right.” 28 U.S.C. § 2072(b). Accordingly, a court could not certify a class action under the premise that Ford would not be entitled to fully litigate that statutory element in front of a jury, at least for those class members where the facts and inferences to be drawn therefrom are disputed. See Wal-Mart v. Dukes, 131 S.Ct. at 2561 (“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 Wal-Mart will not be entitled to litigate its statutory defenses to individual claims”).

While plaintiff also argued that an “appropriate trial plan” would allow for resolution of the necessary individualized inquiries, he did not provide any detailed suggestion as to what sort of appropriate trial plan would allow for the resolution of the potentially numerous individualized inquiries without overwhelming the trial and the jury. Simply put, plaintiff could not meet his burden of showing that class certification was appropriate by making conclusory statements about questionnaires, judicial notice, or an appropriate trial plan.

 

 

EPA Releases Draft BPA Report

Last week, the EPA released a draft analysis of chemicals that may substitute for bisphenol A's use in thermal paper -- that's the material often used in sales receipts, supermarket labels, parking tickets, airline tickets, and similar items.

Readers may recall that in 2010, EPA released a chemical action plan that summarized hazard, exposure, and use information on bisphenol A (BPA) and identified various actions EPA was considering.  Part of that action plan was to help industries consider alternative chemicals and provide a basis for informed decision-making by developing an in-depth comparison of potential human health and environmental impacts of chemical alternatives. Representatives from industrial, academic, governmental, and non-governmental organizations worked with EPA to select and evaluate alternatives to BPA in thermal paper and develop this report.

By way of background, BPA (a topic we have posted on before) is a high production volume (HPV) chemical with a U.S. volume estimated at 2.4 billion pounds in 2007 and an estimated value of almost $2 billion. It is a monomer used in manufacturing most polycarbonate plastics, the majority of epoxy resins, and other chemical products such as flame retardants.  Approximately 94% of BPA is used as a monomer to make polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins. Although most human exposure to BPA is believed to come from food and beverage packaging made from these materials, less than 5% of the BPA produced is used in food contact applications.  BPA-based materials are also used in automotive and other transportation equipment, optical media such as DVDs, electrical/electronics equipment, construction, linings inside drinking water pipes, thermal paper coatings, foundry casting, and elsewhere.  It has been an extraordinarily useful product.

The BPA in Thermal Paper Alternatives Assessment is an evaluation of potential hazards associated with thermal paper developers that are likely to be functional alternatives to BPA. Thermal paper systems include a developer and other components such as dyes and sensitizers. (EPA recognized that a change in the developer may require additional adjustments to the system.) This draft report summarizes the outcomes of the alternatives assessment, and aims to improve understanding of the potential environmental and human health impacts of BPA and alternative developers in thermal paper throughout their life cycles. Importantly, this draft report does not identify functional chemicals with no or even low concern for all human health and environmental hazard endpoints; all of the alternatives are associated with some trade-offs. For example, a chemical may have a lower concern for human health but a higher concern for aquatic toxicity. Finding and choosing substitutes is not always as easy as plaintiff attorneys and advocacy groups try to suggest.

Comments on EPA's draft alternatives assessment are due Oct. 1, 2012, at baier-anderson.caroline@epa.gov.
 

State Supreme Court Adopts Consumer Expectation Test for Alleged Food Defects

Our readers know that for nearly 50 years, an ongoing issue in product liability law has been the definition of "defect" within the strict liability context. A subtext to this ongoing discussion has been the appropriate test to apply to food products.  Earlier this month,  the “reasonable consumer expectation” test was adopted for food claims by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in a strict liability claim involving a boneless turkey product. See Pinkham v. Cargill Inc., No. 2012 ME 85 (Me., 7/03/12).

Plaintiff allegedly consumed a hot turkey sandwich during his break.  Defendant  allegedly manufactured the boneless turkey product in the sandwich.  In the middle of or immediately after eating the sandwich, Pinkham allegedly experienced severe and sudden pain in his upper abdominal area and thought that he might be suffering from a heart attack. His doctors later determined that in their opinion he most likely had an “esophageal tear or perforation.” Plaintiff sued, alleging that this was a result of bone in the boneless turkey.

Although 50 percent of all turkey consumed in 1970 was during the holidays, today that number is around 31 percent as more people enjoy turkey year-round. In 2010, U.S. consumption of turkey was 16.4 pounds per person.  And turkey is now a $16 billion annual industry, according to the National Turkey Federation.  Readers will recall that our own Ben Franklin proposed the turkey as the national bird, at least in a letter he wrote to his daughter Sarah on January 26, 1784.

Back to the litigation. Defendant moved for summary judgment. After considering the motion, the trial court granted the motion in favor of Cargill, noting that Maine had not yet established which test to use when evaluating a strict liability claim for an allegedly defective food product pursuant to Maine’s strict liability statute, 14 M.R.S. § 221. The court recognized that, prior to the enactment of the state's strict liability statute, courts used a test similar to the “foreign-natural” doctrine when addressing an injury caused by a food product in an implied warranty of merchantability case. E.g., Kobeckis v. Budzko, 225 A.2d 418, 423 (Me. 1967). Readers will recall that the “foreign-natural” doctrine provides that in general a food producer is not liable for anything found in the food product that naturally exists in the ingredients. E.g., Newton v. Standard Candy Co., 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21886, at *6 (D. Neb. Mar. 19, 2008).  The major alternative has been the “reasonable expectation” test: which provides that regardless of whether a substance in a food product is natural to an ingredient thereof, liability will lie for injuries caused by the substance where the consumer of the
product would not reasonably have expected to find the substance in the product. E.g., Jackson v. Nestle-Beich, Inc., 589 N.E.2d 547, 548 (Ill. 1992).

The trial court proposed to evaluate the summary judgment motion under both the traditional
“foreign-natural” doctrine and the more recent  “reasonable expectation” test. The lower court concluded that, because bone is naturally found in turkey, and because the average consumer would reasonably expect to find bone fragments up to two millimeters in size in processed “boneless” turkey product (which the doctor had), the contents of the food bolus discovered in plaintiff's esophagus did not demonstrate that the product was defective, as a matter of law.

The supreme court noted that the state's strict liability approach was rooted in the Second Restatement.  It observed that the Restatement comments define “[d]efective condition” in part as a product that is “in a condition not contemplated by the ultimate consumer.” Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A cmt. g. The comments also define “[u]nreasonably dangerous”: “The article sold must be dangerous to an extent beyond that which would be contemplated by the ordinary
consumer who purchases it, with the ordinary knowledge common to the community as to its characteristics.” Id. cmt. i.  Relying on these comments, the court moved to the reasonable expectations test.

Applying that standard, the supreme court ruled that plaintiff had provided sufficient evidence that an alleged defect in the boneless turkey product he consumed might have caused his surgery-requiring injury. There was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the turkey product caused the injury. One doctor testified that he believed that the injury was a “perforation secondary to a foreign body.”  There was direct evidence of the presence of the smaller pieces of bone or cartilage.  While there was no direct evidence of a larger piece of bone, the court thought a jury could conclude that a larger piece of bone could have been present in the turkey product Pinkham consumed, but may have passed, undetected, from Pinkham’s throat.

Whether a consumer would reasonably expect to find a particular item in a food product is normally a question of fact that is left to a jury.  The court concluded that the trial court could not find as a matter of law that a food bolus containing one-to-two-millimeter bone fragments is not defective.  The question of whether a consumer would reasonably expect to find a turkey bone or a bone
fragment large and/or sharp enough to cause an esophageal perforation in a “boneless” turkey product "s one best left to the fact-finder" said the court.

 

Supreme Court to Review Issue of Daubert at Class Certification Stage

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last week to hear argument in a case in which the lower courts wrestled with the issue whether, at the class certification stage, a district court must resolve Daubert issues. See Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, U.S., No. 11-864 (cert. granted 6/25/12). The Court indicated it was interested in the question "whether a district court may certify a class action without resolving whether the plaintiff class has introduced admissible evidence, including expert testimony, to show that the case is susceptible to awarding damages on a classwide basis."

Readers will recall that in Wal-Mart Stores Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011)  the Supreme Court in dicta referenced the question. Justice Scalia observed that the district court had "concluded that Daubert did not apply to expert testimony at the certification stage of class-action proceedings," but the majority replied that "we doubt that is so." 131 S. Ct. at 2554. Thus, Dukes strongly suggested that it was appropriate for defendants to make the expert challenge at the class certification stage, and important for the court to resolve the issue then; the Comcast litigation may see the Court turn that persuasive dicta into binding precedent. 

Most district courts have been following the dicta. Historically, the Circuits have split.  The 8th and 9th Circuits call for an expert inquiry at this stage, and in American Honda, which we commented on here, the Seventh Circuit previously held that where an expert’s report or testimony is critical to class certification, a district court must conclusively rule on any challenge to the expert’s qualifications or submissions prior to ruling on the class certification motion. 600 F.3d at 815–16. Later, the Seventh Circuit reaffirmed its holding from American Honda, ruling that it was error for a district court to decline to rule on a Daubert motion at the class certification stage. Messner v. Northshore Univ. Healthsystem, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 731, *17 (7th Cir. Jan. 13, 2012).

The 3rd Circuit went in another direction. The district court in Comcast originally certified a class; following the court of appeals' decision in Hydrogen Peroxide, 552 F.3d 305, the district court granted in part Comcast‘s motion to reconsider its certification decision.  After further briefing, plaintiffs got the case re-certified after convincing the district court that they could show that they had an expert methodology to prove damages on a classwide basis. On the current appeal, the Third Circuit agreed that the lower court had applied the "rigorous analysis,"  adding that at the class certification stage, "we are precluded from addressing any merits inquiry unnecessary to making a Rule 23 determination.”  The Petitioners argued that the Third Circuit affirmed the certification order after expressly declining to consider several “merits” issues necessary to determine whether, as required by Rule 23(b)(3), common questions predominate over individual ones.

So the Comcast case may give the Supreme Court a chance to further explain what exactly a rigorous analysis should entail, especially with respect to alleged class-wide damages. The focus on damages, which some have viewed as narrowing the issue presented, still is a question that arises not just in antitrust cases, but also in mass torts, which are front and center for our readers. 

 

Amici Weigh in On Consumer Class Certification in 6th Circuit

Earlier this month, a number of prominent business groups, including the National Association of Manufacturers, weighed in supporting a petition for rehearing of a Sixth Circuit panel decision declining to vacate a class certification decision. See Gina Glazer et al. v. Whirlpool Corp., No. 10-4188 (6th Cir 2012). 
 

The case arises from the claims of a proposed class of consumers who alleged that their Whirlpool washing machines were defective. The Chamber of Commerce, NAM, the Business Roundtable, PLAC, DRI, and others submitted amicus briefs in support of rehearing, pointing out several issues with the class certification decision below, and as affirmed by the appellate panel. See 2012 US LEXIS 9002 (6th Cir., May 3, 2012).

For example, the amici pointed out that the class was certified despite the presence of individuals (perhaps 2/3 of the class) who have no Article III standing because they have not been injured.

The panel also failed to conduct or require the rigorous analysis required by the Supreme Court in Dukes, especially with regard to the predominance requirement. A specific issue related to the number of customers who had allegedly complained about the washers. In Dukes, the Supreme Court made clear that a district court may not simply rely on the plaintiffs’ allegations in ruling on class certification; rather, the court must consider, weigh and resolve disputed questions of fact.

The briefs also pointed out that the court ignored the important impact of potential affirmative defenses, such as misuse, on the predominance inquiry.

This is one worth keeping an eye on.

Find the amicus briefs here and here and here.

 

Court Again Dismisses Claim Against "Non-Conventional" Alcohol Beverage

We posted last year about the dismissal of a motorcycle passenger's claim against the maker of a caffeinated alcoholic drink, seeking to hold the company liable for her crash-related injuries.See Cook v. MillerCoors LLC, No. 11-1488 (M.D. Fla.).

The operator of the motorcycle in the accident was killed, and the plaintiff Cook, who was a passenger, was injured. Prior to the crash, the driver allegedly had consumed several alcoholic beverages containing caffeine and other stimulants, manufactured by the defendant. Cook argued that such beverages were “uniquely dangerous” because they appeal to younger drinkers and because the addition of caffeine allegedly enables one to drink more alcohol without feeling as intoxicated as one normally would. Thus, she contended, consumers of these beverages are more likely to “engage in dangerous behavior such as driving.” She asserted the driver did not appear impaired, even though toxicology reports from his autopsy revealed that his blood alcohol level was 0.10 at the time of the crash.

The district court found flaws with the duty, breach, and causation elements of the claim. The court found that Cook had not established a duty to warn because “the dangers inherent in alcohol consumption are well known to the public.”  Readers can readily see why the court was reluctant to make an exception to the rule for the so-called "unconventional" beverage. There are hundreds of alcohol-containing products that are arguably not "conventional" in one way or another, by taste, ingredients, color, manufacturing process, advertising... To shift responsibility from the person who over-consumes one of these and then drives impaired is to send the absolutely wrong policy message.

Courts have typically recognized no duty on the beverage maker, regardless of a plaintiff's attempt to differentiate either themselves or the product. See, e.g., Malek v. Miller Brewing Co., 749 S.W.2d 521 (Tex. App. 1988) (finding no duty to warn despite claim that advertising led plaintiff to believe that “Lite” beer was less intoxicating than other beer); Pemberton v. Am. Distilled Spirits Co., 664 S.W.2d 690 (Tenn. 1984); Greif v. Anheuser-Busch Cos., Inc., 114 F. Supp. 2d 100 (D. Conn. 2000)(particular, alleged tolerance of an individual consumer); MaGuire v. Pabst Brewing Co., 387 N.W.2d 565 (Iowa 1986).

Plaintiff attempted to re-plead her claim, again alleging that the addition of stimulants that mask the intoxicating effects of alcohol was a defect, but also focusing on the supposed risks this formulation posed to youth. The court again found the complaint lacking. Alcoholic beverages are not considered unreasonably dangerous as defined by the Restatement (Second) of Torts, because the dangers associated with alcohol are well known.  Cook asserted that the risks are not common knowledge to youthful drinkers having experience only with conventional alcoholic beverages. This court was not convinced that “the special risks posed to youth” made the drink unreasonably dangerous from the perspective of the general public.  More significantly, Cook’s argument overlooked an important point: the alleged “special risks” manifest themselves only if the consumer chooses to drink in excess. The case law recognizes that anyone who drinks alcohol may become impaired and yet may not be able to discern his or her impairment. That does not make alcoholic beverages unreasonably dangerous or absolve the drinker of responsibility.

Moreover, the youth-based allegations did not change Florida law on causation, under which voluntary drinking of alcohol is the proximate cause of such an injury, rather than the manufacture or sale of those intoxicating beverages to that person. As to the plaintiff's warning theory, persons engaging in the consumption of alcoholic beverages may not be able to ascertain precisely when the concentration of alcohol in their blood, breath, or urine reaches the proscribed level, so they should in the exercise of reasonable intelligence, understand what type of conduct places them in jeopardy of violating the law. The degree of intoxication to be expected from any particular brand (or formulation) of alcoholic beverage does not require a special duty to warn, or give rise to a fact question about the warnings here.

The court distinguished Cuevas v. United Brands Co., Inc., 2012 WL 760403 (S.D. Cal. Mar. 8, 2012), as an economic injury claim brought under various consumer protection statutes and warranty theories which focused on the sale of the product allegedly in violation of FDA rules rather than its consumption.


 

Consumer Fraud Claim on "All Natural" Beverage Rejected

One trend we are keeping an eye on here at MassTortDefense is plaintiffs' aggressive and excessive use of consumer fraud act claims, micro-analyzing every ad, turning traditional puffing into some kind of nefarious marketing scheme.  Class certification in such cases can trigger the need to think about "blackmail settlements."

So all victories are worth noting, and last week South Beach Beverage Co. Inc., maker of SoBe drinks, garnered dismissal of a California putative class action alleging false claims about their "0 Calories Lifewater" drinks. See Charles Hairston v. South Beach Beverage Co. Inc,. et al., No. 2:12-cv-01429 (C.D. Cal. 5/18/12).

SoBe manufactures a diverse range of beverages, including teas and enhanced waters, that are characterized by exotic flavor combinations and added vitamins. In his First Amended Complaint, plaintiff alleged that during the last three to four years, he regularly purchased SoBe 0 Calorie Lifewater beverages (“Lifewater”), which are no-calorie, vitamin-enhanced, flavored water drinks. Plaintiff raised three challenges to Lifewater’s labeling, which he claimed he “read and relied on.” First, plaintiff alleged that the “all natural” label was potentially deceptive because Lifewater contains “deceptively labeled ingredients” that are “synthetic or created via chemical processing.” Second, plaintiff alleged that Lifewater’s labels are potentially misleading because the names of various fruits are used to describe the different flavors of Lifewater even though Lifewater allegedly does not contain any actual fruit or fruit juice. Third, plaintiff alleged that the use of the common vitamin name (e.g., B12) on the product labels is misleading because the vitamins added to Lifewater are "synthetic" or created via chemical processing.

As is typical, plaintiffs alleged causes of action including for: (1) California Consumers Legal Remedies Act – California Civil Code §§ 1750, et seq. (“CLRA”); (2) California False Advertising Law – California Business & Professions Code §§ 17500, et seq. (“FAL”); (3) California Unfair Competition Law – California Business & Professions Code §§ 17200, et seq. (“UCL”).

Defendants argued first that the claims alleged related to the use of fruit names to describe the various flavors of Lifewater and their use of common vitamin names were preempted by the express preemption provisions in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (“FDCA”) and by the specific labeling regulations promulgated by the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”). The court concluded that plaintiff’s claims related to defendants’ use of the names of various fruits to describe the different flavors of Lifewater were indeed preempted. See, e.g., Dvora v.
General Mills, Inc., 2011 WL 1897349 (C.D. Cal. May 6, 2011) (holding that CLRA and UCL claims
were preempted where the plaintiff was challenging the use of the words “Blueberry Pomegranate”
in labeling a cereal not containing any blueberries or pomegranates because FDA regulations
explicitly permit manufacturers “to use the name and images of a fruit on a product’s packaging to
describe the characterizing flavor of the product even where the product does not contain any of
that fruit, or contains no fruit at all”); McKinnis v. General Mills, Inc., 2007 WL 4762172 (C.D. Cal.
Sept. 18, 2007) (holding that use of “Strawberry Kiwi” to designate the flavor of yogurt containing
no fruit ingredients was “permissible to demonstrate the ‘characterizing flavor’ of the product”).

The court also concluded that plaintiff’s claims related to defendants’ use of the common names
of vitamins were preempted. See, e.g., 21 C.F.R. § 101.9(c)(8)(v) (recognizing that “Vitamin C” and
“Ascorbic acid” are “synonym[s]” that may be used in the alternative in a product’s nutritional
information labeling); 21 C.F.R. § 101.9(k)(4) (stating that the FDA will consider a food
“misbranded” if its “label or labeling represents, suggests, or implies” that “a natural vitamin in food is superior to an added or synthetic vitamin”).

Significantly, the court concluded that plaintiff could not avoid preemption of these claims by arguing that his claim related solely to defendants’ “all natural” representations and that he included his fruit name and vitamin name claims only as support for his “all natural” claim. Such an argument would effectively allow a plaintiff to always avoid preemption of those claims, and would undermine the purpose of the federal labeling standards which includes avoiding
a patchwork of different state standards.  These claims were dismissed with prejudice.

Plaintiff also alleged that the “all natural” labeling on defendants’ products was potentially deceptive because the product contains “deceptively labeled ingredients” that are
“synthetic or created via chemical processing.” However, plaintiff could not state a claim under the
CLRA, FAL, or UCL regarding defendants’ allegedly deceptive “all natural” labeling because once
the preempted statements regarding fruit names and vitamin labeling were removed, plaintiff’s claim is based on a single out-of-context phrase found in one component of Lifewater’s label.

The court concluded that plaintiff’s selective interpretation of individual words or phrases from a product’s labeling could not support a CLRA, FAL, or UCL claim. See, e.g., Carrea v. Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, 2012 WL 1131526 (9th Cir. Apr. 5, 2012).  Lifewater’s label did not simply state that it is “all natural” without elaboration or explanation. Instead, the “all natural” language was immediately followed by additional statements, like “with vitamins” or “with B vitamins.”  Lifewater did not use the “all natural” language in a vacuum. Thus, it was impossible for plaintiff to allege how the “all natural” language would be deceptive without relying on the preempted statements regarding fruit names and vitamins.

In addition, the court concluded that no reasonable consumer would read the “all natural”
language as modifying the “with vitamins” language and somehow believe that the added vitamins are suppose to be “all natural vitamins.”  Moreover, to the extent there was any ambiguity, it was  clarified by the detailed information contained in the ingredient list, which explained the exact contents of Lifewater. In this case, the ingredient list was consistent with the front label statement of “all natural with vitamins.”

The court concluded that the challenge to the “all natural” language on Lifewater was not deceptive as a matter of law.

 

Sunscreen Label Rules Deadlines Extended by FDA

Next weekend marks the unofficial start of the summer season, and readers will be heading out to the lake or beach, picnics and barbecues.  All the while taking time to reflect on the brave men and women who gave their lives for our freedom serving in the United States armed forces.  (Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day, a day to put flowers and flags on the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers.)

Those summer activities may call for sunscreen. On that topic, we note that the FDA recently announced a six-month delay on implementing new labeling rules for sunscreen.  The rules call for additional testing regarding ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B ray protection, and restrict use of certain "waterproof," "sweat-proof" and "sunblock" claims, also regulating claims for ‘‘instant
protection’’ or protection immediately upon application, or claims for ‘‘all-day’’ protection or extended wear claims.

The new rules were set to go into effect June 18, but industry groups like the Personal Care Products Council and the Consumer Healthcare Products Association noted the need for more time. FDA agreed that allowing adequate time for the 2011 final rule requirements to be
fully implemented is in the interest of public health.  Complex label redesign issues and the required broad spectrum testing just is going to take more time.

For example, sunscreens that pass the FDA's new broad-spectrum test procedure can be labeled as "Broad Spectrum" on the front label. And such products will be extremely valuable to consumers concerned about skin cancer risks. If the timeline for implementation discourages manufacturers from conducting broad spectrum testing, and instead prompts them to apply the labeling that the final rule establishes for products that have not been established to offer broad spectrum  protection, a major public health goal of the rule will be undermined.

FDA still encouraged manufacturers to introduce individual products bearing the new labeling as it becomes available, even in advance of the revised compliance date, which ranges from December 2012 to December 2013 depending on the product.

Readers, enjoy your holiday weekend.

 
 

Tort Reform Continues in Arizona

As always at MassTortDefense we are happy to note tort reform victories.

Earlier this month Arizona Governor Brewer signed legislation limiting punitive damage awards in product liability defect suits in the state.

The bill, H.B. 2503, was passed by wide margins in both chambers of the state legislature earlier in the Spring.  It states that punitive damages generally cannot be awarded in a civil suit in Arizona when a product is designed, manufactured, packaged, labeled, sold, or represented in relevant and material respects in accordance with a federal agency's approval, clearance, or determination.

The legislation does not exempt punitive damages if the company that sells a product does so after a final order is given from a government agency to withdraw or recall the item from the market.

Supporters had indicated that the measure was important to discourage the practice of seeking punitive damages simply as a lever to force a defendant to settle, as insurance typically does not cover punitives. Businesses that manufacture products in compliance with all relevant health and safety standards should not be held liable for punitive damages in product liability cases. Laws like this one give clients the security to be innovative. When creating new products, businesses can be assured that by complying with mandated guidelines they will not be subject to unjust punitive sanctions. 

 

Federal Court Denies Certification of MP3 Class Action - Again

A New Jersey federal court last week declined to certify a proposed class in a suit over alleged defects in the Zune MP3 player's display screen. See Maloney, et al. v. Microsoft Corp., No. 3:09-cv-02047 (D.N.J. 2012).

Readers may recall we blogged about this case when the court denied certification of a nationwide class, in part because of choice of law issues. The court at that point reserved decision as to whether or not a New Jersey-wide class might be certified, subject to further briefing by the parties.  We said at that time: "clearly additional individual issues will predominate in that context as well."  Hope our college Madness pool predictions will be as accurate.

The new proposed class was NJ residents who purchased or owned a Microsoft Zune 30gb model and whose Zune liquid crystal display screen cracked without cracking or chipping of the outer screen that covers the LCD screen within their applicable warranty period (one-year, unless under an extended warranty) and who notified Microsoft orally or in writing about the cracked LCD but did not receive repair or replacement of their Zune from Microsoft.  That's a mouthful.

Defendant argued that plaintiffs had no unifying theory of causation capable of class-wide proof and that individual questions of fact would therefore predominate at trial.  Plaintiff, on the other hand, argued that causation could be established on a class-wide basis because class members‘ LCD screens fractured without external damage to the outer lens;  fractured in locations that were disproportionately clustered around four identified alleged internal design defects; and were 20 times more likely to crack without external damage than were LCD screens on the later-model Zune.

Our readers know that the burden is on the plaintiff to prove that the requirements of Rule 23 have been satisfied. Class certification is proper only if the trial court is satisfied, after a rigorous analysis, that the prerequisites‘ of Rule 23 are met. Predominance was the key element here, as issues common to the class must predominate over individual issues. If any key elements of a claim can be proven only by resort to individual treatment, class certification is inappropriate. Plaintiffs seeking class certification must demonstrate that each element of [the cause of action is capable of proof at trial through evidence that is common to the class rather than individual to its members.

Here, the court determined that plaintiffs' purported proofs failed to establish that any of the alleged design defects commonly caused class members‘ injuries because this evidence suffered from what the United States Supreme Court has termed a failure of inference. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541, 2555 (2011).  Procedurally, any factual dispute concerning whether causation is capable of proof at trial through common evidence must be determined by the court. This often requires the weighing of conflicting expert testimony, and the court must then resolve expert disputes in order to determine whether the predominance requirement has been met. A court must engage in this analysis even if it overlaps with the merits.

The practical considerations underlying the presentation of a case at trial should be considered by the court in determining whether individual questions of fact would predominate.  In the context of proving the element of causation, numerous courts have held that individualized questions of fact prevent class certification where resort to case-by-case testimony would be necessary. In the context of consumer fraud, for example, class certification is inappropriate where oral representations are made to each class member and where plaintiffs must rely on this evidence to prove causation.

Here, the court noted that a jury must be able to independently weigh whether each alleged design defect actually existed and whether that specific defect was the cause of each class member‘s injury.  Plaintiff‘s proffered evidence was largely the plaintiff‘s lawyers‘ comparison effort.  Plaintiff‘s expert conducted no statistical analysis. It was thus impossible to tell from plaintiff‘s proffered evidence whether any of the numbers put forward were statistically significant.  Also, plaintiff had not put forth any evidence that a jury could rely upon in determining which alleged design defect led to which Zune failure or which grouping of Zune failures. As framed by the plaintiffs, the alleged LCD cracks resulted from a muddled mix of causes and effects. There was no indication that each purported cause led to a uniform result (e.g., an origination point in the same location), which would permit the jury to draw an inference of a specific design defect. Thus, there was no way to determine which of the purported causes or which grouping of these causes led to which individual LCD crack or group of LCD cracks.

Indeed, according to plaintiff‘s own expert, one of the most basic concepts of failure analysis is that the origin (position) of failure can be determined from the failure pattern on the fracture surface of an object. Plaintiffs also admitted that a number of the 30gb Zunes sampled by their expert fell outside the high-frequency areas identified in the expert report.  Just as statistical evidence of gender disparity at the regional or national level in Dukes could not establish gender disparity at the local level, plaintiffs' proof could not establish the design defects on a common basis.

Moreover, and this is an important point that some courts ignore, even if prima facie evidence of causation could be established on the basis of statistically significant recurrence of crack-origination points—something the plaintiffs had not established — the defendant must be given the opportunity to rebut such an inference; to defend against each of these alleged defects; to respond to that proof.  The only way in which the defendant could rebut plaintiff‘s proposed class-wide evidence would be through the presentation of individual evidence regarding the circumstances surrounding each cracked LCD screen. A lack of damage to the outer lens did not necessarily preclude evidence that other portions of the outer shell of the 30gb Zune were damaged by misuse.  Defendant would have to be given the opportunity to cross-examine each Zune owner to assure that there was no damage to the outer casing (as opposed to the outer lens covering the LCD screen) that resulted from misuse or abuse. This would result in hundreds of mini-trials.

Lastly, internal defendant communications did not establish causation as to each individual class member‘s injury. Generalized statements about an alleged design defect are merely that—general statements; they fail to show that all LCD cracks must have been the result of this alleged defect. Just as in Dukes, anecdotal evidence generally cannot serve as a basis for class certification.

Federal Court Denies Class Certification After Daubert Analysis

A  federal court late last month declined to certify three classes of consumers in litigation claiming that a defect in Harley-Davidson Motor Co. Inc.'s motorcycles caused severe wobbling and instability. See Steven C. Bruce, et al. v. Harley-Davidson Motor Co., Inc., et al., No. 2:09-cv-06588 (C.D. Cal.).

Plaintiffs were owners of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. According to plaintiffs, beginning in or before 2002, Harley-Davidson manufactured and sold touring motorcycles that had an alleged design defect in the form of an excessively flexible chassis. According to plaintiffs, the alleged defect caused “severe wobbling, weaving and/or instability,” especially occurring when riders made sweeping turns, and traveled at speeds above 55 miles per hour. Plaintiffs alleged that had they and other class members known of the defective nature of the vehicles, they would not have purchased or leased their motorcycles, or at least would have reduced the amount they were willing to pay for them. Hence, the classic alleged consumer fraud class action.

Plaintiffs moved for class certification, and relied on expert testimony to establish some of the Rule 23 elements.  Specifically, plaintiffs’ expert opined that a rider of a properly-designed
motorcycle should not experience a weave-mode instability event when riding within the
range of expected speeds.  He asserted that the class-purchased cycles shared a common design defect in the form of an “excessively flexible” chassis. The vehicles allegedly failed to “damp out,” or reduce, weave-mode oscillations to one half of their original amplitude within the time frame (a couple seconds) necessary to prevent them from becoming perceptible to the riders.

Defendants challenged the admissibility of that expert testimony under Daubert, contending that Rule 702 and Daubert apply with “full force” at the class certification stage. In support of this
position, Harley-Davidson relied primarily on Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011), and Am. Honda Motor Co. v. Allen, 600 F.3d 813, 815–16 (7th Cir. 2010) (per curiam).  In Dukes, the Supreme Court noted that it doubted that Daubert did not apply at the certification stage of class-action proceedings. 131 S. Ct. at 2554. In American Honda, which we commented on here, the Seventh Circuit held that where an expert’s report or testimony is critical to class certification, a district court must conclusively rule on any challenge to the expert’s qualifications or submissions prior to ruling on the class certification motion. 600 F.3d at 815–16. Earlier this month, the Seventh Circuit reaffirmed its holding in American Honda, ruling that it was error for a district court to decline to rule on a Daubert motion at the class certification stage. Messner v. Northshore Univ. Healthsystem, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 731, *17 (7th Cir. Jan. 13, 2012).

Plaintiffs argued that a full Daubert inquiry into the reliability of expert opinions is not required or appropriate at the class certification stage. They cited In In re Zurn Pex Plumbing Prods. Liability Litig., 644 F.3d 604, 613 (8th Cir. 2011),which we criticized here, and in which the Eighth Circuit reasoned that an “exhaustive and conclusive Daubert inquiry before the completion of merits discovery” is not necessary due to the “inherently preliminary nature of pretrial evidentiary and
class certification rulings.”  See also Behrend v. Comcast Corp., 655 F. 3d 182, 204 n. 13 (3d Cir. 2011) (district court need not turn class certification into a "mini-trial”).

Here the district court found the approach adopted by the Eighth Circuit to be the appropriate application of Daubert at the class certification stage. Thus, a “tailored” or “focused” inquiry, to assess whether the experts’ opinions, based on their areas of expertise and the reliability of their analysis of the available evidence, should be considered in deciding the issues relating to class certification, said the court. Especially where discovery has been bifurcated into a class phase and a merits phase, an expert’s analysis may have to later adapt, as gaps in the available
evidence are filled in by merits discovery. Here, the court had granted defendants’ request for bifurcated discovery. Accordingly, the expert opinions would be assessed in light of the evidence currently available.

Even with a less than full inquiry, the court found that the proposed expert testimony must be excluded. In reaching this conclusion, the court decided the expert had not adequately
explained the scientific basis for his proposed standard, which also had not been accepted in
the field of motorcycle dynamics. While the evidence supported that the damping out of weave-mode oscillations may be an important factor for motorcycle stability, it did not establish that the expert's "rule" requiring the reduction of weave-mode oscillations to one half of their original amplitude within two seconds was scientifically valid.

The expert formed his opinions exclusively for the purposes of litigation and had not published his "rule" for peer review, providing further support for his exclusion.

Additionally, the court believed that he had not sufficiently accounted for other potential causes of the instability. He failed to consider and test for other possible causes including the use of non-specified tires and leaky shocks. See, e.g., Clausen v. M/V NEW CARISSA, 339 F. 3d 1049, 1058
(9th Cir. 2003) (“The expert must provide reasons for rejecting alternative hypotheses using scientific methods and procedures and elimination of those hypotheses must be founded on more than ‘subjective beliefs or unsupported speculation.’”).

Thus, plaintiffs failed to establish that common questions of law and fact predominated over individual inquiries. Once the opinions were excluded, plaintiffs failed to show that they had the ability to use common evidence by which they could demonstrate the defect. The fact that the chassis was the same for each vehicle ignored the failure to show how common evidence would ultimately be admissible to prove that they shared a common defect, and also was unavailing because it overlooked the Supreme Court’s admonition that a “rigorous analysis” will often “entail some overlap with the merits of the plaintiff’s underlying claim.” Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2551.

Class Certification Denied in Baby Formula Case

A federal court last week denied class certification in a lawsuit over insect parts allegedly found in baby formula, recognizing that the claims raised multiple individual issues. Brandner v. Abbott Laboratories, et al., No. 2:10-cv-03242 (E.D. La. 1/23/12).

Plaintiff filed this suit in connection with Abbott’s September, 2010 recall of Similac brand infant formula because of the concern that insect parts may have been observed in a batch of finished product.  Brandner asserted that she purchased, and her child consumed, Similac that was
part of the product recall.  Plaintiff contended that during this period her child suffered alleged gastrointestinal problems, which symptoms required numerous visits to a physician, and that she allegedly experienced severe emotional distress upon learning she had fed her child infant formula containing beetles and beetle larvae.

Plaintiff's Rule 23 (b)(2) class allegations were dismissed, but plaintiff then sought monetary damages and moved to certify a class on her products liability and redhibition claims under
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3). Defendant opposed this certification motion on the grounds that she failed to satisfy the commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation requirements of Rule 23(a), as well as the predominance and superiority requirements of Rule 23(b)(3). The court's focus was on the predominance and superiority issues, and found no need to reach all the other questions.

Predominance of individual issues under the product liability claim-

Louisiana law requires a plaintiff to demonstrate that the product was unreasonably dangerous when it left the manufacturer’s control. Whether each class member actually purchased contaminated Similac was subject to individualized, not collective proof. Second, each putative class member would need to establish that Abbott’s actions were a proximate cause of his or her injury. Jefferson v. Lead Indus. Ass’n, Inc., 106 F.3d 1245, 1247 (5th Cir. 1997).  The plaintiff's cause of action here would require proof of medical causation, which has two components, general causation, which establishes that a substance has the capability of causing the injury or disorder in humans, and specific causation, which focuses upon whether the substance caused a particular injury to a particular individual. E.g., Ridgeway v. Pfizer, Inc.,, 2010 WL 1729187, at *2 (E.D. La. Apr. 27, 2010).  Even assuming general causation, proving specific causation would require a determination of an individual’s family and medical history; age; gender; diet; the timing of ingestion of the product; whether that individual suffered an injury, when the injury occurred, the type of injury suffered, and the number of occurrences of injury; and more. See In re Vioxx Prods. Liab. Litig., 239 F.R.D. 450, 459 (E.D. La. 2006)(citing In re Phenylpropanolamine (PPA) Prods. Liab. Litig., 208 F.R.D. 625, 631-32 (W.D. Wash. 2002)).

This highly individualized inquiry led the court to conclude that issues common to the class did
not predominate.   Interestingly, the court went on to note that all plaintiffs who claimed emotional distress (an issue that plaintiff contended was common to the class) would have to establish not only the distress but also the attendant damages. The damages issue required a determination  whether plaintiffs sought medical treatment, psychiatric treatment, the degree to which plaintiffs manifested generalized fear, and the severity of plaintiffs’ emotional distress. See Howard v. Union Carbide Corp., 897 So.2d 768, 774 (La. App. 2005). Because the determination of whether each member suffered emotional distress turned on a highly individualized assessment, questions of fact regarding individual members predominated over common issues of fact.  While the individual nature of damages alone does not necessarily preclude class certification, class treatment may not be suitable where the calculation of damages is not susceptible to a mathematical or formulaic calculation. Establishing emotional damages would entail the exact type of “mini-trials” the courts have cautioned against. Indeed, the very nature of these damages, compensating plaintiffs for emotional and other intangible injuries, necessarily implicated the subjective differences of each plaintiff’s circumstances; they were an individual, not class-wide, remedy.  See Allison v. Citgo Petroleum Corp., 151 F.3d 402, 417 (5th Cir. 1998). See also In re Katrina Canal Breaches Litig., 401 Fed. Appx. 884, 887 (5th Cir. 2010) (class certification not appropriate when individualized issues, such as the nature and extent of a class member’s damages, will predominate).

Superiority- 

The court also found that plaintiff made no showing of how she would try these claims on a class-wide basis. She thus failed to demonstrate how she would overcome the manageability problems posed by claims that require such disparate proof. Accordingly, she had not satisfied the requirement that a class action be superior to other available methods of adjudicating the controversy.

Other claims-

Plaintiff's redhibition claims also could not be certified as a class because common issues did not predominate, and a class action was not a superior mechanism for trying these claims. Plaintiff argued, in essence, that defendant admitted defect in recalling lots of the product.  But the court found that the recall notice was far from an admission that every unit contained a
redhibitory defect. Indeed, the press release actually stated that there was only a “remote possibility” of contamination in the products subject to recall. Plaintiff could not show through common proof that each class member purchased a defective product.  Plaintiff's expert did not convince the court otherwise. The overall rate of contamination in tested samples was only 0.16%.  The expert admitted there was no scientific way to evaluate contamination in units that were recalled but not tested.  And even if the product was considered “adulterated” per the FDCA, a food product is adulterated, inter alia, if it has been prepared, packed, or held under insanitary
conditions whereby it may have become contaminated with filth, or whereby it may have been rendered injurious to health. So a product can be “adulterated” under the FDCA without being contaminated or defective.

Class certification denied under (b)(3).

Court of Appeals Affirms Dismissal of FEMA Trailer Claims

The Fifth Circuit recently upheld the dismissal of putative class actions filed by Mississippi and Alabama residents against the federal government alleging trailers provided to Hurricane Katrina-impacted citizens contained hazardous levels of formaldehyde. See In re: FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litigation (Mississippi Plaintiffs), No. 10-30921, and In re: FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litigation (Alabama Plaintiffs), No. 10-30945 (5th Cir. 2012).

Plaintiffs-Appellants brought this Federal Tort Claims Act action against the United States for injuries allegedly related to their exposure to elevated levels of formaldehyde contained in the component materials of the Emergency Housing Units (“EHUs”) provided to them by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Readers will recall we have posted about various aspects of this litigation before. In October 2007, the United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation created MDL No. 07-1873 (In re: FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litigation), and assigned the complex litigation to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

The key facts: After the hurricanes, FEMA activated its Individual and Household Assistance Program and, from September 2005 through May 1, 2009, the agency supplied disaster victims with EHUs, at no cost, to use as temporary shelter. The EHUs were taken from FEMA’s preexisting inventory, which had been purchased from public retailers as well as directly from manufacturers. The EHUs were small, portable, and usually placed at the disaster victims’ home sites. The trailers were installed by government contractors who placed the units on blocks or piers, anchored them to the ground using straps or bolts, and connected them to public sewer and water lines.

In March 2006, when FEMA began receiving formaldehyde-related complaints, it encouraged shelter occupants to ventilate their EHUs by opening the doors and windows. In June 2006, FEMA prepared an informational brochure informing EHU occupants of the potential risks of formaldehyde exposure, encouraging them to ventilate their units, and urging them to seek medical help if they developed health problems related to formaldehyde. In September 2006, FEMA began working with the Environmental Protection Agency to test the EHUs for formaldehyde, and also developed various new mitigation techniques.  In July 2007, FEMA distributed another informational brochure to EHU occupants, set up a hotline and a dedicated call center to field formaldehyde complaints from occupants, and continued to assist occupants in locating alternative housing. FEMA subsequently entered into an agreement with the CDC to conduct additional testing, the findings of which were compiled in a third informational brochure and distributed to EHU occupants in early 2008.

The federal government filed various motions to dismiss the claims against it, or in the alternative for summary judgment, based on the FTCA’s discretionary function exception.The district court denied the motions and held that the FTCA’s discretionary function exception might not apply to some or all of appellants’ claims, the determination of which would be driven by the facts of each individual case.  The district court then denied class certification and scheduled a series of bellwether trials in the MDL, but none of the FTCA claims brought by the bellwether plaintiffs against the Government advanced to the trial stage.

The Government then moved under Federal Rule 12(b)(1) to dismiss Appellants’ FTCA claims for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction on the grounds that no analogous private liability existed under the Mississippi and Alabama emergency statutes.  The district court granted the Government’s motion and dismissed appellants’ FTCA claims. Plaintiffs appealed to the Fifth Circuit.

 A plaintiff may only sue the United States if a federal statute explicitly provides for a waiver of sovereign immunity. The United States must consent to be sued, and that consent is a prerequisite to federal jurisdiction. Delta Commercial Fisheries Ass’n v. Gulf of Mex. Fishery Mgmt. Council, 364 F.3d 269, 273 (5th Cir. 2004). Waivers of sovereign immunity are narrowly construed in favor of the United States. In re Supreme Beef Processors, Inc., 468 F.3d 248, 253 (5th Cir. 2006). The FTCA is recognized as providing a waiver of sovereign immunity and provides the sole basis of recovery for tort claims against the United States. See 28 U.S.C. § 1346 and § 2671, et seq.; In re Supreme Beef Processors, 468 F.3d at 252 n.4. But the Act provides that the United States shall be liable in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances. See
28 U.S.C. § 2674.

The "same manner" analysis is a mix of federal and state law. The FTCA requires the  Government's liability to be measured in accordance with the law of the state where the alleged act or omission occurred, so here the Appellants’ FTCA claims were limited by the relevant provisions set forth in Mississippi and Alabama tort law. See 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1); Richards v. United States, 369 U.S. 1, 11-14 (1962); Cleveland ex rel. Cleveland v. United States, 457 F.3d 397, 403 (5th Cir. 2006). Whether a private person in “like circumstances” would be subject to liability is also a question of sovereign immunity and, thus, is ultimately a question of federal law. See United States v. Olson, 546 U.S. 43, 44 (2005). Because the federal government could never be exactly like a private actor, a court’s job in applying the standard is to find the most reasonable analogy. LaBarge v. Cnty. of Mariposa, 798 F.2d 364, 366-69 (9th Cir. 1986). Inherent differences between the government and a private person cannot be allowed to disrupt this analysis. The Fifth Circuit has consistently held that the government is entitled to raise any and all defenses that would potentially be available to a private citizen or entity under state law. Camacho v. Tex. Workforce Comm'n, 445 F.3d 407, 410 (5th Cir. 2006). Therefore, if a private person under “like circumstances” would be shielded from liability pursuant to a state statute, lower courts must decline to exercise subject matter jurisdiction in a case like this.

Because, here, the Mississippi and Alabama emergency statutes abrogate the tort liability of a private person who, (1) voluntarily, (2) without compensation, (3) allows his property or premises to be used as shelter during or in recovery from a natural disaster, the Government’s voluntary, cost-free provision of the EHUs to disaster victims, in connection with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, was
also immunized conduct under the statute.  Despite plaintiffs' arguments, the Government’s provision of the government-owned EHUs, as implemented by FEMA, was voluntary because it was under no contractual or legal obligation, under any federal legislation, to provide the EHUs to disaster victims in response to the disasters. The Government did not receive compensation from the disaster victims in exchange for letting them use the EHUs. (The collection of taxes by the Government was not comparable to the traditional quid pro quo compensation contemplated by the statute.) In addition, the Government’s actions relating to the EHUs fell within the time frame contemplated by the statute as “during or in recovery from” a major disaster, since FEMA’s temporary emergency housing program ran from the hurricanes up to May, 2009.

Because Mississippi and Alabama emergency laws would protect those private individuals who shelter natural disaster victims from tort liability, the federal government's voluntary provision of the trailers was likewise immunized, the court concluded.

As an alternative, the appellants asked the Fifth Circuit to certify questions to the state supreme courts of Alabama and Mississippi regarding the meaning of the state emergency statutes, but the appeals court agreed with the district court that these questions did not warrant certification. Dismissals affirmed.

Court of Appeals Compels Arbitration, Not Class Litigation

The role of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms in alleged consumer product defect cases continues to be a hotly disputed issue.  Plaintiff lawyers prefer the class action device, with its ability to pressure blackmail settlements, while product makers continue to require in product literature that consumers go the quicker and cheaper route of ADR.

The Third Circuit held last week that a putative class of computer customers should arbitrate, not litigate, their product defect claims against Dell Inc., even though the arbitration forum originally named in the computer purchase "terms and conditions" was no longer available. See Raheel Ahmad Khan, et al. v. Dell Inc., No.10-3655 (3d Cir.).

This appeal involved a matter of first impression for this court– whether Section 5 of the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) required the appointment of a substitute arbitrator when the arbitrator designated by the parties was unavailable.  The district court denied Dell's Motion to Compel Arbitration, based on the belief that the arbitration provision was rendered unenforceable because it provided for the parties to arbitrate exclusively before a forum that was unavailable when plaintiff commenced suit. The district court also refused to appoint a substitute arbitrator, finding that it could not compel the parties to submit to an arbitral forum to which they had not agreed.

Khan purchased a Dell computer through Dell's website; he alleged that his unit suffered from design defects, causing his computer to overheat and thereby destroy the computer's motherboard. Khan allegedly replaced the motherboard multiple times. Eventually, the  warranty expired. In 2009, Khan filed a putative consumer class action on behalf of himself and other similarly situated purchasers and lessees of the allegedly defectively designed computers.

But to complete the purchase, plaintiff had been required to click a box stating “I AGREE to Dell's Terms and Conditions of Sale.” Just beneath was a box requiring "BINDING ARBITRATION ADMINISTERED BY THE NATIONAL ARBITRATION FORUM (NAF)."  However, at the time the lawsuit was filed, the NAF had gotten out of the business of conducting consumer arbitrations pursuant to a Consent Judgment, which resolved litigation brought by the Attorney General of Minnesota.  Although Khan suggested that Dell must have chosen the NAF based on its alleged corporate-friendly disposition, the record did not show that Dell was aware of the practices challenged by the state AG at the time that it selected the NAF as the arbitral forum governing Khan's purchase, or that Dell selected the NAF for any improper reason.

The arbitration provision did not designate a replacement forum in the event that NAF was unavailable for any reason. But, the product Terms and Conditions did incorporate the Federal Arbitration Act.  The court of appeals noted that, because this was a question of arbitrability, it was governed by the FAA. Congress passed the FAA in response to widespread judicial hostility to arbitration agreements. The FAA reflects a liberal federal policy favoring arbitration. The federal courts have regularly noted that questions of arbitrability must be addressed with a healthy regard for this federal policy favoring arbitration.

The particular problem presented in this case – the unavailability of the NAF – was addressed in section 5 of the FAA, which provides a mechanism for substituting an arbitrator when the designated arbitrator is unavailable. In determining the applicability of Section 5 of the FAA when an arbitrator is unavailable, courts have focused on whether the designation of the arbitrator was “integral” to the arbitration provision or was merely an ancillary consideration. Only if the choice of forum is an integral part of the agreement to arbitrate, rather than an ancillary logistical concern, will the failure of the chosen forum preclude arbitration. In other words, a court will decline to appoint a substitute arbitrator, as provided in the FAA, only if the parties' choice of forum is so central to the arbitration agreement that the unavailability of that arbitrator brings the agreement essentially to an end. In this light, said the court, the parties must unambiguously express their intent not to arbitrate their disputes in the event that the designated forum became unavailable.

Plaintiff stressed that the NAF's rules were incorporated into the contract, and that these rules provide that all arbitrations must be conducted by the NAF or an entity having an agreement with it.  The court found this requirement ambiguous as to what should happen in the event that the NAF was unavailable. The NAF's rules provided that they shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the FAA and that, if any portion of the NAF rules were found to be unenforceable, that portion shall be severed and the remainder of the rules shall continue to apply.  This suggested the possibility of substitutions.

The dissent argued that it was important why the NAF was not available to arbitrate. But, the terms and conditions clearly contained an agreement to resolve disputes through arbitration, rather than through litigation. And the reason the forum was not available was not dispositive.

 

Ninth Circuit Decertifies Consumer Fraud Class

The Ninth Circuit last week reversed the certification of a nationwide class raising consumer fraud claims against an auto maker. See Mazza, et al. v. American Honda Motor Co., No. 09-55376 (9th Circuit). 

Honda appealed the district court’s decision to certify a nationwide class of all consumers who purchased or leased Acura RL's equipped with a Collision Mitigation Braking System (“CMBS”). The plaintiffs alleged that certain advertisements misrepresented the characteristics of the CMBS and supposedly omitted material information on its limitations. The complaint stated four claims under California Law, specifically the California Unfair Competition Law (UCL), Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17200 et seq., False Advertising Law (FAL), Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17500 et seq., the Consumer Legal Remedies Act (CLRA), Cal. Civil Code § 1750 et seq., and a claim for unjust enrichment.  Readers know those are the typical claims in a consumer fraud case in the popular forum of California.

The Ninth Circuit held that the district court erred because it erroneously concluded that California law could be applied to the entire nationwide class, and because it erroneously concluded that all consumers who purchased or leased the relevant Acura RL can be presumed to have relied on defendant’s advertisements, which allegedly were misleading and omitted material information.

In 2007, plaintiffs bought Acura RL's from authorized Acura dealerships, and the vehicles were equipped with the CMB System. In December 2007, they filed a class action complaint alleging
that Honda misrepresented and concealed material information in connection with the marketing and sale of Acura RL vehicles equipped with the CMBS. According to Plaintiffs, Honda did not warn consumers (1) that its CMB collision avoidance system’s three separate stages may "overlap,"  (2) that the system may not warn drivers in time to avoid an accident, and (3) that it allegedly shuts off in bad weather.

The district court certified a nationwide class of people in the United States who, between August 17, 2005 and the date of class certification, purchased or leased new or used Acura RL vehicles
equipped with the CMBS. The district court concluded that California law could be applied to all class members because Honda did not show how the differences in the laws of the various states were material, how other states might have an interest in applying their laws in this case, and how these interests were implicated in this litigation. It also held that class members were entitled to an
inference of reliance under California law.

Before certifying a class, the trial court must conduct a rigorous analysis to determine whether the party seeking certification has met the prerequisites of Rule 23.  The party seeking class certification has the burden of affirmatively demonstrating that the class meets the requirements
of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23. And, under Rule 23(b)(3), a plaintiff must demonstrate the
superiority of maintaining a class action and show that the questions of law or fact common to class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members.  Here, Honda contended that common issues of law did not predominate because California’s consumer protection statutes may not be applied to a nationwide class with members in 44 jurisdictions.
It further contended that common issues of fact did not predominate because the court  impermissibly relied on presumptions that all class members were exposed to the allegedly
misleading advertising, that they relied on misleading information in making their purchasing decision, and that they were damaged as a result.

First, choice of law. Under California’s choice of law rules, the class action proponent bears the initial burden to show that California has significant contact to the claims of each class member. Also, California law may only be used on a class-wide basis if the interests of other states are not found to outweigh California’s interest in having its law applied.  Honda argued that the district court misapplied the three-step governmental interest test.  The Ninth Circuit agreed. The district court abused its discretion in certifying a class under California law that contained class members
who purchased or leased their car in different jurisdictions with materially different consumer protection laws.  For example, some state consumer fraud laws have no scienter requirement, whereas many other states’ consumer protection statutes do require scienter. See, e.g., Colo.
Rev. Stat. 6-1-105(1)(e), (g), (u) (knowingly); N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:8-2 (knowledge and intent for omissions); Debbs v. Chrysler Corp., 810 A.2d 137, 155 (Pa. Super. 2002) (knowledge
or reckless disregard).  Some states require named class plaintiffs to demonstrate reliance, while some other states’ consumer protection statutes do not.  These differences are "not trivial or wholly immaterial."  

The court of appeals reminds us that consumer protection laws are a creature of the state in which they are fashioned. They may impose or not impose liability depending on policy choices made by state legislatures. Each state has an interest in setting the appropriate level of liability for companies conducting business within its territory.  Maximizing consumer and business welfare, and achieving the correct balance for society, does not inexorably favor greater consumer protection; instead, setting a baseline of corporate liability for consumer harm requires balancing these competing interests.  Getting the optimal balance between protecting consumers and attracting foreign businesses, with resulting increase in commerce and jobs, is not so much a policy decision committed to a federal appellate court, or to particular district courts where a plaintiff may sue, as it is a decision properly to be made by the legislatures and courts of each state. More expansive consumer protection measures may mean more or greater commercial liability, which in turn may result in higher prices for consumers or a decrease in product availability.  Here, the district court did not adequately recognize that each foreign state has an interest in applying its law to transactions within its borders and that, if California law were applied to the entire class, foreign states would be impaired in their ability to calibrate liability to foster commerce.

The court of appeals also found that the district court abused its discretion in finding that common issues of fact predominated, because the scale of the advertising campaign here did not support a presumption of reliance, even if one were legally available.  It was likely that many class members were never exposed to the allegedly misleading advertisements, insofar as advertising of the challenged system was very limited. And it was not dispositive that Honda’s advertisements were allegedly misleading because of the information they omitted, rather than the information they claimed.  For everyone in the class to have been exposed to the omissions, it was necessary for everyone in the class to have viewed the allegedly misleading advertising. Here the limited scope of that advertising makes it unreasonable to assume that all class members viewed it.
Honda’s product brochures and TV commercials fell short of the extensive and long-term fraudulent advertising campaign that might support a presumption in the eyes of some courts.  Even if Honda allegedly might have been more elaborate and diligent in disclosing the limitations of the CMB system, its advertising materials did not deny that limitations exist. A presumption of reliance does not arise when class members were exposed to quite disparate information from various representatives of the defendant.  California courts have not allowed a consumer who was never exposed to an alleged false or misleading advertising campaign to recover damages under California’s UCL.  

Another Federal Court Weighs In On Meaning of Nicastro

We have tried to keep an eye out for lower court cases interpreting the Supreme Court decision in J. McIntyre Machinery Ltd. v. Nicastro, as the lower courts parse through plurality, concurring and dissenting views on the exercise of personal jurisdiction over foreign defendants -- with mixed results.   Now comes another decision weighing in on what standard should be applied to the proposed  exercise of personal jurisdiction over nonresident defendants. Smith v. Teledyne Continental Motors Inc., No. 9:10-cv-02152 (D.S.C., 1/3/12).
 

In 2010, a vacationer was jogging on the beach at Hilton Head, South Carolina, when he was struck and killed -- by an airplane.  The plane, operated by Smith, was a single-engine aircraft
Smith had made from a kit. As he was flying the plane up the Atlantic coast about ten miles offshore, the propeller fell off the plane and into the sea. Smith attempted to make the Hilton Head airport, but came up short, crash landing on the beach and fatally striking the 38-year-old stockbroker who left behind his wife and two small children, according to the opinion.

The widow sued the pilot, the manufacturer of the airplane’s engine, the manufacturer of the airframe, a company which had serviced the plane prior to the crash; and the manufacturer of the propeller. Smith, the pilot, also sued the manufacturers. The cases were then consolidated, and eventually Teledyne, the engine maker, and a citizen of Delaware and Alabama, challenged personal jurisdiction in South Carolina.

The district court held that jurisdiction was proper.  This case did not involve the general jurisdiction that arises from pervasive contacts with a forum, but specific jurisdiction based on Teledynes' alleged contacts and purposeful availment of the forum.  And when one looks at the facts described, the conclusion may not come as a great surprise: Over the past ten years,
Teledyne sold at least 400 engines directly to South Carolina purchasers at a cost of about $40,000 apiece for a total revenue of approximately $1,600,000. Further, its engines were installed in approximately one-third of general aviation aircraft based in South Carolina. It maintained a continuous relationship with the owners of these engines through its warranty programs. Further, it advertised in South Carolina through aviation magazines. It maintained a distributor there until 2004. It directly sold parts for its engines in the forum state through interactive websites. Significantly, Teledyne maintained ongoing relationships with at least eleven “fixed base operators” --  stores/service centers located at South Carolina airports.  Teledyne had a contract with each FBO which required them to display Teledyne’s logos and actively promote the sale of its products. Teledyne maintained a continuing interactive Internet relationship with these FBOs, through which it provides them with technical support in repairing Teledyne products. Teledyne warranty work must be performed by these FBOs. Teledyne both buys and sells products over the Internet and through retailers to South Carolina residents. It admitted it had derived over $1 million in revenue from its sales to South Carolina residents over the past 10 years.  

This certainly was NOT the most narrow list of contacts we have seen litigated.  What was more intriguing about the opinion was the test the court adopted. The court concluded that the recent decision of the Supreme Court in J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v. Nicastro, 131 S. Ct. 2780 (2011), and existing Fourth Circuit precedents were dispositive of the issue at bar.  The court observed that the decision was "somewhat difficult to interpret because no single opinion was adopted by a majority of the Justices. Rather, there are three opinions which must be synthesized."  But rather than, as some courts have done, looked for the grounds upon which the concurring justices agreed with the plurality, this court saw as the “common denominator of the Court’s
reasoning,” a "position approved by at least five Justices who support the judgment” -- the “stream-of-commerce plus” rubric previously enunciated in an opinion by Justice O’Connor in Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court, 480 U.S. 102, 112 (1987). This view has come to be known as the “stream-of-commerce plus” test. Although it did not win the support of a majority of the Court in Asahi, or since, in the view of this court, it has now done so. 

In his concurring opinion, Justice Breyer rejected the notion that a non-resident defendant could be subjected to suit in a state based solely on foreseeability, agreeing with the plurality that personal jurisdiction required purposeful availment of a particular forum. He further explained that the standard of purposeful availment, the correct legal standard, may still require further explication in the context of modern global commerce, but that the facts of that case did not present an adequate vehicle for crafting any new rules. Although the concurrence and the plurality differed as to what might constitute “purposeful availment” in the context of national or global marketing, they both firmly embraced the continuing significance of individual state sovereignty and, on that basis, noted that specific jurisdiction must arise from a defendant’s deliberate connection with the forum state.  

Here, the court saw more overlap with the dissent. When the concurring Justices expressed the view that the case could be resolved by existing precedents, this meant Justice O’Connor’s opinion in Asahi, according to this district court.   

The court read the Fourth Circuit precedents as having already adopted this view and, therefore, the long-arm cases in the Fourth Circuit were not affected by Nicastro.

In applying this test, the court felt that plaintiffs had enumerated many significant contacts by which Teledyne targeted or purposefully directed commercial activities at South Carolina, as noted above.  Regarding whether the exercise of jurisdiction based on those minimum contacts would offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice, the court decided that the additional burden on the defendant was relatively slight as compared to the cost of litigating the matter in its home state because Teledyne had a national presence and organization. The interests of the forum state were extremely strong, in that South Carolina, located on a major coastal air corridor, had a compelling interest in protecting its citizens and visitors and their property from damage from falling airplanes.  

Motion denied, case to proceed in South Carolina.

Laptop Claims Were Mere Puffery

The Ninth Circuit late last month issued an interesting little opinion on the venerable and useful notion of puffing. Vitt v. Apple Computer Inc., No. 10-55941 (9th Cir., 12/21/11).

The crux of plaintiff's contention, building on his dissatisfaction that his iBook G4 allegedly failed shortly after his one year warranty had expired, was that the iBook G4 does not last “at least
a couple of years,” which he alleged was the minimum useful life a reasonable consumer expects from a laptop.  Vitt alleged that this was because one of the solder joints on the logic board of the iBook G4 degraded slightly each time the computer was turned on and off, eventually causing the joint to break and the computer allegedly to stop working -- shortly after Apple’s one year express warranty has expired. Vitt further alleged that Apple affirmatively misrepresented the durability, portability, and quality of the iBook G4, and did not disclose the alleged defect.

The district court held that Apple’s affirmative statements were non-actionable puffery, and that Apple had no duty to disclose the alleged defect , citing Daugherty v. American Honda Motor Co., 144 Cal. App. 4th 824 (2006).

The court of appeals affirmed, for substantially the reasons given by the district court. To be actionable as an affirmative misrepresentation, a statement must make a “specific and  measurable claim, capable of being proved false or of being reasonably interpreted as a statement of objective fact. Coastal Abstract Serv. v. First Am. Title Ins. Co., 173 F.3d 725, 731 (9th Cir. 1999). California courts have also held that "mere puffing" cannot support liability under
California consumer protection laws. Vitt challenged Apple’s advertising because it allegedly stated that the iBook G4 was “mobile,” “durable,” “portable,” “rugged,”  “reliable,” “high performance,” “high value,” an “affordable choice,” and an “ideal student laptop.” These statements are generalized, non-actionable puffery because they contain “inherently vague and generalized terms” and were “not factual representations that a given standard has been met.”   

Even when viewed in the advertising context, as Vitt urged, these statements did not claim or imply that the iBook G4’s useful life will extend for at least two years.  For example, to the extent that “durable” is a statement of fact, it may imply in context that the iBook G4 is resistant to problems occurring because of its being bumped or dropped, but not that it will last for a duration beyond its express warranty.

Vitt also contended that Apple had an affirmative duty to disclose the alleged defect. But a  consumer’s only reasonable expectation was that the computer would function properly for the duration of the limited warranty. There is no duty to disclose that a product may fail beyond its warranty period absent an affirmative misrepresentation or a safety risk.  Adopting Vitt’s theory would effectively extend Apple’s term warranty based on subjective consumer expectations. The court of appeals agreed with the district court that Apple was under no duty to disclose the alleged "defect" in its iBook G4s.  Claims dismissed.

  

Class Certification Denied in BPA Litigation

A Missouri federal court last week denied the class certification motion of consumers suing defendants in the multi-district litigation over the use of bisphenol-A in baby bottles and sippy cups. In re: Bisphenol-A Polycarbonate Plastic Products Liability Litigation, No. 4:08-md-01967 (W.D. Mo.).

As we have posted before, the federal judge in the MDL involving BPA in baby bottles refused last Summer to certify three proposed multistate classes in this multidistrict litigation. In re: Bisphenol-A Polycarbonate Plastic Products Liability Litigation, No. 08-1967 (W. D. Mo. July 7, 2011).   That decision offered an interesting discussion of choice of law, and of the notion of commonality after Dukes v. Walmart, and included an important reminder that while individual issues relating to damages do not automatically bar certification, they also are not to be ignored. E.g., In re St. Jude Medical, Inc., 522 F.3d 836, 840-41 (8th Cir. 2008) (individual issues related to appropriate remedy considered in evaluating predominance); Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Ass’n, Inc. v. New Prime, Inc., 339 F.3d 1001, 1012 (8th Cir. 2003), cert. denied, 541 U.S. 973 (2004) (individual issues related to damages predominated over common issues); see also In re Wilborn, 609 F.3d 748, 755 (5th Cir. 2010).

The court gave plaintiffs an opportunity to show that a class of Missouri-only consumers should be certified, and plaintiffs then moved for certification of three classes of Missouri consumers. Plaintiffs alleged three causes of action: violation of the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act (MMPA), breach of the implied warranty of merchantability, and unjust enrichment.

The court focused first on standing. A court may not certify a class if it contains members who lack
standing. In re Zurn Pex Plumbing Products Liability Litigation, 644 F.3d 604, 616 (8th Cir. 2011). Plaintiffs’ proposed classes here could not be certified because they included individuals who had not suffered an injury-in-fact.  Individuals who knew about BPA’s existence and the surrounding controversy before purchasing defendants’ products had no injury. There was a potential for the proposed classes to include a large number of such uninjured consumers. Plaintiffs admitted that parents often carefully research baby care product purchases, and defendants submitted proof that information regarding BPA was in the media (including popular press such as "20/20") as early as 1999.

The opinion also offers an instructive discussion of reliance. Plaintiffs argued the issue of knowledge goes only to consumers’ reliance on defendants’ alleged nondisclosure, and plaintiffs always contend reliance is not an element of their consumer fraud claims. The court explained that the hypothetical posed by the question of reliance – whether the plaintiff would have purchased the product if she/he had known – presupposes the consumer did not know the relevant information. Thus, the question of knowledge logically precedes the question of reliance.

Even consumers who were unaware of BPA when they purchased defendants’ products may not have suffered an injury. Consumers who fully used defendants’ baby bottles and other products without physical harm before learning about BPA suffered no injury, and could not assert a claim under consumer protection statutes or for breach of warranty. Plaintiffs asserted that none of the proposed class members received what they intended to obtain, because plaintiffs were not provided material information before making their purchases. But plaintiffs were bargaining for baby products at the time of transaction, not for a certain type of information. Those who fully used the products before learning about BPA would have received 100% use (and benefit) from the products.

In the Rule 23 analysis proper, the court also noted that plaintiffs’ proof of what defendants failed to disclose would not be common for all class members, at least with respect to the scientific debate concerning BPA. Class-wide evidence cannot be used to show what defendants knew or should have known because their knowledge and the available information about BPA changed during the
class period. Plaintiffs' proposed trial plan stated they intended to show defendants' alleged awareness and nondisclosure of various scientific studies from 1997 to at least 2006.

The court's observation on materiality is also worth noting. A material fact for state consumer fraud liability includes a fact which a reasonable consumer would likely consider to be important in making a purchasing decision.  Even if this is an objective inquiry, that does not mean it can always be proven with class-wide evidence. A 2006 study allegedly showing BPA's effect on the endocrine systems of snails, even if material, would not be probative of defendants' liability in 2002. Similarly, a reasonable consumer may be less likely to consider a scientific study from 1997 significant if that consumer learned that federal agencies over the years – the FDA in particular – considered that study, and nevertheless still concluded BPA could be safely used to make baby products.

Finally, the court considered superiority and manageability, with a key issue of concern how to determine who was in the class (some courts do this analysis under the ascertainability rubric). Identifying himself or herself as a purchaser would not prove a person is in the class. A plaintiff in a typical case is not allowed to establish an element of a defendant’s liability merely by completing an affidavit swearing the element is satisfied, and this should be no different for a class action.  Defendants would be entitled to cross-examine each and every alleged class member regarding his or her memory and story.

For all these reasons, class certification denied.

Coffee's On: Claims Dismissed in Single-Cup Brewing Class Litigation

A federal court last week dismissed the claims in a case accusing Green Mountain Coffee Roasters of misrepresenting the performance quality of its single-cup brewing systems. See Green v. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc., et al., 2011 WL 6372617 (12/20/12 D.N.J.).

Your humble blogger is in the minority, not being a coffee drinker. Nearly 60% of adults drink coffee daily. The average American drinks 3.1 cups of coffee each day. This contributes to an $18 billion U.S. coffee market. One of the tremendous innovations (speaking from experience, having given these as holiday gifts) in the market is the single cup brewing machine for the home, allowing coffee lovers to make less than a full pot, and to choose from among hundreds of flavors and brands of coffee-related beverages.

Defendants are in the specialty coffee and coffee maker businesses. They manufacture single-cup brewers, accessories and coffee, tea, cocoa and other beverages in "K–Cup portion packs.” Plaintiff Green maintained that his machine failed to brew the programmed amounts of K–Cup coffee within a few weeks of use. Plaintiff asserted that the machines had defective components, including defective pumps. As a result, the machines allegedly failed and brewed less than the specified amount. Furthemore, this defect allegedly caused consumers to use additional K–Cups to brew a single beverage. 

Plaintiff maintained that defendants' actions were in violation of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“CFA”), N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:8–1, et seq., and constituted a breach of implied warranty. 

Defendants moved to dismiss.  The court noted that threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice under Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), and Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007).  If the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint should be dismissed for failing to show that the pleader is entitled to relief. A plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. 

The motion challenged plaintiffs' standing. To have standing, the plaintiff must have suffered an injury in fact—an invasion of a legally protected interest which is (a) concrete and particularized, and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical. Second, there must be a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of—the injury has to be fairly traceable to the challenged action of the defendant, and not the result of the independent action of some third party not before the court. Third, it must be likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision.  The injury-in-fact element is often determinative.

The injury must affect the plaintiff in a personal and individual way.  Here, Green alleged that he purchased and used the Keurig Platinum Brewing System (model series B70).  Nevertheless, he sought to represent all individuals in New Jersey who “purchased or received”  a variety of Keurig Brewing Systems. Plaintiff did not have standing to pursue a claim that products he neither purchased nor used did not work as advertised.

Regarding that model series B70, plaintiff contended in his complaint that, because of defective components, the coffee machines at issue brew a lesser amount of coffee than the companies represented, compromising the quality of the beverage. Consumers are then forced to use additional K-Cups, which are a portion pack for the systems, according to the complaint. Defendants maintained that even if their alleged conduct was unlawful, plaintiff had not sufficiently pled ascertainable loss.  In a misrepresentation case, a plaintiff generally may show ascertainable loss by either out-of-pocket loss or a demonstration of loss in value.  In this case, Green did not allege that he made a claim for warranty repair or replacement of his machine.  The warranty provided as part of the contract of sale is part of the benefit of the bargain between the parties. Any defects that arise and are addressed by warranty, at no cost to the consumer, do not provide the predicate loss that the CFA expressly requires for a private claim.  Because plaintiff had not availed himself of defendants' warranty, he could not allege that the warranty does not address the defect in his machine.

Furthermore, the court found unpersuasive plaintiff's argument that the warranty did not address the defects in the brewers because other consumers allegedly reported that their replaced or repaired brewers were equally defective.  Allegations regarding the experience of absent members of the putative class, in general, cannot fulfill the requirement of pleading injury with adequate specificity.

Similarly, plaintiff did not sufficiently plead loss in value.   Plaintiff broadly asserted that he suffered a loss because each brewer failed to perform its advertised purpose and caused purchasers to suffer a loss of value of the product. But Green failed to allege how much he paid for his brewer and how much other comparable brewers manufactured by competitors cost at the time of purchase. Furthermore, Green had not suffered a diminution in value because the defective brewer could have been repaired or replaced with a new brewer which would have had its own one-year warranty.


Regarding the implied warranty claim, the general purpose of the brewers is to brew beverages. Even if defendants may have advertised that the machines would brew a specific amount of beverage, that alone did not transform the “general” purpose.  Green did not allege that his machine would not brew coffee or that it was inoperable.  The complaint was also devoid of any allegation that plaintiff can no longer use his brewer. Therefore, Green had not sufficiently alleged that his brewer was unfit for its ordinary purpose of brewing beverages at the time of purchase.

Defendants also contended that the class allegations should be dismissed. Plaintiff argued that the Court should deny the motion because it was premature. Nevertheless, a court may strike class action allegations in those cases where the complaint itself demonstrates that the requirements for maintaining a class action cannot be met.  Here, the court concluded that the plaintiff could not  meet the predominance requirement set forth in Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(b).

The complaint did not allege that all individuals in New Jersey who purchased the Keurig Brewing Systems had experienced the defect. Plaintiff acknowledged that there were members in the putative class who had not yet suffered the alleged pump failure. Consequently, the putative class included individuals who do not presently have a claim against defendants. Proving that defendants breached the implied warranty of merchantability would also require an individualized inquiry. Not every member of the putative class experienced a defect with the model series B70. Even if the purported defect had manifested in all of the brewers purchased within the class period, the court would have to make individual inquiries as to the cause and extent of the defect.  Motion granted. 

 

Fruit Juice MDL Court Dismisses Claims

The Massachusetts federal court overseeing multidistrict litigation against 11 beverage companies, including Coca-Cola Co. and Del Monte Corp., alleging that their fruit juices contained trace amounts of lead, dismissed the claims last week.  In re Fruit Juice Products Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation, No. 11-2231 (D. Mass., 12/21/11).

Plaintiffs alleged that the defendants misled them into believing that certain of their products were safe, whereas the products in fact contained lead and posed a health risk, especially to children.  The issue had caught the attention of the FDA, which concluded that while several of the products contained trace amounts of lead, in each case the level found would not pose an unacceptable risk to health.  (The FDA’s conclusion was based in part on a guidance report it issued in 2004. The agency concluded that many food products contain small amounts of lead because the substance is in the environment naturally and also released through many human activities.)

The majority of plaintiffs’ claims were for violations of the consumer protection laws of states in which defendants maintained their principal places of business. Plaintiffs also brought claims under the consumer protection laws of all states in which potential class members purchased the  products. Finally, the plaintiffs alleged breach of the implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose and for unjust enrichment.

Defendants moved to dismiss on several grounds, but the foundational argument that plaintiffs lacked standing was fatal to all of plaintiffs’ claims, and was in the eyes of the court so compelling that it was unnecessary for the court to reach the numerous satellite theories that defendants offered.

To establish Article III standing, a plaintiff must first demonstrate that he has suffered an injury in fact.  Whitmore v. Arkansas, 459 U.S. 149, 155 (1990). The injury must be concrete and the alleged harm actual or imminent, and not conjectural or hypothetical. Los Angeles v. Lyons, 461 U.S. 95, 101-02 (1983). If a plaintiff fails to allege sufficient facts to satisfy this requirement, the case must be dismissed.

In this case, plaintiffs did not allege a sufficient injury in fact. Plaintiffs offered two potential theories of injury in fact. First, they alleged that the lead in defendants’ products posed a health risk and that, by consuming these products, they placed themselves and their children at risk of future harm from lead poisoning. Second, plaintiffs alleged that they suffered economic injury when they purchased products that defendants advertised as safe, but that in fact contained allegedly dangerous amounts of lead. Both theories, according to the court, ran into the same problem -- plaintiffs
failed to allege any actual injury caused by their purchase and consumption of the products.

The claim of exposure to “potential adverse health effects” or “potential harm” was insufficient for Article III standing. A threatened future injury must be “certainly impending” to grant Article III
standing.  In product liability cases, courts have held that to establish standing based on a threat of future harm, plaintiffs must plead a credible, substantial threat to their health.  E.g., Herrington v. Johnson & Johnson Consumer Cos., Inc., 2010 WL 3448531, at *3 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 1, 2010); see also Public Citizen, Inc. v. Nat’l Highway Traffic Safety Admin., 489 F.3d 1279, 1293-96 (D.C. Cir. 2007); Sutton v. St. Jude Medical S.C., Inc.,419 F.3d 568, 570-75 (6th Cir. 2005).  But the complaint here contained no allegations that either plaintiffs or anyone else ever suffered any type of injury from consuming the products. The products were not recalled, and in fact, the FDA found that at least some of the specific products did NOT pose an unacceptable risk to human health.

Plaintiffs made no allegations as to the amount of lead actually in these products, did not claim that any particular amount in the products is dangerous, and did not allege that any specific amount had caused actual injuries to any plaintiff. The court also stressed that plaintiff did not allege that the levels of lead in the products violated any FDA standards. Under these circumstances, the allegations of risk of future harm to class members were insufficient to meet the “credible or substantial threat” standard. The claim of potential future injury was simply too hypothetical or conjectural to establish Article III  standing.

The court cited a series of cases involving lead in lipstick, which we have posted on, making clear that the type of speculative future injury here cannot form the basis of a lawsuit. See Koronthaly v. L’Oreal USA, Inc., 374 F. App’x 257(3d Cir. 2010), aff’g 2008 WL 2938045 (D.N.J. July 29, 2008); Frye v. L’Oreal USA, Inc., 583 F. Supp. 2d 954 (N.D. Ill. 2008).

Plaintiffs’ second theory of injury in fact was equally flawed. Plaintiffs alleged that defendants promised to provide products that were safe for consumption, but that plaintiffs received products that posed a health risk to them and their children. Consequently, the products were unsuitable for their intended purpose -- consumption -- and supposedly valueless. Because plaintiffs supposedly would not have purchased these products if they had known the products contained any lead, they suffered an economic injury -- the price of the product -- when they purchased the products.

But because plaintiffs were unable to show that any actual harm resulted from consumption of the fruit juice products, their allegation of “economic” injury lacked substance. The fact is that plaintiffs paid for fruit juice, and they received fruit juice, which they consumed without suffering harm. Again, the products were not recalled, did not cause any reported injuries, and did not violate any federal standards. The products thus had no diminished objective value due to the presence of the lead. These plaintiffs received the benefit of the bargain, as a matter of law, when they purchased these products and were able to consume them.

Other courts that have addressed similar “benefit of the bargain” standing arguments agree that plaintiffs who have not been injured by an allegedly defective product generally do not have standing to sue the product’s manufacturer. See, e.g., Rivera v. Wyeth-Ayerst Labs., 283
F.3d 315 (5th Cir. 2002).  Plaintiffs’ allegations only support the contention that the levels of lead in the products were unsatisfactory to them. This allegation was simply insufficient to support a claim for injury in fact. 

 

 

Fifth Circuit Given Opportunity to Clarify Impact of Nicastro

Another federal appeals court will have an opportunity to assess the reach of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in J. McIntyre Machinery Ltd. v. Nicastro. In Ainsworth v. Cargotec USA Inc., No. 2:10-cv-00236 (S.D. Miss., 12/15/11), the district court certified for interlocutory appeal its opinion finding personal jurisdiction over a foreign defendant in a forklift case.

Readers will recall that Nicastro 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. Justice Kennedy addressed 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 Metal Indus. Co. v. Superior Court of California, 480 U.S. 102 (1987).  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. Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Alito, agreed in the result, 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.

Since then, lower courts have continued to grapple with the meaning of the decision, with most recognizing that merely depositing goods in the stream of commerce, with knowledge that some will end up in the forum state, is not enough to satisfy the minimum contacts standard for personal jurisdiction.

Here, plaintiffs were the survivors of a Mississippi resident who was struck and killed by a forklift designed and manufactured by defendant Moffett Engineering, an Irish corporation, with its principal place of business is in Dundalk, County Louth, Ireland. (This is a "wee county" steeped in myth and legend, named for a Celtic pagan god.)  Moffett has never maintained a physical presence in Mississippi. It does not own, possess, or use any property in Mississippi. It has never had any officers, employees, or agents stationed in Mississippi, and it has never sent any of its employees to Mississippi for business purposes. It has never directly shipped or sold any of its products to customers there, and it has never directly solicited business from any company located in Mississippi. Moffett sold all of its products to defendant Cargotec, which had the exclusive right to market and sell Moffett’s products pursuant to a contract which specifically defines the U.S. as Cargotec’s sales territory. Cargotec sells or markets Moffett products in all fifty states. Moffett does not attempt to limit the territory in which Cargotec sells its products. Further, Moffett does not communicate with the end-purchasers of its products in any fashion, and it is not aware of their identities or locations. Cargotec sold 203 of those forklifts to customers in Mississippi, about 1.55% of Moffett’s United States sales.

The district court previously denied Moffett’s Motion to Dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction.
Ainsworth v. Cargotec USA, Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49665, at *21 (S.D. Miss. May 9, 2011). After that decision, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v. Robert Nicastro, 131 S. Ct. 2780 (2011). Moffett filed a Motion for Reconsideration, arguing that decision controlled this dispute.

The district court denied the motion again, and concluded that Justice Breyer’s Nicastro opinion was only applicable to cases presenting the same factual scenario as that case.

But the court did agree the decision involves a controlling question of law as to which there is substantial ground for difference of opinion (noting at least one decision employing the stricter analysis from Justice Kennedy’s plurality opinion, Keranos, LLC v. Analog Devices, Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 102618, at *29-*30 (E.D. Tex. Sept. 12, 2011)).  Review would materially advance the litigation, concluded the court, certifying it to the Fifth Circuit.  A case to keep our eye on.

 


 

FDA to Issue BPA Decision in 2012

The FDA apparently will issue a final decision next Spring on an interest group's petition requesting a ban on the use of bisphenol A (BPA) in food packaging. This results from a settlement reached last week in Natural Resources Defense Council v. HHS, No. 11-cv-5801 (S.D.N.Y. 12/07/11).

FDA is agreeing to issue a final decision on or before March 31, 2012, settling a complaint by the NRDC that the agency unreasonably delayed a decision on its petition, which dates to 2008.  In reality, FDA continued to gather data on the issues, and has been looking at taking what it has called reasonable steps to reduce exposure to BPA in certain aspects of the food supply. For example, the American Chemistry Council has supported restricting the use of BPA in infant feeding bottles and spill-proof cups used by infants.

NRDC didn't want to wait for the science, taking the usual pro-plaintiff, anti-industry position that all gaps in knowledge should be filled in with worst-case scenarios. Studies employing standardized toxicity tests have in fact supported the safety of current low levels of human exposure to BPA. (FDA has been consulting with other agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (and National Toxicology Program), Environmental Protection Agency, Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

And the interest group doesn't seem to care about the tremendous public health benefits that such products have provided. Any wide-spread ban of the product – or litigation accomplishing the same result -- may risk the public safety more than enhance it. Epoxy resins derived from bisphenol A are used to manufacture protective polymer coatings for the inner surface of metal food and beverage containers. This critical technology protects the contents of these containers from aggressive food products, thereby assuring a safe, wholesome, and nutritious food supply. Compared to other coating technologies, coatings derived from epoxy resins provide superior adhesion to the metal surface, greater durability, and higher resistance to the wide range of chemistries found in foods and beverages. These attributes are essential to protect the packed food from microbiological contamination, which is a significant food safety issue. 

Canning might be the single most important innovation in the preservation of food in history. More than 1500 food items are regularly packed in cans, making out-of-season foods globally accessible year-round. More than 90% of food and beverage cans use epoxy-based coatings because of their strength, adhesion, formability and resistance to chemical reactions in the food and drinks -- without affecting the taste or smell of the product. They protect the food from the container and from bacterial contamination. They give canned foods their long shelf-life.  Where is the cost-benefit analysis including these factors?

 

Proposed TV Class Action Dismissed Again

A California federal  court has again dismissed a proposed class action brought against Sony Corp. of America regarding allegedly defective televisions. Marchante, et al. v. Sony Corp. of America Inc., et al., No. 3:10-cv-00795 (S.D. Calif.).

Plaintiffs alleged that overheating caused the chassis and internal parts of nine different Sony rear-projection televisions to melt or burn during normal use. Plaintiffs, on behalf of  a proposed class of purchasers, claimed that Sony violated several consumer protection statutes (such as, typically the California Consumer Legal Remedies Act) and breached express and implied warranties by selling them the defective televisions. Earlier this year, the court dismissed without prejudice all of the claims, and plaintiffs filed an amended pleading.  Defendants again moved to dismiss.

The court reviewed the Twombly/Iqbal standards, and ruled that the plaintiffs had not fixed the pleading problems. Plaintiffs again alleged that Sony engaged in unfair business acts or practices by selling, promoting, and recalling the television models at issue. The court had previously dismissed plaintiffs’ unfair business act claim because plaintiffs failed to allege a substantial consumer injury; in the new complaint plaintiffs again failed to allege that the televisions exhibited any problems during the one-year limited warranty period. Every alleged problem surfaced several years after purchase. Any alleged failure to disclose thus related to a defect that arose years after the express warranty expired. And any failure to disclose therefore could not constitute substantial injury.  Although plaintiffs did amend their complaint to include allegations that the televisions failed to operate properly from the outset, plaintiffs’ amendments did not cure the deficiencies of the prior complaint.  The fact remained that the defects did not become apparent to the plaintiff-consumers until after the warranty expired. Thus, the complaint still fell short of alleging that the defects caused the televisions to malfunction within the warranty period, as is required to allege a substantial consumer injury under California's consumer statutes. 

As a general rule, manufacturers cannot be liable under the CLRA for failures to disclose a
defect that manifests itself after the warranty period has expired.  A possible exception exists, however, if the manufacturer fails to disclose information and the omission is contrary to a representation actually made by the defendant, or the omission pertains to a fact the defendant was otherwise obligated to disclose. Here, all of plaintiffs alleged CLRA violations pertained to Sony’s alleged failures to disclose; the question therefore was whether Sony carried any obligation to disclose the alleged defect. The court noted that under the CLRA, a manufacturer’s duty to disclose information related to a defect that manifests itself after the expiration of an express warranty is limited to issues related to product safety.  Moreover, in order to have a duty to disclose, the manufacturer must be aware of the defect at the time that plaintiffs purchased, since a manufacturer has no duty to disclose facts of which it was unaware. In dismissing the prior complaint, the court held that plaintiffs failed to invoke the safety exception because the complaint was devoid of allegations that anyone or any property —other than the television itself— was damaged by the allegedly defective televisions.  

Even assuming plaintiffs’ allegations that the televisions pose a safety risk were sufficient to invoke the safety exception (fire hazard?), plaintiffs failed to allege that Sony was aware of this safety hazard at the time plaintiffs purchased the televisions.  First, plaintiffs alleged that Sony had known about it since 2008 and "possibly even earlier.”   Plaintiffs bought their televisions in 2004, 2005, and 2006. So under plaintiffs’ own allegations, Sony may not have been aware of the alleged defect at the time plaintiffs made their purchases, or even within the respective one-year post-purchase warranty periods.  Second, all of plaintiffs' allegations regarding Sony’s knowledge of the alleged defect pertained to Sony’s knowledge that the defect caused excess heat that resulted in the deterioration of the television display, not that the defect posed any safety hazard. 

 The court thus dismissed the CLRA claims without prejudice. 

The court previously dismissed plaintiffs’ claim for breach of the express (limited warranty) because the alleged defects did not manifest until after the one-year warranty period expired. The general rule is that an express warranty does not cover repairs made after the applicable warranty period—here, one year after purchase—has elapsed.  None of the plaintiffs here sought repair or replacement of their televisions within the warranty period. None of the four named plaintiffs alleged that Sony either refused to repair any covered defects or refused to replace any televisions suffering from covered defects.

Plaintiffs’ implied warranty claims again failed because they were untimely. Subject to a sixty-day minimum and one-year maximum, implied warranties are equal in duration to corresponding express warranties under California law, said the court.  The implied warranty here was deemed to have a one-year duration to match that of the express warranty. And because Plaintiffs purchased the televisions in 2004, 2005, and 2006, the implied warranties would have expired by 2007, at the latest. But the amended complaint did not contain allegations that the televisions failed to function as warranted or that plaintiffs sought warranty coverage during the one-year period following their respective purchases. Thus, these claims were dismissed with prejudice.

Plaintiffs continue to try to shoe horn claims into the consumer fraud matrix, thinking they will have an easier road to class certification.  That makes the court's scrutiny of the pleadings even more crucial.

 

Appeals Court Rejects Personal Jurisdiction Over Foreign Manufacturer

As we have noted for reader, lower courts continue to work to interpret and apply the Supreme Court's decision in J. McIntyre Machinery Ltd. v. Nicastro.  Earlier this week, a California appeals court found that the lower court should not have exercised personal jurisdiction over a Canadian unit of Dow Chemical Co. See Dow Chemical Canada ULC v. The Superior Court of Los Angeles County, No. B222609 Cal. Ct. App. 2d Dist.) (unpubl.).

The court noted that this case presented a question left open in Asahi Metal Industry Co., Ltd. v.
Superior Court, 480 U.S. 102 (1987), but now resolved by J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v. Nicastro, 131 S.Ct. 2780 (2011):  whether merely placing products into the stream of commerce in a foreign country (or another state), aware that some may or will be swept into the forum state, is enough to subject a defendant to personal jurisdiction—or whether due process requires that the defendant have engaged in additional conduct, directed at the forum, before it can be
found to have purposefully availed itself of the privilege of conducting activities within
the forum state.  The court concluded that  defendant Dow Chemical Canada ULC was not subject to jurisdiction because it did not  purposefully avail itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum state.

Plaintiffs were allegedly injured in an accident involving a 1996 Sea-Doo watercraft. This product liability action was subsequently brought against Dow Chemical Canada ULC (Dow), among others, based on an alleged defect in the fuel tank.  Dow appeared specially and moved to
quash service of the summons on the ground that it lacked the requisite minimum contacts with California to justify the state’s assertion of personal jurisdiction. Its principal place of business was Calgary, Alberta, Canada; it had never advertised any products in California. The gas tanks and gas filler tank necks that were the subject of this litigation were sold exclusively in Canada pursuant to purchase order agreements entered into in Canada. Plaintiff contended, however, that the court had specific jurisdiction because Dow allegedly knew that its gas tanks were being installed in products that would be sold in the United States, including California.

The trial court rejected Dow’s motion; the court of appeals denied Dow’s petition for writ of
mandate; the California Supreme Court denied Dow’s timely petition for discretionary
review. But the United States Supreme Court granted Dow’s petition for certiorari on June
28, 2011, ordered that the judgment be vacated and remanded the matter for further consideration in light of J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v. Nicastro.

On remand, the court said it was facing the question whether merely depositing goods in the stream of commerce, with knowledge that some will end up in a finished product manufactured
by another and sold in the forum state, is enough to satisfy the minimum contacts standard for personal jurisdiction.  The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment limits the power of a state court to exert personal jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant.  The  constitutional touchstone of the determination whether an exercise of personal jurisdiction comports with due process remains whether the defendant purposefully established “minimum contacts” in the forum state.

In Asahi, the United States Supreme Court split on the impact of placing a product into the stream of commerce, with a fractured set of opinions, expressing separate standards for deciding the issue, none of which received the support of a majority of the Court.  Under Justice O’Connor’s view, placement of a product into a stream of commerce with awareness that it may be carried into a forum state would not, by itself, be adequate for the exercise of jurisdiction over a defendant. A defendant’s awareness that the stream of commerce may or will sweep the product into the forum state does not convert the mere act of placing the product into the stream into an act purposefully directed toward the forum state.  But Justice Brennan expressed the position that a chain of distribution carrying a product into the forum could be adequate to permit the exercise of jurisdiction over foreign defendants, because the stream of commerce refers not to unpredictable currents or eddies, but to the regular and anticipated flow of products from manufacture to distribution to retail sale.

According to the California court on remand here, in J. McIntyre Machinery v. Nicastro, the Supreme Court resolved the question in Asahi left unresolved by the competing opinions. The stream of commerce, like other metaphors, has its deficiencies as well as its utility. It refers to the movement of goods from manufacturers through distributors to consumers, yet beyond that descriptive purpose its meaning is far from exact. The principal inquiry in cases of this sort, said the plurality, is whether the defendant’s activities manifest an intention to submit to the power of a
sovereign. In other words, the defendant must purposefully avail itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum state, thus invoking the benefits and protections
of its laws. The concurrence in Nicastro noted no evidence of a “regular course” of sales into the state, so there was no "something more," such as special state-related design, advertising, advice, marketing, or anything else.

Here, at no time did Dow engage in any activities in California that revealed an intent to invoke or benefit from the protection of its laws. Nor was there any evidence that the design of Dow’s product was in any way California-specific. It was not sufficient for jurisdiction in this case that the
defendant might have predicted or known that its products would reach California.  Defendant never undertook to ship its components to California; it supplied its gas tanks and filler necks exclusively in Canada. It matters not whether it knew or could have predicted that another party would sell the finished Sea-Doos incorporating the gas tanks in California. Dow did not advertise or market products in California; it never sold products in, or directly to customers in, California; it never maintained an office or other facility of any kind in California; it had never been qualified to do business in California; and  it had no agent for service of process in California.

Due process requires that Dow would have engaged in more than that, in additional conduct directed at the forum, before it could be found to have purposefully availed itself of the privilege of conducting activities within California. 
 

 

Class Action Complaint on 100% Natural Oil Dismissed

A federal court recently dismissed a proposed class action accusing a food company of misleadingly labeling cooking oils as 100% natural when they allegedly were made from genetically modified plants. Robert Briseno, et al. v. ConAgra Foods Inc., No. 2:11-cv-05379 (C.D. Calif.).

Quick research reveals that 88-94% of the nation’s crops of corn, soy and canola are grown from seeds that are the product of bioengineering.  There is no credible science that there are serious health issues with these products, and multiple peer reviewed studies on "GM" crops worldwide show farmers in underdeveloped countries have seen an increase in yield of about 29% from using them, along with decreased use of insecticide applications.

Plaintiff alleged that he regularly purchased Wesson Canola Oil, bearing labels that state the product is “100% Natural.” Plaintiff contended that contrary to these representations, ConAgra used plants grown from genetically modified organism seeds that have been engineered to allow for greater yield, and to be pest-resistant, to make Wesson-branded oils. He asserted that the genetically modified organisms are somehow not “100% natural,” and thus the labels and advertising are deceptive. Plaintiff filed a complaint seeking to represent a class of all persons in the United States who have purchased Wesson Oils from 2007 on. As is typical, he alleged
violation of California’s false advertising law (“FAL”), California’s unfair competition law (“UCL”), and California’s Consumer Legal Remedies Act (“CLRA”).

Defendant moved to dismiss. The first issue was preemption of the state law causes of action, based on FDA guidance regarding food labels. Federal preemption occurs, generally, when: (1) Congress enacts a statute that explicitly pre-empts state law; (2) state law actually conflicts with federal law; or (3) federal law occupies a legislative field to such an extent that it is reasonable to conclude that Congress left no room for state regulation in that field. Specifically, ConAgra argued that Briseno’s claims were preempted because the FDA has repeatedly concluded that bioengineered foods are not meaningfully different from foods developed by traditional plant breeding, and thus that the fact that a food product is derived from bioengineered plants need not be reflected on a product’s label. Plaintiff responded that he was not arguing that ConAgra was required to state whether its products were made from genetically modified plants. Rather, he contended that the decision to label its products “100% Natural” was misleading.

Courts have split on food preemption issues. Compare Dvora v. General Mills, Inc., 2011 WL 1897349 (C.D. Cal. May 16, 2011)(cereal-yes); Turek v. General Mills, Inc., 754 F.Supp.2d 956 (N.D. Ill. 2010)(snack bars-yes); Yumul v. Smart Balance, Inc., 2011 WL 1045555 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 14, 2011)(yes), with Lockwood v. Conagra Foods, Inc., 597 F.Supp.2d 1028 (N.D. Cal. Feb. 3, 2009)(pasta-no); Wright v. General Mills, Inc., 2009 WL 3247148 (S.D. Cal. Sept. 30, 2009)(granola bars-no).

Here, the court found no preemption on most of the complaint. The bulk of the complaint, said the court, alleged that use of the phrase “100% Natural” is misleading, and did not contend that additional information must be added to Wesson Oil labels. Regulations requiring that each product list its ingredients by their “common or usual name,” together with the regulations requiring that vegetable oils be denominated “ oil,” were inapplicable since plaintiff’s central argument was not that ConAgra cannot use the common or usual names of canola oil, vegetable oil or corn oil.

The FDA has expressed that it has no basis for concluding that bioengineered foods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way, or that, as a class, foods developed by the new techniques present any different or greater safety concern than foods developed by traditional plant breeding. So, plaintiff, in essence, sought to create a distinction – between “natural” oils and those made from bioengineered plants when the FDA has determined that no such distinction exists. The court rejected this argument, refusing to read the FDA guidance as formal enough or clear enough on the issue.

Plaintiff did also seek an order requiring defendant to adopt and enforce a policy that requires appropriate disclosure of GM ingredients. Entering an order of this type would impose a
requirement that is not identical to federal law, and thus this particular prayer for such relief was preempted.

Rule 9(b) requires that in all averments of fraud or mistake, the circumstances constituting fraud or mistake shall be stated with particularity. The pleading must identify the circumstances constituting fraud so that a defendant can prepare an adequate answer to the allegations. While statements of the time, place and nature of the alleged fraudulent activities are often sufficient, mere conclusory allegations of fraud are insufficient. Even if fraud is not a necessary element of a claim under the CLRA and UCL, when a plaintiff alleges fraudulent conduct then the claim can be said to be grounded in fraud or to sound in fraud.

Plaintiff alleged that he regularly purchased Wesson Canola Oil for his own and his family’s consumption. But his complaint contained no allegations as to whether he became aware of the
representation through advertising, or labeling, or otherwise. He provided no information about how often he was exposed to the allegedly misleading statement. He did not allege how
frequently he purchased the product and over what period of time, whether he relied on
statements on canola oil labels, on a website, in advertisements, or all of the above,
whether the statements remained the same throughout the class period, or, if they did not, on
which label(s), advertisement(s) or statement(s) he relied.

Thus, this complaint did not afford ConAgra adequate opportunity to respond. Consequently, defendant's motion to dismiss was granted (without prejudice).


 

Appeals Court Unhappy With Plaintiffs' Advocacy

Today we note an opinion that, in its opening words, is about "two appeals that raise concerns about appellate advocacy." Both are appeals from grants of forum non conveniens in multidistrict litigation. See Gonzalez-Servin et al. v. Ford Motor Co. et al., No. 11-1665; Kerman et al. v. Bayer Corp. et al., No. 08-2792 (7th Cir. 2011).

The Ford case was an appeal from an order to transfer a case from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana to the courts of Mexico, and was one of many offshoots of litigation arising out of vehicular accidents allegedly caused by defects in Bridgestone/Firestone tires installed on Ford vehicles.  All these cases have been consolidated in an MDL.

The 7th Circuit found the lower court's careful and thorough analysis demonstrated that it was acting well within its discretion in deciding that the Mexican courts would be a more appropriate forum for the adjudication of this lawsuit by Mexican citizens arising from the death of another Mexican citizen in an accident in Mexico.

What seemed to bother the panel is that plaintiffs did not cite an FNC case seemingly on all fours with the appeal in their opening brief, though the district court’s decision in their case was issued in 2011—long after the prior case.  In their response the defendants cited the case repeatedly and asserted that its circumstances were “nearly identical” to those of the present case. Yet, in their reply brief the appellants still didn't mention it, let alone try to distinguish it, said the panel.

The second case involved litigation against manufacturers of blood products used by hemophiliacs, which turned out to be contaminated by HIV.  This particular suit was brought by Israeli citizens allegedly infected by the blood products in Israel. The defendants, invoking forum non conveniens, moved to transfer the case to Israel.  There were two prior appellate decisions on point, said the panel, including Chang v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 599 F.3d 728 (7th Cir. 2010), which arose from the same multidistrict litigation.  The court said that these plaintiffs' short treatment of the prior cases "left much to be desired." 

Overall, said the court, the plaintiffs' "advocacy is unacceptable." The panel then invoked a well-known symbol: "The ostrich is a noble animal, but not a proper model for an appellate  advocate."  The “ostrich-like tactic of pretending that potentially dispositive authority against a litigant’s contention does not exist" is "pointless,” said the court.

The opinion closes with pictures of an ostrich burying his head in the sand, and of a man in a suit doing the same.  The reminder here is, when there is apparently dispositive precedent, an appellant may urge its overruling, or distinguish it, or reserve a challenge to it for a petition for certiorari, but may not ignore it. 

 

Choice of Law Defeats Another Proposed Nationwide Consumer Fraud Class

A federal court recently ruled that a suit over alleged defects in an MP3 player's display screen could not proceed as a nationwide class action. See Maloney et al. v. Microsoft Corp., No. 3:09-cv-02047 (D.N.J.).

This dispute arose out of the sale of portable MP3 players, the 30 gb model Zune. Plaintiffs alleged that the 30gb-model Zune was defective because of alleged cracks on the liquid crystal display (LCD) screen. (News flash: if you drop an electronic device, it may crack.)

Plaintiffs moved for class certification, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(3), of a national class of purchasers. The court concluded that each state‘s common law and consumer protection laws would apply, and therefore a nation-wide class could not properly be certified.

Attempts to structure and certify nation-wide classes involving plaintiffs in all fifty states often turn on whether the law of a single state or multiple states should be applied.  If all 50 states‘ laws apply to a class-action claim, the moving party must provide an extensive analysis of state law variances showing that class certification does not present insuperable obstacles. Plaintiffs bear this burden at the class certification stage, and rarely (we'd say never) can meet it.  Many courts have recognized that state implied warranty laws differ in significant and material ways. For example, states differ on: (1) application of the parole evidence rule; (2) burdens of proof; (3) statute of limitations; (4) whether plaintiffs must demonstrate reliance; (5) whether plaintiffs must provide notice of breach; (6) whether there must be privity of contract; (7) whether plaintiffs can recover for unmanifested defects; (8) whether merchantability may be presumed; and (9) whether warranty protections extend to used goods.

New Jersey courts have adopted the most significant relationship test of the Restatement (Second) of Conflicts of Law. Before applying the Restatement test, plaintiffs here contended that a choice-of-law clause contained in the limited warranty accompanying the product should apply to all of the claims. However, the court determined that the choice-of-law provision did not apply to any of plaintiffs‘ claims. First, the implied warranty claims asserted by the plaintiffs were not governed by the choice-of-law provision in the express warranty. As a plain reading of the text of the express warranty made clear, the choice-of-law provision applies only to the limited warranty, i.e., the express warranty.

To evade this plain reading of the express warranty, plaintiffs then attempted to shoehorn their implied warranty claims into the choice-of-law clause by conflating their implied warranty and Magnoson-Moss (MMWA) claims. Plaintiffs‘ argument was untenable because ultimately plaintiffs‘ MMWA claims rely on their implied-warranty claims, not violations of federal law. State warranty law lies at the base of all warranty claims under Magnuson-Moss. Plaintiffs wrongfully confused substantive MMWA violations and the right to recover under the MMWA.

Although federal substantive law—and not state law—prevents a seller from disclaiming implied warranties, plaintiffs‘ ultimate right to recover on their MMWA claims still depended on state law. When a defendant improperly disclaims an implied warranty, the MMWA provides a statutory remedy: such disclaimer would be void and plaintiffs would be able to proceed against defendant on breach of implied warranties claims, under state law.  Similarly, the choice-of-law provision contained in the limited warranty did not apply to plaintiffs‘ consumer-fraud claims.

Having determined that the choice-of-law provision in the limited warranty did not apply to any of the plaintiffs‘ claims, the court then applied  the choice-of-law rules of the State of New Jersey.  Considering all of the Restatement factors, the court concluded that the state with the most significant relationship to the implied warranty claims was each class member‘s home state.
First, the place of contracting occurred wherever each class member purchased their 30gb Zune, which was presumably in their home state. Second, there was no negotiation of the implied warranties. Third, the place of performance also occurred wherever each class member purchased their 30gb Zune. Fourth, the location of the subject matter of the implied warranties is wherever the Zune was physically located, also presumably in each class member‘s home state. Finally, the domicile of the plaintiffs varies between each class member. Weighing these considerations, the state with the most significant relationship to the implied warranty claims—and consequently, the MMWA claims— was each class members‘ home state.

Plaintiffs‘ consumer-fraud claims would also be governed by the laws of each class member‘s home state.  In this case, the place, or places, where the plaintiff acted in reliance upon the defendant‘s supposed representations; the place where the plaintiff received the alleged representations; the place where a tangible thing which is the subject of the transaction between the parties was situated at the time; and the place where the plaintiff is to render performance under a contract which he has been induced to enter by the alleged false representations of the defendant—all weighed in favor of applying the consumer fraud laws of each class member‘s home state.

In light of the court‘s determination that the laws of all 50 states apply to the claims, and because plaintiffs suggested no workable means by which to conduct a manageable trial—let alone the extensive analysis required of them—class certification was denied on a nation-wide basis. (The court reserved decision as to whether or not a New Jersey-wide class might be certified, subject to further briefing by the parties; clearly additional individual issues will predominate in that context as well, we predict at MassTortDefense.)


 

Two Summary Judgments for Ladder Defendants Affirmed

Ladders and scaffolds are two of the most valuable tools we know.  And as the season for decorating approaches, we know MassTortDefense will soon be utilizing some, with due care of course.

Two federal courts of appeal have separately affirmed the dismissal of claims about personal injuries caused by allegedly defective Louisville Ladder Inc. products, because plaintiffs failed to offer sufficient expert testimony.

In Raymond B. Bielskis v. Louisville Ladder Inc., No. 10-1194 (7th Cir.), the court considered the appeal of a claim resulting from an accident that occurred when a Louisville Ladder mini-scaffold allegedly collapsed while plaintiff on an acoustical ceiling project.  Following the accident that injured his hand and knee, Bielskis filed suit alleging the ladder company had been negligent in failing to properly test and inspect the threaded stud of the caster stem that allegedly caused the collapse and in failing to warn consumers of the alleged manufacturing defect.

The mini-scaffold is approximately four feet long with a hinged side that allows it to collapse for storage. The sides of the scaffold have rungs which are used to place planks where the user may stand. The entire unit is mobile: it has four wheels that may be locked while the user is working and unlocked when moving the unit. Plaintiff alleged that it had collapsed because the caster stem above one of the wheels had broken. Bielskis retained an expert (Mizen) to provide expert testimony at trial as to what caused the caster stem to break. He opined that the fracture was caused by excess tensile stress brought on by over-tightening the threaded stem. Mizen concluded that the brittle fracture could have been avoided by either attaching the wheel with a different
mechanism than the threaded stud or by not tightening the stud “beyond making it simply snug to the leg base.” Louisville Ladder also retained an expert who also concluded that the caster stem had sustained a brittle fracture. Unlike Mizen, however, he determined that the caster stem ultimately failed because it was too loose, not because it was too tight.

Louisville Ladder moved to bar Mizen’s testimony, arguing that it was insufficiently reliable under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm., Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). In particular, Louisville Ladder faulted Mizen for his failure to utilize any recognized scientific methodology to reach his conclusions. The district court granted Louisville Ladder’s motion, concluding that the methodology underlying
Mizen’s opinion was insufficiently reliable. The primary problem the court identified with Mizen’s opinion was his leap, without data or testing, from the accepted premise that a crack without plastic deformation is a brittle fracture to his ultimate conclusion that the caster was too tight. When questioned as to what scientific methodology he used to reach this conclusion, Mizen replied that he had relied on “basic engineering intelligence” and “solid engineering principles that any other engineer would use.”

After Louisville Ladder moved to exclude his testimony, Mizen supplemented his opinion with several articles that he claimed supported his conclusion. He located the articles by using the Internet search engine Google and typing in the phrase “brittle fracture.”

The court of appeals agreed the district court was within its discretion to conclude that Mizen’s methodology sounded more like the sort of talking off the cuff—without sufficient data or analysis—that courts have repeatedly rejected.

Mizen made no attempt to test his hypothesis. His theory was certainly capable of being tested. He did not take the time to measure the caster stem; he had no idea what alloy was used to construct the caster stem and made no effort to quantify its tensile strength or yield strength. In contrast, Louisville Ladder’s expert used digital calipers to measure the various components, created positive and negative replicas of the fracture surfaces so that the fractographic appearance of the surfaces could be examined in detail and then performed stress analysis calculations with the caster installed in two different configurations in order to assess the stresses present
at the stud site with different degrees of tightness.

Likewise, Mizen’s proposed design alternatives did not survive scrutiny.  When asked if those design alternatives had been tested, Mizen stated, “I don’t have to test it.” Likewise, he dismissed the question of whether any of his proposed design alternatives were used in the marketplace
on scaffolds or had been recommended or required by any industry-wide standards for climbing equipment.  Without more, there is no way to assure that Mizen’s proposed alternatives are “the product of reliable principles and methods.”

Absent expert testimony, summary judgment would follow, but plaintiffs argued res ipsa.  While plaintiff showed a scaffold could be expected not to break and collapse under the weight of a single individual working on it, he failed to prove that the scaffold was defective at the time it left Louisville Ladder’s control. The mini-scaffold was already assembled when Bielskis’s employer gave it to him.   Plaintiff did not present any evidence about who assembled the scaffold and whether it was assembled in conformity with the manufacturer’s warnings or specifications. Plaintiff's expert had neither reviewed the scaffold assembly instructions nor ascertained who had assembled the scaffold.

In Robert Cannioto et al. v. Louisville Ladder Inc., et al., No. 11-12885 (11th Cir.), the court concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the expert testimony
of the plaintiffs’ principal expert witness.  The court rejected plaintiffs "malfunction theory" under Cassisi v. Maytag Company, 396 So.2d 1140 (Fla. 1st DCA 1981).  There, the Florida appellate court held that a legal inference is created that a product was defective at the time of injury or the time of sale when it malfunctions during normal use. The district court correctly concluded that the Cassisi inference was not applicable to this case because the ladder in question still existed and had been inspected by the plaintiffs’ expert. The record also demonstrated that the plaintiff failed to subject the ladder to a normal operation. The ladder was set up at too steep an angle at the time of plaintiff's fall.  The court affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

 

Food Spread Class Action Certified: What Happened to Wal-mart?

A California federal judge recently denied certification of a nationwide class, but certified a statewide class of plaintiffs in a suit over allegedly misleading promotion of the hazelnut spread Nutella as part of a healthy breakfast for kids. Hohenberg et al. v. Ferrero USA Inc., No. 3:11-cv-00205 (S.D. Calif.).

This type of case falls squarely in the zone we have warned readers about: the aggressive and excessive use of consumer fraud act claims by plaintiff attorneys, and certification triggering the need to think about "blackmail settlements."

Plaintiffs brought a putative consumer class action lawsuit on behalf of people who purchased Ferrero’s Nutella spread after relying on allegedly deceptive and misleading labeling and advertisements. Specifically, Plaintiffs alleged that Ferrero misleadingly promoted its spread as healthy and beneficial to children when in fact it contains levels of fat and sugar inconsistent with that claim.  We have posted on this product before.

Typically, plaintiffs brought causes of action alleging (1) violations of California’s Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”), Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17200 et seq.; (2) violations of California’s False Advertising Law, (“FAL”), Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17500 et seq.; (3) violations of California’s Consumer Legal Remedies Act (“CLRA”), Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1770 et seq.; (4) breach of express warranty; and (5) breach of implied warranty of merchantability.

Plaintiffs moved for class certification. Defendant Ferrero argued that plaintiffs did not satisfy the commonality requirement as clarified by the United States Supreme Court in Wal-Mart, because they did not offer evidence of a common injury. Indeed, plaintiffs did not support their motion with expert declarations that, for example, all class members were misled by a common advertising campaign that had little to no variation.  But the court, relying in part on pre-Wal-Mart decisions, e.g., Hanlon v. Chrysler Corp., 150 F.3d 1011, 1019-20 (9th Cir. 1998), stressed that commonality under Rule 23(a)(2) only requires there be some common issues of fact. To the extent that defendant interpreted the decision in Wal–Mart as requiring plaintiffs to prove common class-wide injury at the class certification stage, the court disagreed. Rather, all plaintiffs must show, said the court, is that the claims of the class depend upon a common contention 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. While that clearly was part of Wal–Mart, the decision is best read as finding that commonality requires the plaintiff to demonstrate that the class members have suffered the same injury, which means more than merely that they have all suffered a violation of the same provision of law.  Nevertheless, in this case, the court found sufficient the claims made on behalf of the proposed class based on a common advertising campaign,

But then there was the predominance issue of Rule 23(b).  Defendant disputed that common issues predominate, arguing that proposed class members’ injuries would require individualized assessment. Notably, one named plaintiff did not regret buying Nutella despite the alleged marketing, and continued using the spread after she learned about its sugar content. Another named plaintiff testified that her family loved Nutella and was upset when she took it away. Clearly, this case involved class members’ individual expectations, dietary preferences, nutritional knowledge, and the availability or non-availability of substitutes in the market. The court conceded that plaintiffs’ dietary choices may prove relevant to the merits of their case, but felt that it need not "decide the merits" of the case at this stage. However, as we have posted before, the Ninth Circuit has noted that it is not correct to say a district court may consider the merits to the extent that they overlap with class certification issues; rather, a district court must consider the merits if they overlap with the Rule 23(a) requirements. 


The court did reject the proposed national class, because plaintiffs made no showing that non-California class members saw the advertising at issue in California, purchased Nutella in California, or that their claims arise out of conduct that occurred in California. The choice of law issue thus overwhelmed the alleged common issues. So the certified class included “all persons who, on or after Aug. 1, 2009, bought one or more Nutella products in the state of California” for personal use.  Wal-Mart needs to have more impact than this.

"Infected" Tissue Claim Not A Consumer Fraud Claim

Readers have seen my warnings about plaintiff attorneys trying to turn every marketing statement of opinion or puffing into a consumer fraud claim. Now comes a decision about a non-consumer product consumer fraud claim. A federal court recently decided that a plaintiff failed to plead a proper consumer fraud claim against a human tissue product supplier for allegedly providing infected material that was implanted into his body. See Wamsley v. Lifenet Transplant Services Inc., No. 10-00990 (S.D.W. Va., 11/10/11).

Plaintiff sued non-profit corporations who were suppliers and distributors of human tissue products, such as human tendons. Plaintiff alleged that he underwent surgery to repair a rupture to the Achilles tendon in his left ankle, a procedure that involved the implantation of a human tendon obtained from defendants. Plaintiff alleged the product was defective because it was “infected.”  Consequently, plaintiff alleged he had to undergo additional surgeries “to correct the damage caused by the defective tendon.

Plaintiff claimed that supplying an infected tendon constitutes an unfair method of competition and unfair or deceptive act or practice as defined by the West Virginia Consumer Credit Protection Act.  Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that plaintiff had failed to allege any action or inaction on the part of the defendants which would constitute unfair competition, unfair acts or practices, deceptive acts or practices, or fraudulent acts or practices. Plaintiff only formulaically recited the elements of a cause of action under the WVCCPA.   the court agreed and had plaintiff file an amended complaint which alleged defendants concealed from plaintiff, his doctors, and his hospital, that the tendon was infected.  He claimed the alleged concealment
that a tendon provided for human implantation is infected constitutes an unfair method of competition and unfair or deceptive act or practice.
 

Defendants then filed a motion to dismiss the amended complaint arguing that plaintiff’s
amended complaint fails to meet the pleading standards articulated in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), and Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). Defendants further contended that plaintiff did not have a private cause of action under the WVCCPA because no causal connection exists between the alleged unlawful conduct and the alleged ascertainable loss: because a physician (a “learned intermediary”) made the decision as to what product to use to repair the ruptured Achilles tendon, plaintiff could not establish the necessary causal connection between the alleged unlawful practice by defendants and the alleged injury.

The court began by outlining the relevant legal standard, familiar to our readers. The
plausibility standard requires a plaintiff to demonstrate more than a sheer possibility that a
defendant has acted unlawfully;  it requires the plaintiff to articulate facts, when accepted as
true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. While a court must accept the material facts alleged in the complaint as true, bare legal conclusions are not entitled to the assumption of truth and are insufficient to state a claim.  Facts pled that are merely consistent with liability are not sufficient.

Moreover, the court noted in an elegant way, "fraud is a generous tort, encompassing affirmative misrepresentations and omissions alike, its boundaries limited only by the imaginations of crafty and unprincipled minds."  A claim that “sounds in fraud” must satisfy Rule 9(b)’s more rigorous pleading standards. Rule 9(b)’s heightened pleading standards advance several interests, including protecting defendants’ reputations from baseless accusations, eliminating unmeritorious suits that are brought only for their nuisance value, discouraging fishing expeditions brought in the dim hope of discovering a fraud, and providing defendants with detailed information in order to enable them to effectively defend against a claim.

Plaintiff’s sole relevant factual allegation concerning defendants’ alleged unlawful conduct was that the defendants concealed from plaintiff, his doctors, and his hospital, that the tendon was infected. But he offered not a single fact in support of his theory that defendants concealed from surgeons the fact that the human tissue they provided was “infected” or knew that the surgeons would implant the diseased tendon into a human body.  (Indeed, the serious nature of this allegation made it more at home in a criminal court than a consumer fraud action.) Such an unadorned, conclusory averment leashed to not a single supporting fact failed to meet the pleading standard. Moreover, Plaintiff’s allegation that defendants concealed a material fact sounds in fraud
and, thus, triggered rigorous pleading requirements under Fed.R.Civ.P. 9(b).  However, the court called this a  "shoot-and-ask-questions-later lawsuit"  because it offered no facts to support a good faith belief that defendants knowingly distributed diseased or “infected” human body parts to plaintiff’s health care providers. No names, places, dates, or times, and no concrete facts to support the alleged conduct. No narrative on what was medically deficient about the tendon implant except to state that it was “infected.” In sum, plaintiff’s theory of liability failed to cross the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief. 

Even if the amended complaint had been "the model of perfect pleading," it would still fail because it does not state a cognizable claim under the WVCCPA. Plaintiff cannot shoulder his burden of stating a claim upon which relief can be granted because, within the meaning of the WVCCPA, the provisioning of blood and human tissue by the non-profit defendants to the health care providers was not “trade or commerce”; the service provided by the defendants was not performed “in connection with the sale or advertisement of any goods or services”; plaintiff was not a “consumer”; and the parities had not entered into a “consumer transaction.”

The West Virginia Legislature, in accord with many other jurisdictions, expressed its intent
that suppliers of human blood and tissue products be held to different legal standards than those
businesses that manufacture, distribute, and sell conventional goods and services. Blood and tissue distributors are rendering a service— and not making a sale—when they provide human blood and tissue products according to the West Virginia Legislature, which intended to limit the liability of such distributors in contract warranty and strict liability tort claims, plainly distinguishing human body products from ordinary goods. The court thus applied the West Virginia high court's decision in White v. Wyeth, 705 S.E.2d 828, 837 (W. Va. 2010), which held prescription drugs aren't proper subjects of consumer protection claims; the court refused to allow a plaintiff to morph what is most naturally a product liability or breach of warranty action into a purported statutory consumer protection claim would permit an end-run around the state's blood shield statute.

Finally, the court noted that plaintiff was correct in observing that if his WVCCPA complaint was dismissed, plaintiff would be left with no adequate legal remedy. Defendants had explained that the WVCCPA claim was a products liability claim in disguise, brought only because the statute of limitations had run on plaintiff’s traditional tort remedies. Thus, any difficulty plaintiff might having pursuing more traditional causes of action was likely his own fault.  The legislature did not intend that WVCCPA serve as "a Plan B litigation backstop" for claims when a plaintiff had—but did not pursue—appropriate traditional causes of action.


 

California Publishes New Draft of Informal Green Chemistry Regulations

Yesterday the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) convened a Green Ribbon Science Panel (GRSP) to continue work on the state's Green Chemistry initiative.

Readers may recall from previous posts that the GRSP was established with the passage of two "green chemistry laws" in 2008, and is charged with providing advice and serving as a resource to DTSC and the public regarding the California Green Chemistry Initiative. On the agenda for the meeting this week was input from the GRSP on the recently-posted “Safer Consumer Products Informal Draft Regulations”, which were published late last month.  An earlier draft of those regulations, released by the DTSC last November, drew strong commentary from both industry and environmental groups. According to DTSC, a wide range of stakeholders, including those from industry, environmental groups, scientists, and legislative leaders, raised "substantive and valid concerns" about the prior draft of the regulations. DTSC  eventually withdrew the draft regulations.

The latest draft regulations provide for a four-step process to identify safer consumer product alternatives: 1) create an immediate list of Chemicals of Concern (~3,000) based on the work already done by other organizations, and specify a process for DTSC to identify additional  chemicals as Chemicals of Concern (COCs); 2) require DTSC to evaluate and prioritize product/COC combinations to develop a list of “Priority Products” for which an alternatives assessment must be conducted; 3) require responsible entities (manufacturers, importers, and retailers) to notify DTSC when their product is listed as a Priority Product.  Manufacturers (or other responsible entities) must perform an "alternatives assessment" for the product and the Chemicals of Concern in the product to determine how best to limit potential exposures to, or the level of potential adverse public health and environmental impacts posed by, the Chemicals of Concern in the product; 4) require DTSC to identify and impose regulatory responses to effectively limit potential adverse public health and/or environmental impacts, if any, posed by the Priority Product/Chemical of Concern.

The draft regulations note that they would not apply to prescription drugs and devices; dental restorative materials; medical devices, and some other categories. But it is clear that they will impose significant new burdens on many product manufacturers, importers and sellers. The new regulations require risk assessments and life cycle analyses for prioritized products, which may lead to use limits for chemicals, reformulation requirements to eliminate targeted chemicals, or even a ban on sales of certain products in California.

And, of course, varying state regulations (in approach and content) frustrate the ability of those companies to design and market products in a global supply chain.

DTSC labels the new draft "informal," perhaps because they make substantial changes to the withdrawn set, which drew such intense scrutiny.   The initial list of “Chemicals of Concern” would be far broader than previously expected; the product prioritization criteria is revised, although it still appears likely to impact children's products, personal health, and other consumer products. But worker exposure has been added to the priority criteria as well. The regulations would also expand the list of hazards to include a wider range of hazard traits and environmental and toxicological testing endpoints. The previous exemption for unintentionally added chemicals would be eliminated, and, significantly, the “no exposure pathway” exemption would also be dropped.  

The regulations would require an alternatives assessment, conducted in two stages, with a report to DTSC regarding each stage. The first stage focuses on product criteria (function, performance, technical, and legal requirements), identification of alternatives to the COC, and screening of the alternatives.  The second stage would involve a detailed assessment of alternatives, focusing on exposure pathways and life cycle segments.

After evaluating the reports of the alternatives assessment, DTSC would then consider the appropriate regulatory response, which could involve a requirement of information disclosure, or more assessment, or limitation of certain uses, up to a ban.

The draft regulations would also require responsible entities to establish and pay for an end-of-life product stewardship program for any product that is to treated as a hazardous waste in California.

Materials for the meeting are here and here. On December 5, 2011, DTSC will hold a workshop on the informal draft regulations. The informal public comment period ends December 30, 2011.  DTSC apparently will then develop a formal new set of proposed regulations.   

Lower Courts Grapple With Meaning of Nicastro (Part II)

Last post we talked about a federal district court attempting to apply the Supreme Court's decision in J.McIntyre Machinery Ltd. v. Nicastro.  This time, a state court.

In Soria v. Chrysler Canada Inc., No. 2-10-1236 (App. Ct. Ill., 10/24/11), the court modified an earlier opinion to account for Nicastro. But it still concluded that a Canadian automobile assembler was properly subject to personal jurisdiction in Illinois, regardless of the new decision.

This suit arose out of a vehicle collision in which plaintiff alleged that she was a passenger in a 1998 Plymouth Voyager minivan assembled by Chrysler Canada in Windsor, Canada. Plaintiff alleged she suffered a severe eye injury after the door to a passenger airbag module fractured during airbag deployment, sending out plastic fragments. Plaintiff alleged that Chrysler
Canada was negligent in its manufacture, assembly, design, testing, inspection, and sale of the airbag module doors.

Regarding jurisdictional contacts, plaintiff alleged that Chrysler Canada knew that thousands of minivans and vehicles it manufactured were sold in the United States, including thousands in Illinois; about 85% of its production was exported to the United States in some years; it allegedly delivered its minivans and vehicles into the stream of commerce with the expectation that a certain percentage would be sold in Illinois; it did business in Illinois within the meaning of the Illinois long-arm statute; and it (along with Chrysler United States) designed, developed, assembled, manufactured, distributed, and transferred into the stream of commerce the Plymouth Voyager in which plaintiff was a passenger during the collision.

In contrast, Chrysler Canada argued that it was incorporated in Canada, had its principal place of
business in Canada, and never transacted business, entered into contracts, owned real estate,
maintained a corporate presence, telephone number, tax identification number, employees or agents in Illinois. Further, it contended that it did not ship, deliver, distribute, or sell the minivan in
Illinois. Finally, Chrysler asserted that its website was not directed to or interactive with Illinois
residents. 

The trial court denied defendant's motion to dismiss.

The appellate court noted the defendant's argument that mere awareness that vehicles it assembled might be distributed by Chrysler United States to Illinois did not show sufficient minimum contacts. Plaintiff responded that Chrysler Canada had sufficient minimum contacts and was subject to specific personal jurisdiction in Illinois because it knew that the vehicles it assembled for Chrysler United States entered Illinois through the stream of commerce and because it intentionally served the United States market, including Illinois, by indirectly shipping its vehicles to the forum.

Chrysler urged that beyond its mere awareness that some of the vehicles it assembled “may”
be swept into Illinois through the stream of commerce, there were no purposeful contacts (and,
therefore, no sufficient minimum contacts) by Chrysler Canada directed at Illinois. Specifically,
Chrysler Canada contended that it did not engage in commercial activities or other purposeful
contacts in Illinois. Further, it did not receive vehicle orders from United States customers or
dealerships; did not sell (or have control over the distribution of) vehicles to United States
customers or dealerships; and did not ship vehicles to United States customers or dealerships.
 

The court reviewed the Supreme Court jurisprudence on personal jurisdiction, and in particular, the debate over the so-called "stream-of-commerce" theory of jurisdiction, which has commanded the approval of as many as 4 Justices at various times.  The court concluded that under either a broad or narrow version of the stream-of-commerce theory, the trial court correctly found that sufficient minimum contacts exist to exercise personal jurisdiction over Chrysler Canada.

Chrysler Canada was not only aware that its products are distributed in Illinois (thus, the court thought, satisfying the narrow stream-of-commerce theory), but it had also purposefully directed its activities toward Illinois.  While it is essential in each case that there be 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, when a commercial actor’s efforts are purposefully directed toward residents of a state, the absence of physical contacts does not alone defeat personal jurisdiction there, concluded the court.

The court found persuasive that the United States market, including Illinois, was Chrysler Canada’s primary market. Deposition testimony reflected that Chrysler Canada is aware that 82%
of its production (albeit not all of which consists of Plymouth Voyager minivans) was distributed,
through an established distribution channel, within the United States. During the relevant period,
Chrysler Canada indirectly shipped products into the American market, including Illinois, through
Chrysler United States, its parent corporation. The court agreed with plaintiff’s assertion that Chrysler Canada continuously and intentionally served or targeted this market and was set up to manufacture vehicles for (and derived significant revenue from) the United States market, including Chrysler dealerships throughout Illinois.

Much of that analysis skipped over the very thorny issue of the distinction between efforts to target the US market, in general, but including the forum state, and those that target a specific state, the forum state.  Perhaps the court was influenced by the fact that Chrysler Canada conceded that, during 2008 and 2009, Chrysler United States ordered 28,000 vehicles of various makes and models, including minivans, for its independently-owned dealerships in Illinois. Also, unlike some product sellers, Chrysler Canada was specifically aware of the final destination of every product (i.e., vehicle) that it assembled. Thus, according to the court, Chrysler Canada had an expectation that its products would be purchased by Illinois consumers and, given the continuous nature of its assembly relationship with Chrysler United States, its contacts with Illinois were not random, fortuitous, or attenuated.

 

Lower Courts Grapple With Nicastro Meaning

We have posted before about the thorny and important issue of U.S. courts exercising personal jurisdiction over foreign product sellers.  Earlier this year, 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 high court opinions on this issue in two decades.  But because the former was a plurality decision, lower courts have continued to struggle.

In the past few weeks, two courts have confronted what type of conduct may subject a foreign product maker to personal jurisdiction.  The first today, and the second in a later post.

In Windsor v. Spinner Industry Co., No. 1:10-cv-00114 (D.Md., 10/20/11), plaintiffs alleged that the front wheel of their bicycle dislodged, causing him and his toddler son, Tyler, to be thrown to the ground. Defendant  Joy is a Taiwanese corporation that designs and manufactures bicycle components, including a mechanism called a “quick release skewer,” which is used to hold wheels in place. Plaintiffs alleged that their bicycle contained one of Joy’s quick release skewers and that a defect in the skewer contributed to the cause of their accident.

The parties agreed that Joy sells its products to distributors, manufacturers, and trading companies who then market them in every state in the U.S., but that Joy has no direct contacts with the forum state of Maryland. Plaintiffs contended that the nationwide marketing of Joy’s products by intermediaries created sufficient minimum contacts between Joy and Maryland to subject Joy to specific jurisdiction there. Joy moved to dismiss.

The district court noted that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment sets the outer boundaries of state judicial authority. See Goodyear Dunlop Tires Operations, S.A. v. Brown, 131 S.Ct. 2846, 2853 (2011). Consistent with due process, jurisdiction over non-resident defendants exists only to the extent that the defendants have certain minimum contacts with the state such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.

Readers know that such contacts, if they exist, can give rise to one of two species of personal jurisdiction: general or specific. General jurisdiction exists where a non-resident maintains “continuous and systematic” contacts with the forum state. Helicopteros Nacionales de Colombia, S.A. v. Hall, 466 U.S. 408, 416 (1984). Under these conditions, courts of the forum state may exercise jurisdiction over the defendant in any suit properly before them, even if the subject matter is completely unrelated to the defendant’s activities in the forum. Specific jurisdiction arises where a non-resident lacks continuous and systematic contacts with the forum, but has nonetheless purposefully availed itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum state. Hanson v. Denckla, 357 U.S. 235, 253 (1958). Under these latter circumstances, courts of the forum state may exercise jurisdiction over the defendant only with respect to claims that arise out of the defendant’s activities in the forum.

The issue presented in this case was the extent to which a state may exercise specific jurisdiction over a non-resident manufacturer whose only connection to the forum is that its products were sold there by third-party distributors. Although the idea that jurisdiction automatically travels with the chattels has long been rejected, some courts have at times endorsed a so-called “stream of commerce” doctrine, approving the assertion of personal jurisdiction over a corporation that delivers its products into the stream of commerce with the expectation that they will be purchased by consumers in the forum state.

The Supreme Court in  McIntyre addressed, but split, on how to handle these issues. The deciding votes were cast by Justices Breyer and Alito, who concurred in the judgment reversing the New Jersey Supreme Court. In his concurring opinion, Justice Breyer rejected the notion that a non-resident defendant could be subjected to suit in a state based solely on foreseeability, agreeing with the plurality that personal jurisdiction required purposeful availment of a particular forum. He further explained that the standard of purposeful availment,  the correct legal standard, may still require further explication in the context of modern global commerce, but that the facts of that case did not present an adequate vehicle for crafting any new rules. Although the concurrence and the plurality differed as to what might constitute “purposeful availment” in the context of national or global marketing, they both firmly embraced the continuing significance of individual state sovereignty and, on that basis, noted that specific jurisdiction must arise from a defendant’s deliberate connection with the forum state.

With that understanding, the facts alleged, even if proven, would be insufficient to demonstrate jurisdiction over Joy, said the court. First, although plaintiffs made much of the Internet marketing of Joy’s products, the web presence of Joy or its distributors in Maryland was immaterial because plaintiffs did not purchase their bicycle on the Internet. Further, plaintiffs offered no details about the particular chain of distribution that brought the allegedly defective skewer to the end seller.  At best, plaintiffs’ theory of jurisdiction amounted to no more than the “knew or should have known” standard that the Supreme Court explicitly rejected in McIntyre.

The court also rejected the plaintiffs' arguments that jurisdiction was proper because certain of the manufacturers and distributors to whom Joy sold its products not only market their products in Maryland, but maintain established channels of distribution there.  The argument was that where a foreign manufacturer sells its products to large national retail chains that have an established and ongoing presence in every state in the U.S., such a relationship evinces more than the mere foreseeability, but an actual intent to serve the forum market, and hence purposeful availment. But the court found this line of reasoning indistinguishable from the clearly rejected position  that jurisdiction lies in a forum when a defendant places its product in the stream of commerce with the expectation that it will be sold there. 

Beverage Maker Not Liable for Alleged Failure to Warn

The maker of  a drink containing alcohol and caffeine was not liable to a woman allegedly injured when the driver of the motorcycle on which she was a passenger crashed, after the driver consumed the beverage.  See Cook v. MillerCoors LLC, No. 11-1488 (M.D. Fla., 10/28/11).

The operator of the motorcycle in the accident was killed, and plaintiff Cook, who was a passenger, was injured.  Prior to the crash, the driver allegedly had consumed several “Sparks”
alcoholic beverages containing caffeine and other stimulants, manufactured by defendant.

Cook argued that alcoholic beverages such as Sparks containing stimulants are “uniquely dangerous” because they appeal to younger drinkers and because the addition of caffeine enables one to drink more alcohol without feeling as intoxicated as one normally would. Thus, she alleged, consumers of these beverages are more likely to “engage in dangerous behavior such as driving.”  She asserted the driver did not appear impaired, even though toxicology reports from his autopsy revealed that his blood alcohol level was 0.10 at the time of the crash.

Defendant responded that the risks associated with operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol are well known; therefore, it could not be held responsible for the operator's choice to consume Sparks then illegally operate his motorcycle. The addition of other ingredients to the beverage did not lessen his responsibility to refrain from operating his motorcycle after having consumed the alcohol, and his actions, not the manufacture of Sparks,
proximately caused Cook’s injuries.  The crux of the defense motion to dismiss thus was that there is no cause of action against a manufacturer of alcoholic beverages for injuries resulting from their consumption because the effects of alcohol consumption are well known. With a response from plaintiff that the legion of such holdings in courts everywhere apply to “conventional” alcoholic beverages, not to an alcoholic beverage mixed with stimulants which allegedly suppress the consumer’s subjective awareness of alcohol’s well-known effects.

Regarding the failure to warn theory, a plaintiff must establish the existence of a duty. A manufacturer’s duty to warn arises when there is a need to inform consumers of dangers of which they are unaware.  The effects of alcohol and the need to not drink and drive are universally known.  While plaintiff argued about the unconventionality of this product, plaintiff did not and could not allege that the driver was unaware that he was drinking alcohol. His alleged subjective awareness of the speed or impact of those effects did not alter the legal reasoning of precedent that holds that there is no duty to warn because of the universal recognition of all potential dangers associated with alcohol. 

Plaintiff also failed to adequately allege how the product was unreasonably dangerous for the design defect claim. The effects of alcohol are universally and objectively well known, irrespective of the operator's alleged subjective awareness of them. The defectiveness of a design is determined based on an objective standard, not from the viewpoint of any specific user, said the court.

Moreover, plaintiff's theories failed as to proximate cause. Plaintiff alleged that the manufacturer's negligence caused the driver to become intoxicated to the point of impairment,
causing the crash and Cook’s injuries. In Florida, however, voluntary drinking of alcohol is the proximate cause of an injury from an intoxicated driver, rather than the manufacture or sale of those intoxicating beverages to that person.  This doomed the negligence claim.

Readers can readily see why the court was reluctant to make an exception to the rule for the "unconventional" beverage.  There are hundreds of alcohol-containing products that are not "conventional" in one way or another, by taste, ingredients, color, manufacturing process, advertising... To shift responsibility from the person who over-consumes one of these and then drives impaired is to send the absolutely wrong policy message.

Courts have typically recognized no duty on the maker, regardless of plaintiff's attempt to differentiate either themselves or the product. See, e.g., Malek v. Miller Brewing Co., 749 S.W.2d 521 (Tex. App. 1988) (finding no duty to warn despite claim that advertising led plaintiff to believe that “Lite” beer was less intoxicating than other beer); Pemberton v. Am. Distilled Spirits Co., 664 S.W.2d 690 (Tenn. 1984); Greif v. Anheuser-Busch Cos., Inc., 114 F. Supp. 2d 100 (D. Conn. 2000)(particular, alleged tolerance of an individual consumer); MaGuire v. Pabst Brewing Co., 387 N.W.2d 565 (Iowa 1986).


 

Chew on This: Consumer Fraud Claim on Snack Bars Preempted

The Seventh Circuit ruled earlier this month that federal food labeling law expressly preempts state law claims seeking certain additional health-related disclosures on chewy bars. Turek v. General Mills Inc., No. 10-3267 (7th Cir. 10/17/11).

The bars have been around since at least the early 1980's, but have grown into a nearly $2 billion segment of the food industry.  Consumers love their portability, and relatively low calorie count.

Plaintiffs brought a diversity class action suit under the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act, and the Illinois Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act, alleging that the label of certain "chewy bars" was misleading regarding fiber content.  Specifically, the complaint alleged that the principal fiber, by weight, in the bars was inulin extracted from chicory root. The complaint describes inulin so extracted as a processed, "non-natural” fiber which was not as beneficial to consumer health as other fiber.

Those state law claims ran smack into a provision of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, 21 U.S.C. § 343-1(a)(5), added by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, which forbids states to impose “any requirement respecting any claim of the type described in section 343(r)(1)
[of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act] . . . made in the label or labeling of food that is not identical to the requirement of section 343(r).”  A state thus can impose the identical requirement or requirements, and by doing so be enabled, because of the narrow scope of the preemption provision in the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, to enforce a violation of the Act as a violation of state law. See also In re Pepsico, Inc. Bottled Water Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation, 588 F. Supp. 2d 527, 532 (S.D.N.Y. 2008); “Beverages: Bottled Water,” 60 Fed. Reg. 57076, 57120 (Final Rule, Nov. 13, 1995). This is important because the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act does not create a private right of action. Medtronic, Inc. v. Lohr, 518 U.S. 470, 487 (1996).

The question thus became what requirements the federal law imposes on the labeling of dietary fiber. Section 343(q)(1) of the Act contains a requirement that the “label or labeling” of food products intended for human consumption state “the amount of . . . dietary fiber . . . contained in each serving size or other unit of measure.” Other requirements for labeling claims relating to dietary fiber are set forth in implementing regulations.  

The labeling of the products challenged by the plaintiff was compliant with these regulations relating to health claims for dietary fiber. See, e.g., 21 C.F.R. § 101.76. All the FDA’s requirements relating to labeling dietary fiber are requirements to which any labeling disclosures required by a state must be identical.  But the disclaimers that the plaintiff wants added to the labeling of the defendants’ inulin-containing chewy bars were not identical to the labeling requirements imposed on such products by federal law, and so they were barred, held the court of appeals. The information required by federal law does not include disclosing that the fiber in the product includes inulin or that a product containing inulin allegedly produces fewer health benefits than a product that contains only product that contains only “natural” fiber, for example. 

Even if the disclaimers that the plaintiff wants added would be "consistent" with the requirements imposed, importantly, consistency is not the test. Identity is, said the court.

The Seventh Circuit thus affirmed dismissal of the case. But clarified, procedurally, that when a state law claim is expressly preempted under section 403A of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act,” a dismissal on the merits is the proper outcome, with prejudice like other merits judgments, not dismissal for want of federal jurisdiction, as the district court had ordered.

This is a victory for consumers when one considers why Congress did not want to allow states to impose disclosure requirements of their own on packaged food products, most of which are sold nationwide. Manufacturers might have to print 50 different labels, driving consumers who buy the food products crazy. A granola bar you buy in California ought to look just like the one you buy in Maine.

 

Company "Doe" Files Suit Challenging the CPSC Database

Multiple reports indicate that an unnamed company filed a suit last week, under seal, to challenge aspects of the Consumer Product Safety Commission's new public 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 an adequate 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.

The suit was reportedly filed in federal court in Maryland, and relates to material inaccuracies with respect to a report of alleged injury that found its way into the database.  The suit apparently asks that the CPSC be enjoined from keeping the complaint about one of the company's products in the public database.

Almost anyone can file a “report of harm,” including consumers; government agencies; health care professionals; child service providers; and public safety entities. Consumers could include not just the purchaser of the product but their personal injury attorney, with their own agendas.

Manufacturers have only a limited opportunity to review and dispute information in incident reports before they are published on-line in the CPSC database. Manufacturers have limited control over what information can be removed or amended once posted. The two dissenting votes at the time the CPSC commissioners approved the database made an unsuccessful attempt to amend the final rule so as to give manufacturers more time to comment on or respond to the inaccuracy 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. Observers continue to 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.

A recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report on the database found that of 1,800  published reports, manufacturers noted that 160, nearly 10%, had materially inaccurate information.

 

Substantial Cause Explored in Case of Multiple Exposures

The Sixth Circuit issues and interesting opinion last week, exploring plaintiff's burden to prove that exposure to defendant's product caused his injury in the context in which plaintiff was exposed to numerous other similar products. See Moeller v. Garlock Sealing Technologies LLC, No. 09-5670, (6th Cir., 9/28/11).

Plaintiff was a pipefitter who worked with asbestos-containing gaskets made by Garlock from about 1962 until about 1970. But from 1962 until about 1975, he also sustained significant exposure to asbestos insulation. He contracted mesothelioma and sued, alleging that his exposure to Garlock’s asbestos-containing gaskets was a substantial factor in causing his injuries.

At trial, plaintiff's expert testified that exposure to asbestos from Garlock gaskets, along with his other exposures, contributed to the mesothelioma. And one of the treating oncologists opined  that if plaintiff had worked for many years (as he did) scraping and grinding asbestos gaskets, and if plaintiff breathed those fibers, then that exposure would have caused his cancer. In rebuttal, Garlock presented evidence that plaintiff had sustained substantial exposure to asbestos insulation products for 13 years. It also presented evidence that whereas asbestos insulation was banned in the 1970s, leading asbestos safety authorities believed that gaskets, such as those sold by Garlock, posed “no health hazard,” and were sold lawfully in the United States. Garlock also suggested that the plaintiff had only installed Garlock gaskets (an activity that both parties agree did not create a risk of injury), and had not ever removed them (the activity that the plaintiff alleges caused the injuries).

The jury returned a verdict for plaintiff, and defendant appealed.

To prevail on a negligence claim, Kentucky law requires a plaintiff to prove that a defendant’s conduct was a substantial factor in bringing about the harm. Deutsch v. Shein, 597 S.W.2d 141, 144 (Ky. 1980). Causation requires a link between the specific defendant’s conduct and the plaintiff’s injuries. See Estes v. Gibson, 257 S.W.2d 604, 607 (Ky. 1953) . Substantial causation refers to the probable cause, as opposed to a possible cause. One measure of whether an action is a substantial factor is the number of other factors which contribute in producing the harm and the extent of the effect which they have in producing it.

The appeals court concluded that the plaintiff failed to prove that Garlock’s product was a substantial factor in bringing about the harm. The plaintiff presented various witnesses to support the claim that the mesothelioma was caused by his exposure to Garlock gaskets. But one expert never actually said that the exposure to Garlock gaskets was a substantial factor in causing the  cancer; the others testified that all types of asbestos can cause mesothelioma and that any asbestos exposure counts as a “contributing factor.”  That testimony does not establish that exposure to Garlock gaskets in and of itself was a substantial factor.

Moreover, the evidence presented was insufficient to allow a jury to infer that exposure to Garlock gaskets was a substantial cause of the cancer. Plaintiff here presented no evidence quantifying  exposure to asbestos from Garlock gaskets. There was testimony that he removed gaskets for several years, and that some of those gaskets were Garlock’s. But the plaintiff failed to establish how many Garlock gaskets he removed, or how frequently he removed—as opposed to installed—them. The record also shows that plaintiff regularly tore out asbestos insulation during the relevant years, and that his exposure to asbestos from insulation would have been thousands of times greater than his exposure from removing gaskets.

Thus, while his exposure to Garlock gaskets may have contributed to his mesothelioma, the record simply does not support an inference that it was a substantial cause of his mesothelioma. Given that the Plaintiff failed to quantify his exposure to asbestos from Garlock gaskets and that the Plaintiff concedes that he sustained massive exposure to asbestos from non-Garlock sources, there is simply insufficient evidence to infer that Garlock gaskets probably, as opposed to possibly, were a substantial cause of the injury.

The court summed it up: saying that exposure to Garlock gaskets was a substantial cause of plaintiff’s mesothelioma would be akin to saying that one who pours a bucket of water into the
ocean has substantially contributed to the ocean’s volume.

 

Expert May Be Needed on Design Defect, Even Under Consumer Expectations Test

Back when we taught Products Liability in law school, one of the topics that always got significant attention and discussion from the bright-eyed students was how to define "defect." The panoply of tests for defective or unreasonably dangerous products never failed to excite discussion, particularly the role of consumer expectations in product assessment.

That same topic is the focus of an interesting recent decision in the Seventh Circuit. See Show v. Ford Motor Co., Nos. 10-2428 and 10-2637 (7th Cir.,  9/19/11).

Plaintiffs were involved in a motor vehicle accident in a 1993 Ford Explorer;  they sued Ford, alleging design defect. In products liability cases in which the plaintiff alleges a design defect, Illinois (whose law supplied the substantive rules) permits the claim to be established in either
of two ways. First, the plaintiff may introduce evidence that the product failed to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would  expect when used in an intended or reasonably foreseeable manner. This has come to be known as the consumer expectation test. Second, the plaintiff may introduce evidence that the product’s design proximately caused his injury, when the benefits of the challenged design do not outweigh the risk of danger inherent in such design. This test, which adds the balancing of risks and benefits to the alternative design and feasibility inquiries, has come to be known as the risk-utility or risk-benefit test.

Here, plaintiffs proceeded under the first prong, and offered no expert opinion. Ford moved for summary judgment in light of the absence of expert testimony. Plaintiffs conceded that testimony by an engineer or other design expert was essential when a claim rests on the risk-utility approach. But, they argued that jurors, as consumers, can find in their own experience all of the necessary opinions under the consumer expectation test. The district court sided with the defense, and plaintiffs appealed.

The court first discussed a very interesting preliminary question. The parties assumed, as did the lower court, that state law in this diversity case determined whether expert testimony was essential. The assumption rested on a belief that the quality of proof is part of the claim’s substantive elements, which in turn depend on state law under the Erie doctrine even when substantive doctrine is implemented through federal evidentiary rules.  However, there was a question whether Illinois treats the risk-utility and consumer expectations approaches as distinct substantive law doctrines, or merely as procedural aspects of the general question: is the product unreasonably dangerous. Perhaps the two tests are not theories of liability; they could be considered methods of proof by which a plaintiff may demonstrate that the element of unreasonable dangerousness is met.  If the consumer expectation test is not an independent theory of liability, perhaps federal rather than state law determines whether expert evidence is essential on it. Federal law often requires expert evidence about consumers' knowledge and behavior, because jurors are supposed to decide on the basis of the record rather than their own intuitions and assumptions. If federal courts require expert evidence, rather than relying solely on jurors' experience, in trademark and credit suits, for example, why not in product defect cases, asked the court?  But the court decided to bypass the question, in light of the parties' positions below. 

Turning to the consumer expectations issue, the court felt that plaintiffs’ argument that jurors should be able to rely on their own expectations as consumers reflected a belief that “expectations” are all that matters. Yet because the consumer expectations approach is just a means of getting at some of the issues that bear on the question whether a product is unreasonably dangerous, it is impossible to dispense with expert knowledge, concluded the panel.  The design defect is tied up in the issue of causation. Did the design decisions that went into the 1993 Ford Explorer even contribute to the rollover? Causation is a question about physics, and design options are the province of engineers. Jurors own cars, but people own lots of products without being able to explain (or even understand) the principles behind their construction and operation.  Unguided intuitions will not solve the equations. Without an expert’s assistance the decision would depend on speculation, which cannot establish causation—an issue on which plaintiffs bear both the burden of production and the risk of non-persuasion.

Because consumer expectations are just one factor in the inquiry whether a product is unreasonably dangerous, a jury unassisted by expert testimony would have to rely on speculation. The record here did not show whether 1993 Explorers were unduly (or unexpectedly) dangerous, because the record (absent an expert) lacked evidence about many issues, such as: (a) under what circumstances they roll over; (b) under what circumstances consumers expect them to do so whether it would be possible to reduce the rollover rate; and (d) whether a different and safer design would have averted this particular accident. All of these are subjects on which plaintiffs bear the burden of proof. There are other issues too, such as whether the precautions needed to curtail the rate of rollovers would be cost-justified.

The absence of expert evidence on these subjects was fatal to plaintiffs’ suit.

 

Don't Forget the Cocktail Sauce: Second Circuit Tosses Shrimp Tray Class Action

We have warned readers of MassTortDefense of the alarming trend of plaintiff lawyers seeking to attack every aspect of a product's packaging and labeling as somehow a case of consumer fraud -- often ignoring common sense in the process.

The latest example comes from a case rightly rejected by the Second Circuit last week. See Verzani v. Costco Wholesale Corp., No. 10-04868, 2011 WL 4359936  (2d Cir., Sept. 20, 2011).

Plaintiffs brought a putative class action against Costco Wholesale Corp. over the size of its "shrimp trays." (We love em, especially for football parties.) Plaintiffs claimed that the wholesaler misled customers by labeling its shrimp trays as 16 ounce trays when the shrimp part of the tray itself only weighed about 13 1/2 ounces. The other few ounces were allegedly made up of  the cocktail sauce and lemon wedges. (We pause and ask, how can you eat shrimp without those two accompaniments?)

The case had a somewhat lengthy procedural history, with issues of preliminary injunctions, choice of law, motions to dismiss, and jurisdiction, in play; the class issue was never reached. In relevant part, the trial court dismissed the claims in 2009, concluding that the plaintiffs' contention that a “reasonable consumer” would not assume that the net weight of the product included the cocktail sauce and other (useful and edible) elements was not well founded. The district court later denied the plaintiffs' motion to amend, 2010 WL 3911499 (S.D.N.Y.), noting that a reasonable consumer would not believe that the net weight disclosed on the label for the shrimp tray refers to only the shrimp. The label lists the ingredients in descending order based on their relative weight --shrimp, lemon wedges, leaf lettuce -- followed by a number of ingredients that comprise the cocktail sauce, such as, tomato paste, distilled vinegar, and horseradish; it clearly states “Net WT 160z (1.00 lb).”

Verzani's interpretation of “net weight” as including 16 ounces of shrimp alone was objectively unreasonable; a simple visual inspection of the tray, with its clear plastic top,  would reveal that shrimp is not the only edible item inside. In fact, the product's name alone, “Shrimp Tray with Cocktail Sauce,” suggested that a consumer (at a minimum) is purchasing shrimp and cocktail sauce. A reasonable consumer reading the tray's label would not pick out “shrimp” to the exclusion of all the information on the label (including the product's name and the listed ingredients) when assessing the net weight of the product.

Plaintiffs appealed, but in a summary order, the panel found that court had been right to throw out the case and deny the motion to file an amended complaint.

Class Certification Denied in Printer Litigation

A federal court recently denied class certification in a case brought on behalf of consumers accusing Epson America Inc. of misrepresenting how its NX series of printers functioned with ink cartridges. Christopher O’Shea et al. v. Epson America Inc. et al., No. 09-cv-08063 C.D. Cal.). Readers may recall our post that the court earlier dismissed many of the plaintiffs' claims on the basis that a manufacturer is not required under consumer protection laws to denigrate its own product and broadcast that its product may not perform as well as its competition.

In May 2009, plaintiff Rogers purchased a “Stylus NX 200” inkjet printer manufactured by defendants. Her decision to purchase this printer was allegedly based, in part, on a statement on the printer box that read: “Replace only the color you need with individual ink cartridges.”  Plaintiff allegedly understood this statement to mean that the printer would only require a black cartridge to print black text. In actuality, plaintiff alleged, the Epson NX 200 printer requires all cartridges to function. She subsequently filed suit against Epson claiming that Epson failed to disclose and affirmatively misrepresented the features of the printer.

Plaintiff  moved for class certification.  The interesting part of the court's analysis relates to the predominance issue under Rule 23(b)(3). Even though individualized questions of reliance and materiality were diminished under some of the plaintiff's theories because the consumer fraud claims are governed by the “reasonable consumer” test, which requires plaintiff to show that members of the public are likely to be deceived, Williams v. Gerber Products Co., 523 F.3d 934, 938 (9th Cir. 2008), the notions of reliance and injury still impacted class certification. Specifically, the court was not convinced that members of the putative class had standing to pursue their claims in federal court. To have standing under Article III, a plaintiff must present an injury that is concrete, particularized, and actual or imminent; fairly traceable to the defendant’s challenged action; and redressable by a favorable ruling.

In the context of Rule 23(b)(3), questions of Article III standing amount to an inquiry as to whether individual issues of injury-in-fact and causation predominate over common issues. While case law suggested that absent class members need not establish standing under the requirements of California’s consumer laws, there is a distinct requirement of Article III standing in federal court.  Statutory interpretations cannot permit a federal class action to proceed where class members lack Article III standing.  The requirement that all members of the class have Article III standing makes sense. If that were not the rule, a class could include members who could not themselves bring suit to recover, thus permitting a windfall to those class members and allowing Rule 23 to enlarge substantive rights.  The court therefore held that absent class members must satisfy the requirements of Article III.

Satisfaction of Article III’s requirements in turn raised individualized issues that defeated certification under Rule 23(b)(3) in this case. Article III requires some showing of injury and causation for a plaintiff to recover. Even if the alleged failure to disseminate truthful information about the product  would be subject to common proof, whether each class member was entitled to recover was not susceptible to proof on a class-wide basis because, to establish standing under Article III, each class member was required to show that they suffered some injury as a result of using or buying the product. Plaintiff therefore must show that all persons in the United States who purchased an Epson NX series printer during the class period suffered an injury which was caused by Epson’s alleged misrepresentation, and which was likely to be redressed by a decision in plaintiff’s favor. The record contained evidence indicating that the injury purportedly suffered by some members of the putative class could not fairly be traced to Epson’s allegedly deceptive representation.  Those individuals who purchased printers from certain third-party on-line sources, such as Amazon.com, were not exposed to the allegedly deceptive representation before they purchased their printers. Not all consumers who purchased an NX200 printer bought it at a retail store. Nor could standing be established by plaintiff’s (unsupported) assertion that the misrepresentation was on every box of the subclass, since some individuals purchased class printers without ever having been exposed to the allegedly deceptive representation. The fact that these individuals may have subsequently seen the misrepresentation when the package arrived in the mail was beside the point. There cannot be a causal connection between the consumer’s injury (the money spent on the printer) and Epson’s alleged misconduct (the purportedly deceptive advertising) because these consumers purchased the printers without ever seeing the purported misrepresentation.

Based on the foregoing, the court found that individualized issues of injury and causation permeated the class claims.The proposed class failed to satisfy Rule 23(b)(3)’s requirement that common issues predominate.

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Reconsideration Denied in Rejected "All Natural" Class Action

Here is an update on an interesting case we posted on before. A federal court last week denied a motion for reconsideration of its ruling that denied class certification to a consumer alleging that Arizona Beverages deceptively marketed its drinks as “all natural.”  See Coyle v. Hornell Brewing Co. et al., No.1:08-cv-02797 (D.N.J. 8/30/11). 

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.

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. She later changed her story.

The court originally observed that it need not find plaintiff to have intentionally lied to hold that she did 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 made 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.

Plaintiff filed a reconsideration motion. The court did reconsider its finding as to the adequacy of plaintiff’s counsel as a result of plaintiff’s repeated pleadings and certified discovery responses including the March 30, 2008 allegation. This "serious error" did not necessarily disqualify counsel.

But the court re-affirmed its decision as to the adequacy of plaintiff as class representative. Plaintiff argued that any defenses that she would face as a result of the credibility problems identified by the court could not become the focus of the entire litigation.  But the controlling rule does not hold that the only defenses that will disqualify a proposed named plaintiff on adequacy grounds are those which could become the focus of the entire litigation.  Indeed, to deny certification, a court need not conclude that credibility problems would ultimately defeat the class representative’s claim; rather, the court may deny class treatment if that unique defense is even arguably present. 

In any event, the court disagreed with plaintiff’s contention that the unique credibility-related defenses could not become the focus of the litigation in this matter. The court noted that plaintiff would have real trouble surviving summary judgment on the issue of "ascertainable loss" with a record  showing no dispute of fact that plaintiff’s only qualifying purchase of defendants’ product took place after plaintiff herself had concluded that the product was not “all natural.”  Plaintiff’s entire action would be vulnerable to a motion for summary judgment on the issue of ascertainable loss, which would prevent plaintiff (and the class she would seek to represent) from pursuing even injunctive relief.

Determining whether this plaintiff made her purchase of defendants’ product on the date she repeatedly claimed, after she had retained a lawyer to file the suit, would become a major focus and quite probably a show-stopper for this class. Reconsideration denied.

Court Dismisses Consumer Fraud Claims Against iPad

A California federal court last week dismissed a putative class action accusing Apple Inc. of misleading consumers about the ability of its iPad to function outdoors without interruption. Jacob Baltazar et al. v. Apple Inc., No. 3:10-cv-03231 (N.D. Cal. 8/26/11).

We have posted before about the spate of consumer fraud class actions that look for any aspect of a functioning product that can be attacked as less than perfect, and turn it into a nationwide class action.  Here is a good case reminding readers that manufacturers do not warrant perfection, merely that the product will be reasonably fit for ordinary uses and reasonable expectations.

Plaintiffs alleged that Apple had represented that its iPad tablet computers function outdoors without interruption, when in fact the devices allegedly overheat and shut down when used in sunny conditions. Plaintiffs in this consumer class action asserted claims including breach of warranty and fraud.  Apple moved to dismiss plaintiffs’ second amended complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The court agreed that the complaint failed to allege facts tending to show that Apple ever represented or claimed that the iPad would operate under such conditions, or that members of the putative class justifiably relied on such representations.

Each of the named plaintiffs alleged that he or she chose to purchase an iPad based at least in part on what they characterize as representations by Apple that the iPad could function outdoors as an e-reader and mobile Internet device. They relied, first, on a claim that Apple produced a television commercial showing depictions of the iPad being used outdoors, at least some of the time on sunny days, and posted on its website a video showing scenes of the iPad being used outdoors and in the sun. They also based their claims on a statement made on Apple’s website that reading the iPad is "just like reading a book.” Finally, they asserted that Apple represented expressly, both on the iPad’s packaging and on its website, that the iPad would function normally within a specified ambient temperature range.

While a complaint attacked by Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need overly detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff’s obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S. Ct. 1955 (2007).

Regarding the ads, while plaintiffs observed correctly that a warranty can be created by statements in advertisements, see e.g., Thomas v. Olin Mathieson Chem. Corp., 255 Cal. App. 2d 806, 811 (1967), they did not point to any cases in which a court found that advertising images alone are sufficient to created an express warranty. On the other hand, courts have rejected warranty claims based on advertising images alone. Moreover, even if the advertisement could be construed as an express warranty, the warranty would be that the iPad would work in the exact situations depicted, not in other situations. Plaintiffs described seven brief scenes in a thirty-
second commercial depicting the iPad in use in “outdoor locations,” some of which uses
allegedly occurred on a “sunny day.” But several of the images were on the screen for less
than a second, and none show the iPad being used in direct sunlight or for an extended period in
any environment. Even under the most liberal pleading standard, these brief clips of iPad use in some outdoor locations cannot be construed as an express warranty that the device will operate without interruption in direct sunlight or in outdoor conditions generally.

On the implied warranty claim,plaintiffs failed to identify with sufficient specificity which of the  functions are the ordinary purpose of the iPad and how the device was unfit for that purpose. The complaint alleged that the iPad was marketed as a mobile tablet computer that can be used “anywhere, whether it be while sitting in a park, at an outdoor café, or on one’s own front stoop.” However, the complaint alleged that the product was unfit for use, generally, presumably everywhere and under all conditions. It failed to allege the device did not meet “a minimum level of quality” for a tablet computer.

On the fraud-based claims, the court noted that to state a claim for fraud or intentional misrepresentation under California law, a plaintiff must allege: (1) misrepresentation (false representation, concealment, or nondisclosure); 2) knowledge of falsity (or scienter); (3) intent to defraud, i.e., to induce reliance; (4) justifiable reliance; and (5) resulting damage. Lazar v. Superior Ct., 12 Cal.4th 631, 638 (1996); Anderson v. Deloitte & Touche, 56 Cal.App.4th 1486, 1474 (1997).  Plaintiffs failed to allege adequately that Apple misrepresented the conditions under which the iPad would operate or that they justifiably could rely on those representations in believing that the iPad would operate as they expected. For example, none of the named plaintiffs claimed to have relied on Apple’s statement that the iPad can be used “just like a book,” which, the court noted, was mere puffery. 

However, the court gave the plaintiffs 30 days to submit a third amended complaint.

 

CHPA Comments on Draft FDA Guidance on Nanotechnology

Last week, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA) submitted comments on the FDA’s draft guidance on nanotechnology, "Considering Whether an FDA-Regulated Product Involves the Application of Nanotechnology, "  which we posted on before.

CHPA is the not-for-profit association representing the makers of over-the-counter medicines and dietary supplements, and the consumers who rely on these healthcare products. CHPA is one of the oldest trade associations in the United States. Nanotechnology holds great promise for this industry.

CHPA agreed with the FDA that proposing a "definition" for nanotechnology is not a straight forward process; applying a strict, universal definition of nanotechnology to the fields of drug research, drug product development and drug manufacturing would not be, in CHPA's view, an appropriate science-based approach.

Defining a nanomaterial as a structure between 1 and 100 nm, and using this definition to establish new regulations on products containing nano-sized materials, would, they asserted,  erroneously group drug products together to form a new category based on size of ingredients.  Nanotechnology is not a separate drug category, but a technology used to, among other things, generate nanometer-sized ingredients and excipients. Inclusion of nanometer-sized active ingredients or excipients in a drug product does not by itself determine a product's safety and efficacy (i.e. size alone is not itself an indicator of toxicity). 

CHPA agreed that the agency should distinguish between engineered nanomaterials and those
naturally occurring at the nanoscale.  There exist common pharmaceutical ingredients with a long history of use that should not be considered as "engineered nanomaterials" or as agglomerates of nanomaterials but which may have particles whose size naturally falls within this range.

CHPA also noted that NIOSH accurately refers to nanotechnology as the manipulation of matter on a near-atomic scale to produce new structures, materials, and devices.  Nanomaterials are mainly engineered for their novel chemical, physical, and quantum mechanical properties; at the nanometer size, many materials exhibit such unique beneficial properties that may not exist when at the micron size. CHPA argued it is appropriate to include in the description the notion of particles that are deliberately manipulated and controlled at the nanoscale, which also exhibit changes in physical, chemical, or electromagnetic properties, the existence of unique phenomena to enable novel applications.

For example, milling, a beneficial process for the manufacturing of many individual pharmaceutical ingredients, may create particles with a portion of the particle size distribution under 1 micron; however, the chemical properties of the milled ingredient usually do not differ drastically from that of the bulk ingredient.

The agency should give further consideration, said CHPA,  to the possibility that not all materials should be considered equal; each material must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. For example, soluble nanomaterials might not be treated the same as insoluble ones.  

Court of Appeals Breathes New Life Into Class Action Prerequisite

The Seventh Circuit last week affirmed the trial court's decision not to certify a class of consumers making product liability claims against the makers of Aqua Dots toys. In Re: Aqua Dots Products Liability Litig., No. 10-3847 (7th Cir. Aug. 17, 2011). A tip of the cap to Ted Frank at PointofLaw who wanted to make sure we didn't miss this one, because of the potentially very useful analysis of Rule 23(a)(4).

Defendants made, distributed, or sold, AquaDots, a toy consisting of small, brightly colored beads
that can be fused into designs when sprayed with water. A Chinese sub-contractor apparently substituted adhesives. While the substitute adhesive was chemically similar to the specified glue, when ingested, the sub metabolizes into gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB), which can induce nausea, dizziness, drowsiness, agitation, depressed breathing, amnesia, unconsciousness, and even death, depending on the dose. Although the directions told users to
spray the beads with water and stick them together, it was possible, given the age of the intended audience, that some would be eaten; children who swallowed a large quantity of the beads could become sick.

After learning of the problem, the manufacturer recalled all Aqua Dots products. The recall notice instructed consumers to take Aqua Dots products away from children and to contact the sellers to exchange them. Consumers got an exchange, or upon request, a refund. The recall was widely publicized, and hundreds of thousands of products were returned.

The plaintiffs were purchasers of Aqua Dots products whose children were not harmed and who did not ask for a refund; they challenged the adequacy of the recall program. The plaintiffs asked for a full refund under federal law plus punitive damages under state law. The Panel on Multidistrict Litigation transferred twelve suits to the Northern District of Illinois for pretrial proceedings. After the district court denied plaintiffs’ motion to certify a class, see 270 F.R.D. 377 (N.D. Ill. 2010), the Seventh Circuit authorized an interlocutory appeal under Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(f).

The district court framed the central class question as whether a defendant- administered refund program may be found superior to a class action within the meaning of Rule 23(b)(3).  270 F.R.D. at 381.  The court concluded that consumers would be better off returning their products for refund or replacement than pursuing litigation, which the court thought would just require the class members to bear attorneys’ fees in order to obtain a remedy that is theirs for the asking already. The record showed that more than 600,000 consumers returned Aqua Dots kits, and that more than 500,000 of these 600,000 received refunds. The district court concluded that the substantial costs of the legal process could make a suit inferior to a recall as a means to set things right.

The Seventh Circuit noted that it "is hard to quarrel with the district court’s objective." The lower the transactions costs of dealing with an allegedly defective product, the better. The transactions costs
of a class action include not only lawyers’ fees but also giving notice under Rule 23(c). Here, notice might well cost more, per kit, than the kits’ retail price—and could be ineffectual at any price, since most purchases were anonymous. The trial court couldn't order that defendants send each buyer a letter; notice presumably would be by publication, yet the recall was already widely publicized. Why bear these costs a second time?

Moreover, the Consumer Products Safety Commission had not expressed dissatisfaction with the recall campaign or its results, and the record did not contain any evidence of injury to children after the recall was announced.

The problem was, however, that a recall is not a form of “adjudication” as described in Rule 23, and a “policy approach” to the superiority analysis could not ignore the Rule’s text.  Policy about class actions has been made by the Supreme Court through the mechanism of the Rules Enabling Act, and Rule 23 establishes a national policy for the district judges.

Even as it mis-read Rule 23(b), departing from the text of Rule 23(b)(3), the district court could have, said the appeals court, simply relied on the text of Rule 23(a)(4), which says that a court may certify a class action only if the representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests
of the class.  Plaintiffs here wanted relief that duplicated a remedy that most buyers already had received, and that remained available to all members of the putative class. Bottom line: "A representative who proposes that high transaction costs (notice and attorneys’ fees) be incurred at the class members’ expense to obtain a refund that already is on offer is not adequately protecting the class members’ interests."

So, the trial judge cited the wrong subsection of Rule 23. But defendants did not forfeit their arguments by focusing on superiority; they made the essential contentions -- there is something wrong with proceeding as a class under these circumstances.

The panel noted also serious problems of management with the proposed class, including the  variability of state law, and the fact that individual notice would be impossible, which would make it hard for class members to opt out.  The per-buyer costs of identifying the class members and giving notice could exceed the price of the toys (or any reasonable multiple of that price), leaving nothing to be distributed. "The principal effect of class certification, as the district court recognized,
would be to induce the defendants to pay the class’s lawyers enough to make them go away."

But, the most interesting aspect of the decision, again, is the analysis of Rule 23(a)(4) and the notion that the adequacy requirement forbids class representatives from bringing socially wasteful litigation for the benefit of the attorneys at the expense of the class they seek to represent. The decision can be seen as part of the trend (including Dukes) to put rigor into the Rule 23(a) analysis.

MDL Panel Declines to Coordinate Spread Litigation

The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation declined recently to consolidate three suits by plaintiffs who alleged Ferrero U.S.A. Inc. misrepresented Nutella hazelnut spread as a healthy and nutritious food. In re Nutella Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation, MDL No. 2248 (J.P.M.L.,  8/16/11).

We are always interested when the Panel declines to coordinate cases, but also have to admit that this is a favorite product in the MassTortDefense household.  The spread, in its earliest form, was created in the 1940s by Mr. Pietro Ferrero, a pastry maker and founder of the Ferrero company. At the time, there was very little chocolate because cocoa was in short supply due to World War II rationing. So Mr. Ferrero used hazelnuts, which were plentiful in the Piedmont region of Italy, to extend the chocolate supply. The region is mostly mountains and hills, on the north-western border of Italy with France and Switzerland.

A plaintiff in the District of New Jersey action sought consolidation, arguing that the cases made similar allegations challenging Ferrero's marketing and advertising practices. Interestingly, movants and respondents both recommended centralization because the actions contained "similar allegations" concerning Ferrero’s advertising, marketing and sale of Nutella spread and its alleged misrepresentations of Nutella as a healthy and nutritious food. All parties disagreed only as to the appropriate choice for transferee district.

However, the Panel noted that it has an institutional responsibility that goes beyond simply accommodating the particular wishes of the parties. See In re: Equinox Fitness Wage and Hour Empl’t Practices Litig., 764 F. Supp. 2d 1347, 1348 (J.P.M.L. 2011) (denying unopposed motion for centralization of two actions).

Here, the Panel was not persuaded that Section 1407 centralization was necessary for the convenience of the parties and witnesses or for the just and efficient conduct of this litigation. The actions may have shared some factual questions regarding the common defendant’s marketing
practices, but these questions did not appear complicated to the Panel. Indeed, the parties did not persuade the Panel that any common factual questions were sufficiently complex or numerous to justify Section 1407 transfer.  Instead, said the Panel, cooperation among the parties and deference among the courts should minimize the possibility of duplicative discovery and inconsistent pretrial rulings. See, e.g., In re: General Mills, Inc., Yoplus Yogurt Prods. Mktg. and Sales Practices Litig., 716 F. Supp. 2d 1371 (J.P.M.L. 2010).

 

Case Defines "Product"

Ok, so it's not a major mass tort, but we couldn't resist mentioing this one. McGregor v. Scotts Co., No. 4:11-cv-00548 (E.D. Mo., 8/8/11).  The case goes to a basic element of products liability law, the definition of the product.

Plaintiff’s complaint alleged that he purchased a bag of potting soil sold by defendant, and upon opening the bag and putting his hand in to scoop out some soil, his hand was bitten by a copperhead snake. In Count I, Plaintiff sought damages on a theory of strict liability. Defendant argued that Count I should be dismissed for failure to state a claim because plaintiff failed to state facts supporting an alleged design or manufacturing defect in the potting soil.

Defendant sought to define the product at issue here as just the soil itself, and argued that there was nothing wrong with the soil. But the Court agreed with plaintiff that the product was the bag of soil sold by defendant. See generally Cantu, A Continuing Whimsical Search For The True Meaning Of The Term “Product” In Products Liability Litigation, 35 St. Mary's L.J. 341 (2004).

If indeed, there was a copperhead snake in the bag at the time manufacturing was complete, said the Court, the "product" could have been unreasonably dangerous when used as reasonably anticipated.


 

Court Hits Cancel On Bulk of Printer Class Action

A California federal court earlier this month rejected many of the claims in a putative class action against Epson America Inc.  Christopher O'Shea, et al. v. Epson America Inc., et al., 2011 WL 3299936 (C.D. Cal.). What may be of most interest to our readers is the important reminder that a manufacturer is not required under consumer protection laws to denigrate its own product and broadcast that its product may not perform as well as its competition.

Plaintiffs claimed that Epson affirmatively misrepresented and failed to disclose material information regarding the performance and/or value of Epson inkjet printers and ink cartridges. Named plaintiffs claimed to be frustrated with the amount of ink the Epson printer consumed.

In fact, Epson discloses that its printers are tested in accordance with ISO standards, and makes available to consumers detailed information about how ink yields are calculated, including the fact that testing is conducted based on continuous printing; potential consumers, further, are expressly cautioned that since no single yield standard can duplicate a customer's actual printer usage, Epson recommends that customers also consider print yield comparisons from reputable independent sources. In the same vein, Epson discloses on the packaging of its printers that actual cartridge yields may vary considerably for reasons including images printed, print settings, temperature and humidity.  But plaintiffs never let a wealth of information deter them from finding one factoid they allegedly didn't get.

So, in essence, plaintiffs sought to impose a duty on the seller to compare this feature of its printers to competitors' products, as the Complaint referred to yields which were allegedly well below the yields of other manufacturers' printers. 

The California courts have held that for an omission to be actionable for purposes of  the state consumer fraud laws, it must be either (1) contrary to a representation actually made by the defendant, or (2) a fact the defendant was obligated to disclose.  E.g., Daugherty v. Am. Honda Motor Co., Inc., 144 Cal.App.4th 824, 835–36, 51 Cal.Rptr.3d 118, 128 (2006). Here, because there was no allegation that the “omitted” information was contrary to an actual representation, to defeat summary judgment and prevail on an omission-based theory of liability, plaintiffs had to establish that Epson was affirmatively obligated to disclose the information.

Yet, plaintiffs failed to identify—and the Court was unable to find—any case in any jurisdiction in which a court imposed an affirmative legal obligation upon a manufacturer to disclose on its packaging that its products performed less efficiently than similar products from competing manufacturers. To the contrary, as Epson pointed out, courts have unequivocally rejected this proposition. As the federal court explained, in the absence of some special circumstance, any duty to disclose information about a competitor's products would be anathema to a competitive free-market economy.  Imagine a car manufacturer having to tell you in every ad about every other car that got better gas mileage or did better in a crash test. Imagine every food maker having to tell you in its ads of every competitive food or beverage that was lower in calories.

Plaintiffs did not allege that Epson's printers were defective, let alone dangerously defective. Their claim, rather, was that they were unhappy upon discovering that Epson's printers “wasted” more ink than other printers.  California's consumer protection laws, though broad and sometimes scary, do not extend so far as to require a company to denigrate its own products or promote those of its competitors just because consumers might be interested in the comparison. The duty that plaintiffs sought to impose upon Epson was properly served by independent consumer reports.

The court held that Epson was not legally obligated to disclose that actual print yields generated by its printers and ink cartridges are “grossly inefficient” vis à vis “reason-able consumer expectations and the yields of other manufacturers' printers.”  Because Epson was not obligated to disclose the purportedly “omitted” information, plaintiffs' omission-based claims consequently failed as a matter of law.

However, the court denied the motion as to express representations allegedly made concerning the claims on one proposed sub-class which alleged that the defendant deceived customers when it told them that its NX series of printers, which uses individual cartridges for different colors of ink, would allow customers to “replace only the color you need.”  There was an issue of fact regarding whether the consumer is familiar enough with printer technology and operations to know that small amounts of colored ink are used when printing black-and-white documents to keep the print head clear. The plaintiffs have moved for class certification, with the hearing set for later in August.
 

Federal Court Dismisses Proposed Television Consumer Fraud Class Action

Here's a case of a venerable rule (puffery) and an important new doctrine (Twiqbal) being applied in the context of a troubling trend -- the spate of consumer fraud class actions challenging everything a defendant says about its products.  A New Jersey federal court recently rejected a putative class action alleging that Panasonic Corp. falsely advertised its Viera plasma televisions made in 2008 and 2009. Shane Robert Hughes et al. v. Panasonic Consumer Electronics Co., No. 2:10-cv-00846 (D.N.J. July 21, 2011). A useful and detailed analysis of commonly found flaws in consumer fraud class action complaints.

Plaintiffs putatively represented a class defined as individuals and entities who own or purchased any 2008/2009 model Panasonic Viera Plasma Television. Plaintiffs alleged that the televisions suffered from increased “voltage adjustments” causing a rapid deterioration in picture quality. The  class members allegedly relied on Panasonic’s representations concerning the "industry leading" black levels and contrast ratios, and/or personally observed the televisions’ excellent picture quality on models displayed in retail stores. Plaintiffs sought damages and/or refunds from Panasonic for violations of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“NJCFA”), N.J. STAT. ANN. § 56:8-1 et seq.; other states’ consumer protection acts; and under various express and implied warranty claims.

Defendant moved to dismiss. The adequacy of pleadings is governed by Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2), which requires that a complaint allege “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,” but also requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007).

Although class members were from around the country, the court determined it need not decide whether it was appropriate to engage in a choice of law analysis at the pleadings stage because, as detailed below, each of the plaintiffs’ claims failed as a matter of law under any of the possibly applicable laws.

Claims under the NJCFA and most state consumer fraud acts require a plaintiff to allege (1) unlawful conduct by the defendants; (2) an ascertainable loss on the part of the plaintiff; and (3) a causal relationship between the defendants’ unlawful conduct and the plaintiff’s ascertainable loss.  Panasonic argued, among other things, that even if the allegations are true, plaintiffs’ CFA claim failed because plaintiffs had not pointed to any actionable unlawful conduct by Panasonic. According to Panasonic, plaintiffs did not set forth any specific advertisements, marketing materials, warranties, or product guides that plaintiffs viewed; where and from whom at Panasonic did plaintiffs received any such information; or how precisely, plaintiffs were injured by any such representations.

The Court found that Panasonic’s alleged misrepresentations about the Televisions’
“industry  leading” technology and features, which create superior image and color quality, were not “statements of fact,” but rather subjective expressions of opinion. Indeed, such statements of
product superiority are routinely made by companies in advertising to gain a competitive advantage
in the industry. The NJCFA distinguishes between actionable misrepresentations of fact and
"puffery.” Rodio v. Smith, 123 N.J. 345, 352 (1991) (the slogan “You’re in good hands with Allstate” was “nothing more than puffery” and as such was not “a deception, false promise, misrepresentation, or any other unlawful practice within the ambit of the Consumer Fraud Act”); see New Jersey Citizen Action v. Schering-Plough Corp., 367 N.J. Super. 8, 13-14 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2003) (finding that defendant’s advertisements which employed phrases as “you . . . can lead a normal nearly symptom-free life again” were “not statements of fact, but are merely expressions in the nature of puffery and thus were not actionable” under the NJCFA).  The same is true in many states.

The remaining misrepresentations may have been statements of fact rather than mere puffery. However, plaintiffs did not assert sufficient allegations of fact to satisfy the requisite level of adequate pleading under Rule 9(b) or by Twombly/Iqbal.  For example, regarding the alleged misrepresentation about half-brightness, the Amended Complaint did not allege the date, place or time of this misrepresentation or otherwise inject some precision and some measure of substantiation into plaintiffs’ allegations of fraud. While plaintiffs could not be expected to plead facts solely within Panasonic’s knowledge or control, plaintiffs should be able to allege the specific advertisements, marketing materials, warranties or product guides that they each reviewed, which included this misrepresentation and when it was so advertised.

Plaintiffs also alleged various omissions, but fraudulent omissions require a showing of intent. Here, even accepting the allegations of omissions in the Amended Complaint as true, the court found that plaintiffs failed to allege sufficient facts to raise any plausible inference that Panasonic knowingly concealed the alleged defect with the intent that consumers and industry experts would rely upon the concealment. Indeed, throughout the Amended Complaint, it was alleged that Panasonic knew “or should have known” of the defect, but provides no additional facts explaining how or why Panasonic had knowledge of the defect to satisfy Twombly/Iqbal. Such allegations of intentionally failing to disclose the alleged defect were merely conclusory assertions.

Even assuming plaintiffs sufficiently alleged the “unlawful conduct” element under the consumer fraud acts, the court also concluded that the Amended Complaint did not satisfy the pleading requirements of Twombly/Iqbal or Rule 9(b) as to the “ascertainable loss” element.  A plaintiff must suffer a definite, certain and measurable loss, rather than one that is merely theoretical. The certainty implicit in the concept of an ascertainable loss is that it is quantifiable or measurable. The allegations did not sufficiently plead either an out-of pocket loss by plaintiffs or a showing of loss in value. For example. plaintiffs failed to allege how much they paid for their Televisions and how much other comparable Televisions manufactured by Panasonic’s competitors cost at the time.  Plaintiffs failed to allege how much of a premium they claim to have paid for their Panasonic Televisions.  Furthermore, in the Amended Complaint, plaintiffs affirmatively stated that most continue to use the Televisions, thus obscuring any possible measurable loss.  Typically, plaintiffs try not to allege details in this area for fear of undermining their class certification arguments.

Plaintiffs' warranty claim suffered from several defects. While the claim at times was presented as an alleged manufacturing problem, a review of the Amended Complaint revealed that plaintiffs alleged only that the Televisions suffered from an inherent design defect and/or improper programming. Plaintiffs one vague, conclusory allegation that the defect was caused, in part, due to “manufacturing errors” was insufficient to satisfy the requisite pleading standards under Twombly/Iqbal.  Moreover, the express warranty claims were impacted by what the court already concluded in connection with plaintiffs’ consumer fraud claims, that Panasonic’s statements about the Televisions’ “industry leading” technology and features, which create superior image and color quality, were mere expressions of puffery. As such, these marketing statements were not sufficient enough to create an express warranty. 

On the implied warranty claim, while plaintiffs alleged that the Televisions were defective, plaintiffs did not allege that the Televisions were inoperable or otherwise not in working condition. Indeed, the Amended Complaint did not contain any explicit allegation that plaintiffs could no longer use their Televisions - in other words, that they were no longer generally fit for their ordinary purpose.  Although the Televisions may not have fulfilled plaintiffs’ subjective expectations, plaintiffs did not adequately allege that the Televisions failed to provide a minimum level of quality, which is all that the law of implied warranty requires. See also In re Ford Motor Co. Ignition Switch Prods. Liab. Litig., 2001 WL 1266317, at *22 (D.N.J. Sept. 30, 1997) (merchantability “does not entail a promise by the merchant that the goods are exactly as the buyer expected, but rather that the goods satisfy a minimum level of quality”).

Thus, the court concluded, each of plaintiffs’ claims failed to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6), to satisfy Rule 9(b) heightened pleading requirements, and/or pleading standards under
Twombly/Iqbal. The court granted Panasonic’s motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint without prejudice.

Federal Court Denies Class Certification in Vitamin Consumer Case

A federal court late last month declined to certify a proposed class action in which plaintiffs challenged alleged claims about the weight-loss properties of One-A-Day WeightSmart vitamins. Gray v. Bayer Corp., No. 08-4716 (D.N.J. 7/21/11).  Our readers will be interested in the discussion of the predominance and superiority requirements for class actions.

Plaintiff alleged that the packaging of One-A-Day WeightSmart falsely claimed that the vitamin enhances a user’s metabolism. Plaintiff filed a complaint against Bayer alleging claims based on intentional and negligent misrepresentation, and the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (NJCFA), N.J.S.A. 56:8-1, et seq.;  plaintiff later moved  to certify a class of purchasers of One-A-Day WeightSmart pursuant to Rule 23(b)(3), which requires that a plaintiff establish that the questions of law or fact common to the class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members and that a class action is superior to other available methods for fairly and efficiently adjudicating the controversy.

As plaintiff’s proposed nationwide class called for the application of state substantive law, the court first looked to determine which state’s law governed the claims. Plaintiff argued that New Jersey had the most significant relationship to the claims because all of the decisions with respect to marketing allegedly took place in New Jersey, and all of the alleged operative misrepresentations originated in New Jersey, at Bayer’s headquarters. Defendant noted that because consumers purchased One-A-Day WeightSmart throughout the United States and thereby received the alleged misrepresentations in various jurisdictions other than New Jersey, the consumer fraud laws of the states where the product was purchased should apply. The court agreed that .the place where the
putative class members received Bayer’s alleged representations and the place where the consumers acted in reliance upon those representations, were key factors pointing to the law of the individual states where the product was purchased. (Consumers purchased One-A-Day WeightSmart at retail locations nationwide, not from Bayer itself.)

Moreover, to apply the NJCFA to all the out-of-state consumers in this case would be to ignore the interests of potentially fifty other jurisdictions. Simply because New Jersey has struck a particular balance between consumer protection and the promotion of business within its borders does not suggest that its interest in deterrence should displace the differing policy goals of its fellow states. Those states have instead struck their own legislative balances, awarding compensation based on differing standards of, inter alia, intent, causation, reliance, and damages. The interests of interstate comity and the competing interests of the states counseled against the blanket application of one state’s law over the laws of other interested states.

Thus, the court had to next consider whether variations in state laws presented the types of insuperable obstacles which render class action litigation unmanageable. See In re Warfarin Sodium Antitrust Litig., 391 F.3d 516, 529 (3d Cir. 2004). Where the applicable law derives from the law of the 50 states, as opposed to a unitary federal cause of action, differences in state law will compound any disparities among class members from the different states. It is plaintiff’s burden to
credibly demonstrate, through an extensive analysis of state law variances, that class certification does not present insuperable obstacles. 

Here, plaintiff failed to carry this burden.The court acknowledged a “brewing issue” in the Third Circuit over whether the NJCFA could be applied in a national class action. But the better view was that the court would be required to apply distinct standards of, inter alia, intent, causation, reliance, and damages in order to adjudicate plaintiff’s claims under each state’s consumer fraud law. Litigating plaintiff’s claims based on law from potentially fifty-one different jurisdictions would likely require a multitude of mini-trials to determine Bayer’s liability to each statewide group of consumers. Such a procedure would be an inefficient use of  judicial resources and would defeat the purported economies of class treatment.

The court therefore concluded that plaintiff’s proposed nationwide class failed both the predominance and superiority requirements under Rule 23(b)(3). 

Bayer argued that the alternative proposed Florida class was not ascertainable because claims under the Florida consumer fraud act are subject to a four-year statute of limitations and thus the claims of some Florida class members would be barred -- an issue requiring an individual analysis. Plaintiff was, however, granted leave to file a revised motion for class certification with respect to a more ascertainable Florida class only.

 

State Court Upholds Questionable Bystander Liability Claim

The Montana Supreme Court recently upheld the imposition of liability on a bat manufacturer for allegedly failing to warn about the dangers of aluminum bats. Patch v. Hillerich & Bradsby Co., d/b/a Louisville Slugger, No. DA 10-0051 (Mont. 7/21/11).  Bad facts made bad law here. 

Many people consider "The Natural" to be one of the greatest sports movies of all time, and those that think deep thoughts have asserted that the screenplay  (presumably not the 1952 book too?) was based in part on the story of Sir Percival from the Arthurian myths, with the broken bat "Wonderboy" taking the part of the knight's broken sword.  Had Roy Hobbs used an aluminum bat, that aspect of the story would have been lost. Since their introduction in the early 1970's, aluminum bats have become quite popular in youth and amateur adult baseball and softball markets. The new bats are often touted as having a wider sweet spot, more power, better feel, or higher performance. It is pretty much accepted that balls come off metal bats faster than they do from wood bats, but this aspect of performance has fueled an ongoing metal/wood issue in some circles.

While pitching in an American Legion baseball game on July 25, 2003, the eighteen year-old plaintiff was struck in the head by a batted ball that was hit using H&B’s model CB-13 aluminum bat. Tragically, plaintiff died from his injuries. In 2006, Brandon’s parents sued H&B, claiming H&B’s model CB-13 aluminum bat was in a defective condition because of the alleged enhanced risks associated with its use: It increased the velocity speed of a batted ball when it left the bat, thus decreasing infielders’ reaction times, which allegedly resulted in a greater number of high energy batted balls in the infield.

The matter was tried in October, 2009, and the design defect and failure to warn claims were submitted to the jury, which concluded that the model CB-13 aluminum bat was not designed defectively, but determined the bat was in a defective condition due to H&B’s failure to warn of the enhanced risks associated with its use. They awarded plaintiffs an $850,000 verdict on their failure to warn claim. Defendant appealed.

The key issue was whether a failure to warn claim can be brought by a bystander -- plaintiff was not the consumer nor the user. H&B asserted that only the individual batting (actual user) and the individual who purchased the bat (actual consumer) could assert a failure to warn claim.  The court disagreed, saying this interpretation of the terms user and consumer is somehow contrary to the definition of the terms as contained in the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A. This state court’s products liability jurisprudence had recognized that a failure to warn claim may be brought by some persons who are not actual purchasers or users of a product; previous plaintiffs included those who are passively enjoying the benefit of the product, as in the case of passengers in automobiles or airplanes, as well as those who are utilizing it for the purpose of doing work upon it.  "The realities of the game of baseball" supported, said the court, the decision to submit the failure to warn claim to the jury. The bat was deemed an indispensable part of the game. The risk of harm accompanying the bat’s use extends beyond the user, beyond a player who holds the bat in his or her hands. A warning of the bat’s risks to only the batter standing at the plate inadequately communicates the potential risk of harm posed by the bat’s increased exit speed, concluded the court. In this context, all of the players, including plaintiff, were deemed "users or consumers" placed at risk by the increased exit speed caused by H&B’s bat.

Defendant also argued that plaintiff could not establish causation - reading and heeding the warning. The court held that H&B’s argument erroneously assumed that placing a warning directly on the bat is the only method to provide a warning. While placing a warning directly on a product is certainly one method of warning, other methods of warning exist, including, but not limited to, issuing oral warnings and placing warnings in advertisements, posters, and media releases. Davis v. Wyeth Laboratories, Inc., 399 F.2d 121, 131 (9th Cir. 1968) (“[O]ther means of communication such as advertisements, posters, releases to be read and signed . . . or oral warnings . . . could easily have been undertaken . . . .”). Such warnings, if issued by H&B in this case, said the court, could have communicated to all players the potential risk of harm associated with H&B’s bat’s alleged increased exit speed.

What the court here called a "flexible" approach to causation really eviscerates one of the fundamental elements of the claim. The court allowed the jury to infer without any basis in fact that plaintiff would have heeded a warning had one been given-- apparently because he was deceased, and thus real proof of causation was hard to find. There is no basis to allow a jury simply to express sympathy for a tragic accident victim,as here there was not sufficient proof that the plaintiff would have adjusted his behavior after receiving the warning to avoid the injury. The decision puts this court in a tiny minority of states that recognize some kind of bystander failure to warn liability, which most courts agree is unworkable and contrary to the reality of modern commerce.

The concurrence correctly noted that plaintiff did not articulate specifically what a warning should have contained and what message should have been given. Statements to the effect that the bat would hit balls at unusually fast speeds or unusually far distances are the kind of messages accompanying usual product advertising and are not likely to change a player's/plaintiff's behavior. Moreover, they are precisely the qualities in a bat which baseball teams and players seek out. Plaintiff could not articulate specifically how a warning would have changed the result here, in other words, how the failure to warn caused this accident.

H&B also argued that because plaintiff had been hit by batted balls before, he knew he could be hit and, therefore, assumed the risk when he continued playing baseball. The court explained that assumption of the risk defense in this state is inapplicable as a matter of law without evidence the victim actually knew he or she would suffer serious injury or death, and, knowing that, the victim voluntarily exposed himself or herself to the danger. Lutz v. Natl. Crane Corp., 267 Mont. 368, 379-80, 884 P.2d 455, 461-62 (1994). What the victim actually knew is evaluated using a subjective standard in Montana. Here, said the court, there was no evidence that plaintiff actually knew he would be seriously injured or killed when pitching to a batter using one of H&B’s model CB-13 aluminum bats. He knew he could be hit with a screaming line drive, but not that it could injure him seriously?

Plaintiff's apparent theory, as articulated in closing argument, was that H&B should have
advertised that its bat “could kill.” And the inference which plaintiff asked the jury to draw in order to establish causation was that, following the publishing of a warning “that this bat could kill,” the parents would have prohibited Brandon from playing baseball.  That tells you how unworkable the theory is. This was a terrible accident on a baseball field, the kind of accident that has also occurred with wood bats. The bat was not defective. It was made in accordance with the rules approved for play by baseball's organizing and governing bodies. Bad facts again make bad law.
 


 

Dismissal of Bellwether Case in FEMA MDL Upheld

The plaintiff who at one time had been the first-in-line bellwether plaintiff in the FEMA Trailer MDL has lost her appeal of the dismissal of her claims. In Re: Fema Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litigation (Alana Alexander, plaintiff), No. 10-30451(5th Cir. June 24, 2011).

Plaintiffs sued the government, alleging exposure to potentially dangerous, high levels of formaldehyde in their Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided emergency housing unit. Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, FEMA provided EHUs to the displaced victims of the storms. The hurricanes’ destruction created an urgent and immediate need for an unprecedented number of EHUs. In response, FEMA purchased more than 140,000 new EHUs from manufacturers and dealers. Alexander and her children were among the Louisiana residents who received an EHU. The Alexander family moved into their EHU in May 2006 and almost immediately noticed a “chemical smell” in the unit that caused the children's asthma to worsen. Other physical manifestations allegedly  included  irritation, burning, and tearing of the eyes; irritation and burning of nasal membranes; eczema; headaches; difficulty breathing; wheezing; shortness of breath; and new allergies and worsening allergies.

Alexander admitted that she knew the smell came from the EHU. Shortly after moving in, Alexander claimed, she asked an unidentified Government representative or contractor about  the smell. She claimed that he told her that that the smell was “nothing to worry about.”

In July, 2008, Alexander submitted an administrative claim with FEMA and in early 2009 filed a complaint in the district court, alleging under the Federal Tort Claims Act that the Government was careless, reckless, grossly negligent, and acted with deliberate indifference by failing to disclose the exposure to potentially dangerous and high levels of formaldehyde in the trailers.

Defendant moved to dismiss the complaint as untimely (in cases where the government has waived sovereign immunity, the statute of limitations issue is jurisdictional). Although the FTCA does not define when a claim accrues, it is well-settled that a tort action under the FTCA accrues when the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the alleged injury that is the basis of the action. The trial court dismissed the case, and plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, Alexander argued that the accrual of her claim was delayed or tolled pursuant to either: (1) the discovery rule, (2) equitable estoppel, or (3) the continuing tort doctrine. The 5th Circuit found these arguments were without merit.

There was no dispute that Alexander was aware of the injuries by May 2006. When the family moved into the trailer in May 2006, almost immediately, the asthma worsened, and the kids
experienced a plethora of other health issues. The primary dispute was thus whether  Alexander knew or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should have discovered the cause of the  injuries such that her claim accrued at that time.

Plaintiff claimed she did not discover the Government’s role in the alleged injuries until July 2007, when FEMA issued its second round of flyers about formaldehyde emissions in the EHUs. This argument was "not convincing."  The court of appeals held that plaintiff had enough information regarding the injury and its cause by May 2006 that would lead a reasonable person in plaintiff's  position to further investigate the specific cause of that injury. All the facts were not in the control of the putative defendant, unavailable to the plaintiff or at least very difficult to obtain. Plaintiff could have established FEMA’s connection to the EHU, from which the “chemical smell” was emanating.

Second, plaintiff argued that because she reasonably relied on the claims of the representative that there was “nothing to worry about,” the limitations period should be equitably tolled. Because the limitations periods in statutes waiving sovereign immunity are jurisdictional, the district court properly held that equitable tolling did not apply to this case. 

Finally, Plaintiff could not cite any Fifth Circuit case law indicating that accrual should be delayed when the plaintiff knows about the injury and could have discovered, with a reasonable inquiry, the putative defendant’s, here the Government’s, potential liability. The court thus declined the invitation to apply the continuing tort doctrine to the facts presented in this case.

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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‟s 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.


 

A Comment on the EU's Working Paper: "Towards a Coherent European Approach to Collective Redress"

Earlier this year, the Commission Staff of the European Union issued a Staff Working Document seeking public comment on the topic "Towards a Coherent European Approach to Collective Redress."

In an individual capacity, your humble blogger joined some other lawyers in providing comments recently.

As readers of MassTortDefense may know, collective redress -- aggregate litigation -- is not a novel concept in the European Union. Existing EU legislation and international agreements require Member States to provide for collective injunctive relief in certain areas. All Member States have procedures in place which grant the possibility of certain injunctive relief to enjoin some allegedly illegal practices. In the area of consumer law, as a result of the Directive on Injunctions, consumer protection authorities and consumer organizations have standing to seek an injunction regarding practices that allegedly breach national and EU consumer protection rules in all Member States. In the area of environmental law, the Aarhus Convention requires Member States to ensure access to justice against infringements of environmental standards. All Member States have implemented this by introducing some form of collective injunctive relief, whereby non-governmental organizations are given standing to challenge certain environmental administrative decisions.

In our comments, we warned that experience with overly robust collective redress procedures in some jurisdictions (such as the class action procedures as implemented in some courts in the United States) reveals significant risks inherent in such actions. These risks include the ability of collective actions to result in lengthy and costly litigation; their ability to trample the right of the entity accused of unlawful practices to a fair adjudication of the allegations; and their ability to actually encourage abusive, spurious, and non-meritorious complaints because of the economic incentives they provide. [Readers in the U.S. are well aware of the "Field of Dreams" effect-  "if you build it they will come."]  In particular, the EU needs to guard against “lawyer-created” litigation that is fueled by the prospect of large fee awards rather than a significant injury.

Any proposal for a holistic European approach towards collective redress actions thus must be analyzed in the context of not only the potential utility of collective actions but also the substantial risks they create. Collective redress, if ever widely adopted, should be limited to where the same breach of EU law harms a large group of citizens and businesses, and individual lawsuits and other legal remedies are demonstrated not to be an effective means to end ongoing unlawful practices or to obtain compensation for the harm caused by these practices.

Any European approach to collective redress must, as paramount concerns, preserve the parties’ rights to a fair trial or adjudication of the factual and legal issues, and not create any untoward economic incentive for the bringing of abusive claims.  While various procedural and substantive safeguards might be adopted to help avoid abusive collective actions, including those inspired by some aspects of the existing national judicial redress systems in the EU Member States, those may not be sufficient to the task. That is, the unavailability of punitive damages or the unavailability of contingency fees for claimant attorneys, while extremely important, may not alone sufficiently decrease the risk of abusive litigation and unfairness to an extent compatible with the European legal tradition and fundamental justice.

What may also be required are clear limitations with regard to standing to bring a collective redress action, should the decision be made to move the proposal forward. The risk of abuses and unfairness can relate in some measure to the role of the sophisticated and entrepreneurial plaintiff’s class action bar. In many jurisdictions, they serve not as “gatekeepers” to screen out frivolous claims and pursue meritorious actions, but as the “promoters” of claims. Quite often, they create claims out of whole cloth, seek out the plaintiffs to nominally prosecute the class action, while they fund the litigation, and manage the cases. If the decision is made to move forward with European collective redress actions -- despite the substantial risks they present-- one important way to preserve the balance between preventing abusive and unfair litigation, and ensuring the effective access to justice for EU citizens and businesses, is to create a system that does not rely on the private bar in the first instance. Thus, any new EU collective redress system should be handled by public bodies exclusively. Individuals and private organizations representing those who are allegedly harmed by illegal conduct on a mass scale would have the ability to petition the public body to screen the allegations, bring the action, and obtain proper compensation for the damages they suffered following successful litigation.

Public bodies may be in the best position to overcome cross-border issues and coordinate the relevant actions. The alleged injuries that have arisen in an increasingly inter-connected European market are a primary reason an EU-wide collective redress system has become a focus of discussion. The use of public bodies would allow for consistent rules for choosing the appropriate venue in which to bring the collective redress actions.  The use of designated public entities is also one method of controlling the potentially crippling costs of discovery associated with class actions in some countries.  Should the decision be made to move forward with more systematic, broad collective redress, despite its many risks, this proposal may offer a way to address some of the specific concerns that cross-border collective redress actions present, while also adhering to the EU’s core legal principles.

Supreme Court Decides Class-wide Arbitration Issue

In recent years, corporate defendants facing consumer class actions in California and several other states have been unable to enforce arbitration agreements prohibiting class actions. Under the California Supreme Court’s ruling in Discover Bank v. Superior Court, 36 Cal. 4th 148, 162-63 (2005), class action waivers were unenforceable if the waivers were in “a consumer contract of adhesion,” in disputes that “predictably involve small amounts of damages,” when the “party with superior bargaining power" allegedly has harmed large numbers of consumers. 

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, No. 09-893, held that the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) preempted the Discover Bank rule. Significantly, the Supreme Court also held that “[r]equiring the availability of classwide arbitration interferes with fundamental attributes of arbitration and thus creates a scheme inconsistent with the FAA.” Slip Op. at 9. This decision will significantly enhance corporate defendants’ ability to enforce arbitration provisions in California and the many other states with similar limitations on class action waivers.

This decision may have a substantial impact in consumer product markets, enabling businesses to enforce contractual individual arbitration agreements and thereby very significantly narrow the occasions for certain consumer class actions. Many companies had changed their standard contracts to take the Discover Bank rule into account, and they may now want to consider modifying those standard agreements back to include class action waivers. Although the California rule was the only state law at issue in the case, Concepcion likely will impact other similar state law rules that have rendered class action waivers unenforceable and that similarly created impermissible “‘obstacle[s] to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress,” in enacting the FAA. Id. at 18 (quoting Hines v. Davidowitz, 312 U.S. 52, 67 (1941)).

Injunction Issued in Protracted Dryer Litigation

We have posted before about the ongoing Thorogood v. Sears Roebuck & Co. litigation, when the 7th Circuit rejected the proposed class action; when the court held that a "copycat" class action suit could not go forward in federal court in California;  and when the court reaffirmed its decision in an unusual opinion on the petition for rehearing.

The district court had certified a multi-state class of Kenmore-brand clothes dryer purchasers. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit called the case “a notably weak candidate for class treatment.” Not only did common issues of law or fact not predominate over the issues particular to each purchaser of a stainless steel Kenmore dryer, as Rule 23(b)(3) requires, there were, the court said, “no common issues of law or fact.” 547 F.3d at 746-47.

The same plaintiffs' lawyer then brought Murray v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., No. 4:09-cv-5744-CW (N.D. Cal.). Murray was a member of Thorogood’s class, and he brought essentially the identical claim in California. Sears Roebuck sought an injunction halting the new class action in front of Judge Leinenweber, who had presided over and eventually dismissed Thorogood’s original class suit, but he ruled that Sears could obtain adequate relief against being harassed by repetitive litigation by pleading collateral estoppel in Murray’s suit in California. Sears appealed, asking the court to to reverse the district court's denial of Sears’s motion to enjoin the virtually identical class action suit.

Ordinarily the ability to plead res judicata or collateral estoppel gives a litigant adequate protection against being harassed by repetitive litigation by the loser in a previous suit against him. But this case was unusual, said Judge Posner for the panel, both because it involved class action litigation and because of the specific tactics employed by class counsel. Class members are interested in relief for the class but the lawyers are primarily interested in their fees, and the class members’ stakes in the litigation are ordinarily too small to motivate them to supervise the lawyers in an effort to align the lawyers’ incentives with their own. The defendant wants to minimize outflow of expenditures and the class counsel wants to increase inflow of attorneys’ fees. "Both can achieve their goals if they collude to sacrifice the interests of the class.” Leslie, “The Significance of Silence: Collective Action Problems and Class Action Settlements,” 59 Fla. L. Rev. 71, 79-81 (2007). And when the central issue in a case is given class treatment and so will be resolved once and for all, a trial becomes a roll of the dice. Depending on the size of the class, a single throw may determine the outcome of an immense number of separate claims (hundreds of thousands, in the dryer litigation)—there is no averaging of decisions over a number of triers of fact having different abilities, priors, and biases. The risk of error becomes asymmetric when the number of claims aggregated in the class action is so great that an adverse verdict would push the defendant into bankruptcy; in such a case the defendant will be under great pressure to settle even if the merits
of the case are slight.

In the most recent iteration, the district court -- nothing the "tortured path" the case has taken through the judicial system -- has followed the direction of the 7th Circuit. Needless to say,  the parties disagreed as to the terms of the injunction that should be issued.  The primary areas of dispute were whether the injunction should be broad enough to encompass class action claims against co-defendant Electrolux and whether former members of the class should be allowed to pursue class-wide discovery against Sears as a non-party.   Sears argued that its advertising would still be at issue, and that Electrolux was obligated to indemnify Sears for any damages related to the marketing of the dryers.  That is, the only basis for Murray’s claims against Electrolux was the same advertising and marketing by Sears at issue in this case. As such, allowing Murray and his lawyers to continue to burden Sears with class-wide discovery concerning that issue would defeat the purpose of the injunction and circumvent the ruling in Thorogood.

The court concluded that any injunction should not allow class-wide discovery from Sears related to its advertising or representations regarding the composition of the dryer drums. Based on the representations of Murray’s counsel to the California court, it was clear that if his class action suit against Electrolux were allowed to continue, his attorneys plan to seek the same discovery from Sears as they would have if Sears itself were the defendant. No matter what it is called — third–party discovery, non–party discovery — by any name the Seventh Circuit has held that this amounts to irreparable harm.

Regarding whether the focus of the injunction should be on the issues that were litigated and decided in the previous Thorogood rulings, or on the identity of the parties, the court decided that the injunction precedents were couched in terms of the issues decided in the prior case, not the specific parties involved. There was no indication in any of the Seventh Circuit’s rulings that this conclusion depends on the party sued over these representations. Moreover, an injunction is not invalid merely because it may benefit non-parties. See Easyriders Freedom F.I.G.H.T. v. Hannigan, 92 F.3d 1486, 1501–02 (9th Cir. 1996).

Thus, the Court found that Sears would invariably be drawn into the defense of any class-action lawsuit regarding its marketing of the dryers as containing stainless steel drums, regardless of what party is named as a defendant. This would defeat the purpose of the Seventh Circuit’s ruling in Thorogood and prevent Sears from receiving the full measure of relief ordered by the Seventh Circuit. Murray and the other members of the class were free to pursue on a class basis claims against Electrolux not related to Sears’ marketing of the dryers, but they may not use a suit against Electrolux as a back-door method of evading the Seventh Circuit’s ruling in Thorogood.

 


 

Federal Court Dismisses Soda Misrepresentation Claim

A New Jersey federal recently dismissed a putative class action accusing The Coca-Cola Co. of misleading consumers about the health value of the carbonated beverage Diet Coke Plus.  Mason et al. v. The Coca-Cola Co., No. 09-cv-00220 (D.N.J. 3/31/11).

This is another in the series of cases we have warned readers about: plaintiffs are not injured, are not at risk of injury, have gotten the benefit of their bargain, but claim they were somehow duped by marketing. Here, plaintiffs alleged that they “were persuaded to purchase the product because the term ‘Plus’ and the language ‘Diet Coke with Vitamins and Minerals’ suggested to consumers that the product was healthy and contained nutritional value,” when it allegedly did not.

Defendants moved to dismiss under the Twombly/Iqbal doctrine.  Of course, claims alleging fraud or mistake must also meet the heightened pleading requirements of Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b), which requires such claims to be pled with “particularity.”

To state a claim under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act., a plaintiff must allege: “(1) unlawful conduct by the defendants; (2) an ascertainable loss on the part of the plaintiff; and (3) a causal relationship between the defendants’ unlawful conduct and the plaintiff’s ascertainable loss.” Frederico v. Home Depot, 507 F.3d 188, 202 (3d Cir. 2007). Plaintiffs claimed that defendant committed affirmative acts of fraud and deception, and that they were persuaded to purchase the product because the term ‘Plus’ and the language ‘Diet Coke with Vitamins and Minerals’ somehow suggested to consumers that the product was healthy and contained extra nutritional value.

However, the FDA's warning letter about the product attached by plaintiffs to their own complaint shows that it is not false that Diet Coke Plus contains vitamins and minerals.  Plaintiffs failed to allege with particularity what further expectations beyond these ingredients they had for the product or how it fell short of those expectations. Plaintiffs simply made a broad assumption that defendant somehow intended for Diet Coke Plus’s vitamin and mineral content to deceive plaintiffs into thinking that the beverage was really “healthy.”  Without more specificity as to how defendant made false or deceptive statements to plaintiffs regarding the healthiness or nutritional value of the soda, the court found that plaintiffs failed to plead the “affirmative act” element with sufficient particularity to state a viable NJCFA claim.

Plaintiffs also failed to plead an ascertainable loss. When plaintiffs purchased Diet Coke Plus, they received a beverage that contained the exact ingredients listed on its label. Plaintiffs could not explain how they experienced any out-of-pocket loss because of their purchases, or that the soda they bought was worth an amount of money less than the soda they consumed. Mere subjective  dissatisfaction with a product is not a quantifiable loss that can be remedied under the NJCFA.  The same defects doomed the common law misrepresentation claims.

Although the FDA had issued the warning letter (on a somewhat arcane and technical issue), the court noted that not every regulatory violation amounts to an act of consumer fraud. The court also noted that it is simply not plausible that consumers would be aware of FDA regulations regarding “nutrient content” and restrictions on the enhancement of snack foods. The complaint actually did not allege that consumers bought the product because they knew of and attributed something meaningful to the regulatory term “Plus” and therefore relied on it. Rather, plaintiffs alleged merely that they subjectively thought they were buying a “healthy” product that happened to also apparently run afoul of a technical FDA regulation.

CPSC General Counsel Speaks at DRI

I am attending the DRI Product Liability Conference in New Orleans this week (as I know a number of readers are). Your humble blogger serves as Chair of the Mass Torts and Class Action sub-committee.

At the keynote address, Cheryl Falvey, Esq., General Counsel of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, spoke about an issue we have posted on before, the new incident report database.
With the usual disclaimer that she was not speaking for the CPSC officially, she shared a number of personal insights.

The new database went on line last month, and the first consumer reports were posted last week. It can be viewed through the Commission site with a link to SaferProducts.gov. There is a search function for products or manufacturers names, and it lists any recalls and reports, which can be filtered by date.

She indicated that, like Congress and the bar, the Commission is extremely divided on the new database. She stressed that, per the statutory requirement, there is a disclaimer on the site that: CPSC does not guarantee the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the contents of the Publicly Available Consumer Product Safety Information Database on SaferProducts.gov, particularly with respect to information submitted by people outside of CPSC. She admitted, however, that some lawyers may well seek to use the database to argue manufacturers were on notice of something regarding the product.

She noted that anonymous reports to the CPSC are not automatically published, but of course as to the public, every report on the website appears anonymous.

The CPSC believes it is mandated to publish reports of risks of harm as well as actual harm.

The Commission, she says, investigates only about 10% of the reports received; they do not have the budget and resources to investigate every report, let alone investigate reports before they are published. The CPSC is thus "not adjudicating" the product complaints, just posting them.
 

Negligence Ruling in Florida Chinese Drywall Litigation

The judge overseeing one part of the litigation involving Chinese drywall -- the Florida class action -- has issued an important ruling on the negligence claims. Bennett v. Centerline Homes Inc. et al., No. 2009-ca-014458 (Palm Beach County, Fla.)

Defendants moved to dismiss the negligence claims, arguing they had no duty to protect the plaintiffs from the unknown and unforeseeable harm of the drywall.  The court found that there was no duty to inspect or test the drywall for a latent defect, and thus to warn the plaintiffs.  Florida law does not impose a duty to inspect a product for a latent defect, or to warn others about a latent defect, unless the product is inherently dangerous (which drywall is not).

Home builders, installers or suppliers of allegedly defective Chinese drywall could only be held negligent if it is established that the companies were aware that the drywall was defective, through actual or implied notice.  But the issue whether a defendant had notice of a defect must be
determined on an individual, case-by-case basis.  Thus, the court declined to grant the motion on an omnibus basis. 

As we have noted before, according to the allegations of the litigation, a shortage of drywall made in the U.S. caused many builders to use imported Chinese drywall during Florida's construction boom between 2004 and 2006. Much of the drywall was used in construction after Hurricane Katrina.  Lawsuits filed over the drywall issues allege that excessive sulfur levels in the Chinese-made products are causing health effects and problems with air conditioning systems, appliances, internal wiring and other electrical systems. The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation consolidated the lawsuits in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.  Other defendants, including building supply distributors, general contractors and installers, face  litigation in state courts, like this one.

Appeals Court Applies Sophisticated User Doctrine

A California appeals court earlier this month affirmed a trial court's dismissal of a product liability failure to warn claim, based on the sophisticated user doctrine. Walkowiak v. MP Associates, No. B220494, (Cal. Ct. App., 2d App. Dist., 3/9/11)(not published).

Plaintiff Christopher Walkowiak began working for a special effects company in the movie industry in 1994. His boss had a Class 1 Pyrotechnic Operator license, and Walkowiak received on-the-job training in special effects. He obtained a Class 3 Pyrotechnic Operator license in 1995 and a Class 2 license in 1998. In order to obtain these licenses, Walkowiak had to obtain references from pyrotechnicians and pass a written examination. The written examination was general in nature and did not cover every specific types of explosive device used in productions.

Defendant MP Associates (MP) manufactures pyrotechnic devices. Defendant Roger George Rentals (RGR) rents and sells special effects supplies, including pyrotechnic devices manufactured by MP. Its primary clientele is the entertainment industry. One of the products they sold was a simulated stinger missile (SSM). The SSM consists of a cardboard tube with a red plastic cap on one end and a white plastic cap on the other end. The tube contains pyrotechnic materials near the end with the red plastic cap. Prior to ignition, the white plastic cap is to be removed. Upon ignition, a pellet of pyrotechnic material is propelled out of the end of the tube by gunpowder. It produces bright white light and smoke, and it travels about 200 feet. It simulates the appearance of a missile. Pretty clever, and can fool the camera.

The SSM had a sticker on the side of the cardboard tube which read, “Dangerous. Handle With Care. Keep Fire Away.” This was a standard warning that MP placed on all of the pyrotechnic devices it sold. The SSM also had a piece of tape over the white plastic cap which read, “Remove Before Ignition. This Side Up.” Once the tape was removed, there was nothing on the SSM to indicate which end was to face up. Packaging materials which came with the SSM included a list of “Dos and Don’ts” which applied to pyrotechnic devices in general. The list included the warning not to “use any explosive material unless completely familiar with safe procedures for their use, or under the direction of competent, experienced persons.” However, the packaging materials did not include any specific instructions for use of the SSM.  The manufacturer sold SSMs only to purchasers with a Class 1 or Class 2 Pyrotechnic Operator license. And the company would personally discuss use of the SSM with the purchaser. Since 1998, MP had reportedly sold over 20,000 SSMs. Until the accident in this case, there had been no misfires or injuries resulting from the use of an SSM.

On January 18, 2007, Walkowiak was working on the movie set for “Charlie Wilson’s War.”  His supervisor instructed Walkowiak to test fire an SSM that had been leftover from a previous production, using the same shoulder launcher that had been used in “Over There.” The shoulder launcher consisted of a steel tube bolted to a rifle stock. The steel tube was closed at the end bolted to the rifle stock. The SSM was loaded into the open end of the steel tube. It was fired by means of a battery-operated power switch which was connected to the SSM by wires. Walkowiak’s Class 2 license allowed him to use the SSM fired from a shoulder launcher under the supervision of a Class 1 license holder.

But Walkowiak had not worked on “Over There.” He had never fired an SSM before or seen an SSM loaded into a shoulder launcher. He had not seen any instructions for using the SSM. What he did know was that the SSM was a controlled pyrotechnic device that was potentially dangerous. He knew that he should get questions regarding its use answered before using it. Walkowiak called one of the defendants and asked how to operate the shoulder launcher. Defendant told him how to wire and prepare the launcher. He did not tell Walkowiak how to load the SSM into the launcher, however. Before loading the SSM into the shoulder launcher, Walkowiak saw tape with printing on one end of the SSM. He did not recall seeing the words “Remove Before Ignition” or “This Side Up” on the tape. However, he understood these words to mean that the cap and tape should be removed before discharging the SSM, and “This Side Up” referred to the discharge end of the SSM.

Walkowiak removed the cap and the tape from the SSM. Walkowiak made the decision as to how to load the SSM into the shoulder launcher. Walkowiak loaded the SSM into the shoulder launcher and connected the wires. He believed he was loading the device safely and correctly. He knelt down and pointed the shoulder launcher toward a wall. After a countdown, Walkowiak fired the device. There was an explosion and a bright flash of light. The SSM exploded in the steel tube. The steel tube broke off the rifle stock and hit Walkowiak in the face, causing severe injury. It was determined that he had loaded the SSM in backwards.

Plaintiff sued the various parties in the chain of distribution of the SSM.  The trial court dismissed the claim.  The trial court explained that merely because an accident has occurred, there is no presumption of a defect or negligence.  In this case, Walkowiak had not shown that the device had any physical, manufacturing or design defect. There was no evidence of even a single incident where the device was used properly but caused this kind of injury.  Therefore, the trial court noted, the only potential basis for imposing liability on defendants was the breach of a duty to warn of a danger. The court added, however, that product liability cannot be based on failure to warn of a danger that is known or obvious to a user, under California law. Failure to warn of a danger that is generally known and recognized does not, by itself, render a product dangerous.

Plaintiff appealed. The court of appeals discussed the doctrine of sophisticated user. In explaining the development of the sophisticated user defense, the state Supreme Court had begun with the general principle that manufacturers have a duty to warn consumers about the hazards inherent in their products. This enables consumers to avoid the hazards through careful use of the products or refraining from using the products altogether.  However, the sophisticated user defense exempts manufacturers from their typical obligation to provide product users with warnings about the products’ potential hazards. It provides that sophisticated users need not be warned about dangers of which they are already aware or should be aware. Because these sophisticated users are charged with knowing the particular product’s dangers, the failure to warn about those dangers is not the legal cause of any harm that product may cause. The rationale supporting the defense is that the failure to provide warnings about risks already known to a sophisticated purchaser usually is not a proximate cause of harm resulting from those risks suffered by the buyer’s employees or downstream purchasers. This is because the user’s knowledge of the dangers is the equivalent of prior notice.

In California, a manufacturer is not liable to a sophisticated user of its product for failure to warn of a risk, harm, or danger, if the sophisticated user knew or should have known of that risk, harm, or danger. An objective test applies, because it would be nearly impossible for a manufacturer to predict or determine whether a given user or member of the sophisticated group actually has knowledge of the dangers because of the infinite number of user idiosyncrasies. Hence, even if a user was truly unaware of a product’s hazards, that fact is irrelevant if the danger was objectively obvious to the expert user.  And, the defense applies to both negligence and strict liability causes of action.

Here, Walkowiak’s own deposition testimony supported the finding that he was a sophisticated user of pyrotechnics. He had a Class 2 Pyrotechnic Operator license and years of experience in special effects. He knew that the SSM was a controlled pyrotechnic device and potentially dangerous. He understood the nature of the warnings provided on and with the SSM. He knew to ask for instructions on how to operate the device, and in fact asked for some information. In other words, said the court, Walkowiak knew or should have known of the risk involved in use of the SSM.

That Walkowiak did not have experience using the SSM and could only use it under supervision did not establish that he was unaware of the risks associated with its use. His testimony established that he was aware of the risks: he knew the SSM was dangerous, and he understood the nature of the warnings on the device, “Remove Before Ignition” and “This Side Up.” He simply did not know how to use the SSM with the shoulder launcher. Plaintiff could cite no authority, however, that would require a manufacturer not only to apprise a user of the risks associated with use of its product but also to provide instruction on how to use the product in a device it did not manufacture. 

(The court remanded the design defect claim, under the risk benefit test, as the trial court had jumped the gun on its conclusion that an alternate design would make the SSM unsuitable for other uses.)


 

Court of Appeals Explores Obvious Danger Doctrine

The 5th Circuit last week affirmed a grant of summary judgment to defendants in a case of a plaintiff allegedly injured when he used a gasoline-soaked rag to start a diesel engine while wearing a polyester and cotton uniform. Spears v. Cintas Sales Corp., No. 09-30750 (5th Cir., 2/28/11).

At the time of his accident, Spears was employed as the shop foreman for Apeck Construction, Inc., and was the head mechanic in charge of servicing and repairing equipment used by Apeck in its business. While performing his duties, Spears wore a Cintas uniform that Apeck had purchased for him. The uniform was 65% polyester and 35% cotton.The agreement between Apeck and Cintas specified that the garments were not flame-retardant, and the employer promised to tell its employees that their garments are not designed for use in areas of flammability risk or where contact with hazardous materials is possible.

Spears was injured while attempting to start a dump truck powered by a diesel engine.  Spears used a gasoline-soaked rag, a procedure he had used “thousands of times” to attempt to start an engine.The dump truck backfired, and Spears’s uniform caught on fire. As the uniform burned, it melted and fused to his body.

Spears filed suit in state court under the Louisiana Product Liability Act, alleging that the Cintas
uniform was an unreasonably dangerous product. Cintas moved for summary judgment, arguing that Spears could not present sufficient evidence to prove two elements of his claim: (1) that his damages were proximately caused by a characteristic of the Cintas uniform that rendered it unreasonably dangerous; and (2) that the damage arose from a reasonably anticipated use of the uniform. The district court found that Spears’s use of the uniform was not a reasonably anticipated use and granted summary judgment in favor of Cintas. Plaintiff appealed.

Under the LPLA, a manufacturer of a product shall be liable to a claimant for damage proximately caused by a characteristic of the product that renders the product unreasonably dangerous when such damage arose from a reasonably anticipated use of the product. If a plaintiff’s damages did not arise from a reasonably anticipated use of the product, then the unreasonably dangerous question need not even be reached. Reasonably anticipated use means a use or handling of a product that the product’s manufacturer should reasonably expect of an ordinary person in the same or similar circumstances. The court said  this is an objective inquiry that requires a court to ascertain what uses of its product the manufacturer should have reasonably expected at the time of manufacture.

A plaintiff’s use of a product is not reasonably anticipated in a situation where a manufacturer provides an express warning cautioning against a use of the product for which the product was neither designed nor intended, and where the plaintiff acts in direct contravention of that warning. Even if the warning did not reach the users, if the danger from a particular use of a product is obvious, then it is not a “reasonably anticipated use” under the LPLA. If the plaintiff acts in contravention of an express warning, the plaintiff’s use may still be reasonably anticipated if the plaintiff presents evidence that despite the warnings, the manufacturer should have been aware that users were using the product in contravention of the warnings.

Cintas did not dispute that the warning did not reach Spears. Instead, Cintas argued that Spears’s use was not a reasonably anticipated use because the danger of exposing the uniform to flammability risks was obvious to Spears. The record demonstrated that Spears knew that his uniform was not flame retardant. Furthermore, Spears’s testimony established that Spears knew that his poly-cotton uniform would melt.  Because the danger of exposing the uniform to flammability risks was obvious to Spears, his use of the uniform is not a “reasonably anticipated use” under the LPLA.

Plaintiff spent considerable effort arguing about the foreseeability of the danger involved in starting the engine with a gasoline-soaked rag. But the 5th Circuit said that was the wrong issue; it may be relevant in assessing a plaintiff’s comparative negligence, but it was not relevant to whether Spears’s use of the uniform was a reasonably anticipated use. The correct obvious-danger analysis in this case related to what Spears argues that Cintas should have warned against—that the uniform would melt when exposed to flame -- whatever the source. Furthermore, the court pointed out, Spears’s argument that he did not know the engine would backfire was contradicted by his other argument that Cintas should have reasonably anticipated that he would be exposed to flammability risks while wearing his uniform. If Spears, an expert mechanic, supposedly did not know that there was a risk that the engine would backfire when he attempted to start it, Cintas could not reasonably anticipate that its uniform would be exposed to the backfire of a diesel engine.

 

State Supreme Court Explores Plaintiff Fault in Enhanced Injury Context

The Indiana Supreme Court recently answered a certified question from the federal court asking whether, in a crash-worthiness case alleging enhanced injuries under the Indiana Products Liability Act, the finder of fact shall apportion fault to the person suffering physical harm when that alleged fault relates to the cause of the underlying accident. Green v. Ford Motor Co., No. 94S00-1007-CQ-348 (Ind. 2/8/11).  The court answered in the affirmative, laying out a two-step procedure for the consideration of a plaintiff's fault in enhanced-injury cases.

The case was a damages action by Nicholas Green against Ford Motor Company under the Indiana Product Liability Act, asserting that Green's 1999 Ford Explorer vehicle was defective and unreasonably dangerous, and that Ford was negligent in its design of the vehicle's restraint system. Back in 2006, while Green was driving the vehicle, it left the road, struck a guardrail, rolled down an embankment, and came to rest upside down in a ditch. Green sustained severe injuries. He sued, claiming that his injuries were substantially enhanced because of the alleged defects in the vehicle's restraint system. In the federal case, Green moved in limine to exclude any evidence of his alleged contributory negligence on the grounds that any conduct by him in causing the vehicle to leave the road and strike the guardrail was not relevant to whether Ford's negligent design of the restraint system caused him to suffer greater injuries he would not have otherwise suffered.

So in this "crash-worthiness" claim for the "enhanced injuries" suffered, Green sought to exclude evidence at trial regarding his own alleged initial negligence resulting in the vehicle leaving the road and striking the guardrail. Ford asserted that Green's product liability lawsuit is subject to Indiana's statutory comparative fault principles, which require the jury to consider the fault of Green in causing or contributing to the physical harm he suffered.

The "Crash-worthiness Doctrine" has been identified in numerous cases, e.g., Larsen v. General Motors Corp., 391 F.2d 495, 502 (8th Cir. 1968).  The notion is that, in light of the statistical inevitability of collisions, a vehicle manufacturer must use reasonable care in designing a vehicle to avoid subjecting the user to an unreasonable risk of injury in the event of a collision. The reasoning is that the manufacturer should be liable for that portion of the damage or injury caused by the defective design over and above the damage or injury that would have occurred as a result of the impact or collision absent the allegedly defective design.  Thus a normal risk of driving must be accepted by the user, but the policy is not to penalize the user by subjecting him to an unreasonable risk of further injury due to negligence in design.

The court noted that in both the state Product Liability Act and the Comparative Fault Act, the legislature employed expansive language to describe the breadth of causative conduct that may be considered in determining and allocating fault. Both enactments require consideration of the fault of all persons who caused or contributed to cause the harm. The Comparative Fault Act further specifies that, in comparative fault actions, the "legal requirements of causal relation apply." The state legislature has thus directed that a broad range of potentially causative conduct initially may be considered by the fact-finder, but that the jury may allocate comparative fault only to those actors whose fault was a proximate cause of the claimed injury.

Therefore, in a crash-worthiness case alleging enhanced injuries under the Indiana Product Liability Act, it is the function of the fact-finder to consider and evaluate the conduct of all relevant actors who are alleged to have caused or contributed to cause the harm for which the plaintiff seeks damages. An assertion that a plaintiff is limiting his claim to "enhanced injuries" caused by only the "second collision" does not preclude the fact-finder from considering evidence of all relevant conduct of the plaintiff reasonably alleged to have contributed to cause the ultimate injuries. From that evidence, the jury must then determine whether such conduct satisfies the requirement of proximate cause.  The fact-finder may allocate as comparative fault only such fault that it finds to have been a proximate cause of the claimed injuries. And if the fault of more than one actor is found to have been a proximate cause of the claimed injuries, the fact-finder, in its allocation of comparative fault, may consider the relative degree of proximate causation attributable to each of the responsible actors.

While a jury in a crash-worthiness case may receive evidence of the plaintiff's conduct alleged to have contributed to cause the claimed injuries, the issue of whether such conduct constitutes proximate cause of the injuries for which damages are sought is typically a matter for the jury to determine in its evaluation of comparative fault.  
 

State Supreme Court Vacates Plaintiff Verdict After Trial By Ambush

The Mississippi Supreme Court has vacated a $4.5 million verdict in favor of plaintiffs in a case against defendant Hyundai over a serious car accident. Hyundai Motor America v. Applewhite, No. 2008-CA-01101-SCT (Miss., 2/10/11).

Casino co- workers Dorothy Applewhite, Cecilia Cooper, and Anthony Stewart were traveling in Applewhite's 1993 Hyundai Excel after work.  It is unclear who was driving, but the two women were in the front seats, and Stewart was in the rear seat. A co-worker traveling ahead of them testified that he noticed the car weaving, drifting onto the shoulder, and finally swerving into the northbound lane, where it collided with another vehicle. The Excel separated into two pieces. All three passengers in the Excel died at the scene of the accident. 

Family members of the three decedents sued Hyundai. At trial, the plaintiffs undertook to prove that the Excel was not crashworthy due to alleged defects in both its design and manufacture, including the welds in the vehicle. Plaintiffs offered the testimony of several expert witnesses, including Andrew Webb, an accident reconstructionist.  Webb testified that he had used a computer program to reconstruct the accident and concluded that, had the Excel remained intact, the occupants would have experienced a change in velocity of thirty-five miles per hour. Another expert then testified that at thirty-five miles per hour, it was more likely than not that the occupants would have survived the crash.

The jury awarded the plaintiffs $4.5 million, or $1.5 million for each of three decedents, finding that the automobile at issue was defective in both its design and manufacture.

On appeal, Hyundai argued that it was entitled to a new trial because it was ambushed by changes
to Webb’s opinion. As noted, one of Webb’s main contentions was that, had the Excel remained
intact, the vehicle would have experienced a change in velocity (delta-v) of no more than thirty-five miles per hour. Hyundai deposed Webb before trial, at which time Webb gave a detailed
explanation of his calculations. Months after the deposition, Webb signed an errata sheet concerning his deposition testimony, changing four key variables that he had used to make his calculations. Most notably, Webb changed the angle of the Excel from 22 degrees to 44 degrees and increased the closing speed of the Excel from 68 miles per hour to 78 miles per hour. Despite these dramatic changes, Webb did not alter his ultimate conclusion that the car would have sustained a delta-v of only thirty-five miles per hour had it remained intact.

At trial, Webb testified about the errata sheet, claiming that he had to change several variables because he realized after he had been deposed that he had made some mistakes in his initial analysis. It is undisputed that Webb’s errata sheet was not done to correct errors made by the court reporter or to clarify his testimony. On the sheet itself, Webb listed the reason for the changes simply as “range not asked.”

Hyundai moved to strike Webb’s testimony at trial, alleging that it had never received the errata sheet during discovery and that these changes were a surprise. In response, the plaintiffs argued that the changes were not material because they did not alter Webb’s ultimate conclusion. The plaintiffs also produced a letter trying to demonstrate that they had forwarded Webb’s errata sheet to the defendant. The trial court heard extensive arguments on the issue and denied the defendant’s motion.

The Supreme Court did not agree.  The discovery rules impose a duty on the parties to amend a prior response when the party knows that the response, though correct when made, is no longer
true and the circumstances are such that a failure to amend the response is in substance a
knowing concealment. The failure seasonably to supplement or amend a response is a discovery violation that may warrant sanctions, including exclusion of evidence. Whether the plaintiffs did or did not send the errata sheet was unnecessary and irrelevant to a proper analysis. Even if Hyundai did receive the errata sheet, simply giving the defendant this document did not relieve the plaintiffs of their duties under the rules. The purpose of an errata sheet is to correct scrivener’s errors or provide minor clarification; it is not a means of making material, substantive changes to a witness’s testimony. See e.g., Garcia v. Pueblo Country Club, 399 F.3d 1233, 1242 n.5 (10th Cir. 2002) (“A deposition is not a take home examination.”) If a witness changes his testimony in a manner that conflicts with prior discovery responses, the sponsoring party has a duty under the rules (Rule 26(f) in this state) seasonably and formally to amend or supplement the response -- not try to sneak it through in an errata sheet. This the responsibility of the party sponsoring the witness, not the responsibility of the witness.

The plaintiffs argued that Webb’s changes were not material because they did not alter his opinion that, had the car not separated, the occupants would have experienced a delta-v of only thirty-five miles per hour. The Court did not agree. The changes in Webb’s calculations were material changes because they were essential components of the basis for his opinion. When Hyundai attempted to cross-examine Webb about his calculations, Webb referred to his errata sheet at least seven times to demonstrate that he had corrected his mistakes. It is clear from Webb’s own trial testimony that the figures on the errata sheet were important to his calculations. Moreover, when Hyundai’s experts performed crash testing, they relied on and used the figures given by Webb in his deposition in an attempt to test his opinions and refute his testimony. When Webb changed his calculations, the entire crash test using Webb’s initial calculations lost much of its relevance.  

The Court found that the trial judge abused his discretion by not enforcing the rules, noting "we do
not condone trial by ambush." Hyundai was entitled to full and complete disclosure of the plaintiffs’ expert testimony, and neither these plaintiffs nor any other party litigant may rely on a witness’s notations on a deposition errata sheet as a substitute for formal and timely supplementation. 

House Hearing on Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act

The House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade, chaired by Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA), held a hearing last week to examine the unintended consequences of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 on American job creators, including small businesses. The purpose of this oversight hearing was to develop an understanding of the problems created by CPSIA, including the practical impediments to implementation; the impact of CPSIA on children’s safety; the impact on American jobs and businesses of all sizes; and practical ways to amend the law without endangering children’s health.

Two panels of witnesses testified before the Subcommittee. On the first were Honorable Inez Tenenbaum, Chairman, Consumer Product Safety Commission; and Honorable Anne Northup, Commissioner, Consumer Product Safety Commission.   The second panel included a mix of child safety advocates and representatives of small business industries.

The Chair noted that as a former small business owner, she recognized how unnecessary regulations – even well intentioned ones – can destroy lives.  Rick Woldenberg, the operator of Learning Resources, Inc., a small business making educational products and educational toys, testified on the many difficulties associated with the new, burdensome regulatory requirements. His company, Learning Resources, Inc., has recalled a grand total of 130 pieces in a single recall since its founding in June 1984, showing management of safety risks that was highly effective long before the government intervened in the safety processes.

CPSC Commissioner Northup testified on the exorbitant costs to small businesses, stating that in  March 2009, Commission staff reported that the economic costs associated with the CPSIA would be in the billions of dollars. Small businesses without the market clout to demand that suppliers provide compliant materials have been hit the hardest. Many report that the new compliance and testing costs have caused them to cut jobs, reduce product lines, leave the children’s market completely, or close.

CPSC Commissioner Anne Northup also focused on a key aspect of the new reporting database, observing that the Commission's database rule all but guarantees that the database will be flooded with inaccurate reports of harm, and thus it will be less useful for commission staff in determining hazard patterns than are the current, internal databases. She suggested that the Congress delay the launch of the database until new CPSC regulations can ensure that reports of harm contain sufficient information to permit verification, and the agency has an effective procedure in place to resolve a claim of material inaccuracy before a report is posted on the database.

She noted that the the Majority on the CPSC has expanded the list of database submitters to such an extent that virtually anyone can submit reports of harm—thereby rendering meaningless the statutory language listing permitted submitters. A database full of inaccurate reports from individuals who have second or third-hand information is not remotely helpful to consumers to determine which consumer product they should purchase.  Soliciting information from sources seeking to promote an agenda unrelated to simply sharing first-hand information invites dishonest, agenda-driven use of the database.  Trial lawyers, unscrupulous competitors, advocacy groups and other nongovernmental organizations and trade associations serve their own agendas and lack an incentive to prioritize accuracy in their reports of harm.  In particular, she testified, plaintiff trial lawyers with self-serving motives will use the Commission’s database to look for potential trends and patterns of hazards. Under the current database rule, this same group could also submit to the database false and unverifiable reports to fuel a lawsuit.


 

New Report on Asbestos and Silica Litigation in Texas

The Texas Civil Justice League has released a new report, "A Texas Success Story: Asbestos and Silica Lawsuit Reform."

Established in 1986, the Texas Civil Justice League is a non-partisan, statewide business coalition committed to legal reform and public policy research. The League makes legislative recommendations in vital issue areas, such as administration of the courts, general business liability, mass torts, and products liability.

The purpose of this special report is to document the current state of asbestos and silica litigation in Texas state courts. Part one provides a brief history of asbestos and silica litigation in the United States and an overview of the legislative efforts in Texas to address abuses in asbestos and silica litigation.  The report then offers a description of asbestos and silica litigation in Texas’s two multidistrict litigation courts handling asbestos and silica cases, and the impact of reform legislation (S.B. 15) on the state MDLs.

The report then turns to recent issues in asbestos litigation, specifically to the science-based evidentiary standards required by the Texas Supreme Court’s decision in Borg-Warner Corp. v. Flores.

Next are the issues relating to asbestos claimant compensation, starting with the role of bankruptcy trusts in compensating asbestos claimants; the bankruptcy trust payment system can provide substantial compensation to asbestos victims, but is a “black box” system that remains hidden from public scrutiny.

Lots of good info, worth a read.

New Report on Asbestos and Silica Litigation in Texas

The Texas Civil Justice League has released a new report, "A Texas Success Story: Asbestos and Silica Lawsuit Reform."

Established in 1986, the Texas Civil Justice League is a non-partisan, statewide business coalition committed to legal reform and public policy research. The League makes legislative recommendations in vital issue areas, such as administration of the courts, general business liability, mass torts, and products liability.

The purpose of this special report is to document the current state of asbestos and silica litigation in Texas state courts. Part one provides a brief history of asbestos and silica litigation in the United States and an overview of the legislative efforts in Texas to address abuses in asbestos and silica litigation.  The report then offers a description of asbestos and silica litigation in Texas’s two multidistrict litigation courts handling asbestos and silica cases, and the impact of reform legislation (S.B. 15) on the state MDLs.

The report then turns to recent issues in asbestos litigation, specifically to the science-based evidentiary standards required by the Texas Supreme Court’s decision in Borg-Warner Corp. v. Flores.

Next are the issues relating to asbestos claimant compensation, starting with the role of bankruptcy trusts in compensating asbestos claimants; the bankruptcy trust payment system can provide substantial compensation to asbestos victims, but is a “black box” system that remains hidden from public scrutiny.

Lots of good info, worth a read.

Wisconsin Enacts Tort Reform

A Superbowl win. An upset of the previously undefeated No. 1 college basketball team.  Wisconsin is on a roll.  But of greatest interest to our readers is, late last month, Wisconsin's Governor Scott Walker (R) signed into law new tort reform legislation in that state.  The bill is regarded as the most extensive set of changes to Wisconsin's civil litigation system in decades.  Tort reform as a vehicle to improve Wisconsin's business climate was a campaign theme for the governor in the last election, and the reform bill was one of the first agenda items for the new legislature in January.  Republican majorities had been elected in both the state Senate and the Assembly last fall.

The Act contains several provisions that will affect plaintiffs and defendants in product liability  litigation.

  • Punitive damages received by the plaintiff may not exceed twice the amount of any compensatory damages recovered by the plaintiff or $200,000, whichever is greater.
  • The law establishes a higher legal standard for recovering punitive damages, as the plaintiff must prove that the defendant either acted with intent to cause injury to a particular person or persons or that the defendant knew that the action of the defendant that resulted in injury to one or more persons was practically certain to result in injury to one or more persons. 
  • The act adopts a Daubert-like standard for experts. The expert testimony must be based
    upon sufficient facts or data, the testimony must be the product of reliable principles and methods, and the witness must have applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case.
  • With respect to strict liability claims, the bill borrows the definition of defect from the  Restatement (Third) of Torts.  A product is defective in design if the foreseeable risks of
    harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by the adoption of a reasonable alternative design by the manufacturer and the omission of the alternative
    design renders the product not reasonably safe.   
  • In an action for damages caused by a manufactured product based on a claim of strict liability, evidence of remedial measures taken subsequent to the sale of the product is not admissible for the purpose of showing a manufacturing defect in the product, a defect in the design of the product, or a need for a warning or instruction, but may be used to show a reasonable alternative design that existed at the time  the product was sold.
  • The law creates a rebuttable presumption that the product is not defective if it complied with relevant standards under federal or state law.
  • The act also modifies the market share or “risk contribution’’ theory that Wisconsin adopted in the lead paint litigation. The new law reaffirms the general rule that manufacturers, distributors, and sellers of a product may be held liable for damages only if the injured party proves that the specific product that caused the injury was manufactured, distributed, sold or promoted by the defendant.  The only exception is when a claimant can prove all of the following:
    1. That no other lawful process exists for the claimant to seek any redress from any other person for the injury or harm.
    2. That the claimant has suffered an injury or harm that can be caused only by a manufactured product chemically and physically identical to the specific product that
    allegedly caused the claimant’s injury or harm.
    3. That the manufacturer, distributor, seller, or promoter of a product manufactured, distributed, sold, or promoted a complete integrated product, in the form used by the claimant or to which the claimant was exposed, and that meets all of the following criteria:
            a. Is chemically and physically identical to the specific product that allegedly caused the claimant’s injury or harm.
            b. Was manufactured, distributed, sold, or promoted in the geographic market where the injury or harm is alleged to have occurred during the time period in which the specific product that allegedly caused the claimant’s injury or harm was manufactured, distributed, sold, or promoted.
          c. Was distributed or sold without labeling or any distinctive characteristic that identified the manufacturer, distributor, seller, or promoter.
          d.  The action names, as defendants, those manufacturers of a product who collectively manufactured at least 80 percent of all products sold in this state during the relevant
    production period.  

 

  • The law permits defendants to claim damages for frivolous claims,  that is, for actions undertaken solely for the purpose of harassing or maliciously injuring another.
  • Regarding comparative fault in an action by any person to recover damages for injuries caused by a defective product based on a claim of strict liability, if the injured party’s percentage of total causal responsibility for the injury is greater than the percentage resulting from the defective condition of the product, the injured party may not, based on the defect in the product, recover damages from the manufacturer, distributor, seller, or any other person responsible for placing the product in the stream of commerce.

A good model for other states considering tort reform.

More than any ad campaign, a civil justice system that is equitable and reliably predictable signals to employers that a state is truly open for business. Particularly in light of recent liability-expanding state court decisions, the new reform package enacted by Wisconsin will help convince employers that it’s a new day in the Badger State, according to the American Tort Reform Association

 

State Supreme Court Ignores Amendment to Find Standing in Consumer Fraud Claim

California's Supreme Court ruled late last month that consumers who purchase a product allegedly as a result of misleading advertising can sue the manufacturer even in the absence of traditional injury, despite enactment of a recent ballot proposition that was designed to stiffen injury requirements and limit standing under the state's unfair competition and false advertising laws. Kwikset Corp. v. Superior Court, No. S171845, 2011 WL 240278 (Cal. Jan. 27, 2011).

Readers have seen our posts about the danger of plaintiffs' misuse of state consumer fraud acts and unfair and deceptive practices acts.  Partially in response to such abuse, a few years back the voters of California passed Proposition 64, which substantially revised the state's unfair competition and false advertising laws by beefing up standing and injury requirements for suits by private individuals.  The initiative declared: “It is the intent of the California voters in enacting this act to prohibit private attorneys from filing lawsuits for unfair competition where they have no client who has been injured in fact under the standing requirements of the United States Constitution.”  Specifically, Proposition 64 also restricted standing to consumers who can allege they have suffered “injury in fact” and have “lost money or property” as a result of the defendant's improper business practice.  The plain import of this is that a plaintiff now must demonstrate some form of economic injury -- the issue is what form. 
 
Plaintiff James Benson brought suit against Kwikset Corp. challenging the company's “Made in U.S.A.” labeling of lock sets that allegedly contain foreign-made parts or involved foreign manufacture.  Specifically, plaintiff alleged that Kwikset falsely marketed as “Made in USA” locksets that contained screws or pins made in Taiwan or that were assembled in Mexico. Plaintiff prevailed in the trial court, on injunctive relief, but lost on the restitution claim. While cross-appeals were pending, Proposition 64 took effect. The lower courts gave plaintiff an opportunity to plead standing based on injury under the new Prop standing requirements of injury in fact and loss of money or property. The amended complaint then alleged that plaintiff relied on Kwikset’s representations in deciding to purchase the locks, and that he supposedly would not have purchased the locksets if they were not labeled “Made in the USA.”  On appeal, the court of appeals vacated the decision in light of the standing issues in the wake of the new law. The court found that the plaintiffs (new plaintiffs had been added) had alleged “injury in fact,” but they had not alleged “loss of money or property” because they got perfectly functioning locksets in return for their money, and they were not overpriced or defective. Plaintiffs therefore received the benefit of the bargain. 

The state Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal, specifically to address the new standing requirements and what constitutes “loss of money or property” under California’s unfair competition law (Business and Professions Code section 17200 et seq. (the UCL)) and the false advertising law (Business and Professions Code section 17500 et seq.).

The state high court held that plaintiffs who allege they are deceived by a product’s label and thus purchase a product that they would not have purchased otherwise have “lost money or property” as required by Proposition 64 and have standing.  The court somehow concluded that such an individual does not receive the “benefit of the bargain” even if the product is not overpriced or defective, and works just fine. The Supreme Court concluded that “labels matter.” For each consumer who relies on the truth and accuracy of a label and is deceived by misrepresentations into making a purchase, the economic harm is the same: the consumer has purchased a product that he or she paid more for than he or she otherwise might have been willing to pay if the product had been labeled accurately, said the court. This economic harm -the "loss of real dollars from a consumer's pocket" -is the same whether or not a court might objectively view the products as functionally equivalent.  If a party has alleged or proven a personal, individualized loss of money or property in any non-trivial amount, he or she has also alleged or proven injury in fact.

The majority worried that to deny such consumers standing would bring an end to private consumer enforcement regarding label misrepresentations.  Instead, this unfortunate decision may well encourage frivolous and contrived class action litigation by plaintiffs who have not suffered any type of quantifiable economic loss -- exactly what the voters voted to curtail.

The dissent correctly noted that the majority's ruling directly contravened the both the intent of Prop 64 and the express language of the amendment.  Indeed Proposition 64 was an effort to curb suits just like this one (which was mentions in the campaign), in which plaintiff got the benefit of their bargain. In direct contravention of the electorate's intent, the majority disregarded the express language of the amendment and arguably made it easier for a plaintiff to achieve standing under the UCL.  Lost money cannot refer to every time a consumer pays for something, because then every consumer would always have standing to challenge every transaction, and how could Proposition 64 be seen as a new restriction on standing?  Loss of money is not the same as any economic injury. Lost money or property is a subset, one form of, economic injury.  Not all economic injuries include lost money as the statute uses the term;  the majority effectively rendered one of the two statutory requirements redundant and a nullity. 

By delving into the subjective motivation of the plaintiff ("labels matter"), the court ignored the focus of the statute not on subjective intent of the buyer, but objective proof of actual loss of property versus no such loss.

In focusing on the fact that the plaintiffs paid for the items, the majority ignored the fact that plaintiffs received the locksets in return, which were not alleged to be overpriced or otherwise defective. Aside from paying the purchase price of the locksets, plaintiffs have not alleged they actually “lost” any money or property.  The majority simply concluded there was a loss of real dollars, but there was no such allegation of such a loss here, where plaintiffs simply paid the purchase price for the mislabeled but otherwise fully functional locksets. Plaintiffs did not allege that the locksets were worth less or were of lesser quality or were defective, and the majority's holding apparently does not require that plaintiffs allege any price differential.

 

CPSC and CDC Release Report on Alleged Drywall Deaths

The Consumer Product Safety Commission released a report of an investigation it had requested be performed by the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health regarding deaths allegedly associated with exposure to imported drywall.  The report concludes that the drywall was not a contributing factor in the deaths of the people who had previously lived in or visited homes reported to contain problem drywall.

The investigation included reviews of the pertinent medical records,  interviews of witnesses, and available information from state public health authorities.   The CDC review confirms the results of previous reviews conducted by CPSC itself.  The cause of death in each case was clearly a primary, and often secondary, pre-existing chronic health condition.  Subjects typically had multiple long-term, severe, pre-existing conditions.  

We have posted about the drywall issues here and here


 

Multi-State Coalition On Chemicals Management Formed

Readers have been following our posts on new state efforts on chemical regulation, such  as California's Green Chemistry initiative. Now comes word that environmental officials from 10 state and local governments have formed an umbrella organization - the Interstate Chemicals Clearinghouse (IC2) - with the stated goals of promoting a clean environment, healthy communities, and a vital economy through the development and use of safer chemicals and products.

The states joining IC2 include California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, and Washington.

The goals of the IC2 are to:

  • Avoid duplication and enhance efficiency and effectiveness of state, local, and tribal initiatives on chemicals through collaboration and coordination
  • Build agency capacity to identify and promote safer chemicals and products
  • Ensure that state, local, and tribal agencies, businesses, and the public have ready access to high quality and authoritative chemicals data, information, and assessment methods

Launched under the auspices of the Northeast Waste Management Officials' Association (NEWMOA), the new Clearinghouse says it will support state, local, and tribal health and environmental agencies with development and implementation of programs to promote use of safer chemicals and products; support the development of alternative assessment methods and identification of safer alternatives; share data and information on chemical use, hazard, exposure, and alternatives; share strategies and outcomes on chemicals prioritization initiatives; and build the capacity of agencies by sharing materials, strategies, and trainings.  IC2 has a number of projects planned in these areas.

The Northeast Waste Management Officials Association's announcement of the IC2 comes just as many chemical manufacturers are expecting that the federal government (including through an update to TSCA) will take the lead in regulating chemical products, not state regulatory agencies and legislatures.

Industry groups, including the American Chemistry Council, continue to believe that a patchwork of state and local programs has the potential to create more confusion for consumers and manufacturers, and may ultimately simply hamper investment, and threaten future job creation.  As we have noted, some of the bills introduced in the last Congress would have set an impossibly high hurdle for all chemicals in commerce, and were guaranteed to produce significant technical, bureaucratic and commercial barriers. Of particular concern to readers of MassTortDefense would be efforts to eliminate the current risk-based review system under TSCA and force EPA to use the so-called precautionary principle.

It seems more supportable that any overhaul of TSCA should include the notion that scientific reviews must use data and methods based on the best available science and risk-based assessment; must include cost-benefit considerations for the private-sector and consumers; must protect proprietary business information, and should logically prioritize reviews for existing chemicals.



 

Snapple Prevails in All Natural Suit

A federal court granted summary judgment to defendant Snapple in a lawsuit accusing
Snapple Beverage Corp. of misleading consumers by labeling drinks as "all natural" even though they are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. Weiner et al. v. Snapple Beverage Corp., No. 1:07-cv-08742 (S.D.N.Y.).

We have commented on the growing and alarming trend of plaintiffs' lawyers concocting consumer fraud class action claims against products, even when consumers were not injured and got basically what they paid for, because of some alleged ambiguity in the label or old-fashioned puffing.

Snapple Beverage Corporation was founded in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1972. Snapple began selling and marketing its teas and juice drinks in the late 1980s. In marketing its beverages, Snapple focused on, among other things, flavor, innovation, and humor. Snapple became known for its quirky personality and funny advertising, as well as its colorful product labels and beverage names. For instance, Snapple’s television advertisements featured, among other things, Snapple bottles dressed in wigs and hats, singing in a Backstreet-esque “boy-band,” running with the bulls (hamsters with cardboard horns) in Spain, and performing synchronized swimming.

When Snapple entered the beverages market in the late 1980s, it avoided putting preservatives, which were then commonly found in some similar beverages, in its teas and juice drinks. Snapple was able to do so by using a “hot-fill” process, which uses high-temperature heat pasteurization to preserve products immediately before bottling. Snapple also used 16-ounce glass bottles instead of aluminum cans or plastic. Hence the term on their label "All Natural."

From their inception, Snapple’s beverages were sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. HFCS is made from corn ( a natural product last time we checked), and its primary constituents are glucose and fructose, the sugars that comprise table sugar and honey (which also sound pretty natural). It is undisputed that Snapple disclosed the inclusion of HFCS in the ingredient list that appears on the label of every bottle of Snapple that was labeled “All Natural.”

Readers may recall from our previous post, that here plaintiffs sued seeking to represent a nationwide class of consumers who made purchases between 2001 and 2009 in New York of Snapple beverages labeled “all natural” and which contained high fructose corn syrup.  The plaintiffs alleged they paid a premium for the company's drinks as a result of the all natural claim.

Judge Cote denied the plaintiffs' motion for class certification last year, finding that plaintiffs had not proposed a suitable methodology for establishing the critical elements of causation and injury on a class-wide basis. Without a reliable methodology, plaintiffs had not shown that they could prove at trial, using common evidence, that putative class members in fact paid a premium for the beverage. Because individualized inquiries as to causation, injury, and damages for each of the millions of putative class members would predominate over any issues of law or fact common to the class, plaintiffs’ claim could not be certified under Rule 23(b)(3).

Snapple then moved for summary judgment on the two named plaintiffs' individual claims
under New York's consumer protection laws, as well as claims of unjust enrichment and breach of express warranty.

Jurisdiction was predicated on CAFA, so a preliminary issue was whether the court retained jurisdiction after the denial of class certification. The statute does not speak directly to
the issue of whether class certification is a prerequisite to federal jurisdiction, and the Second Circuit has not addressed the issue. The circuits that have considered the issue, however, have uniformly concluded that federal jurisdiction under CAFA does not depend on class certification. See Cunningham Charter Corp. v. Learjet, Inc., 592 F.3d 805, 806 (7th Cir. 2010); United Steel, Paper & Forestry, Rubber, Mfg., Energy, Allied Indus. & Serv. Workers Int’l Union, AFL-CIO, CLC
v. Shell Oil Co., 602 F.3d 1087, 1092 (9th Cir. 2010); Vega v. T-Mobile USA, Inc., 564 F.3d 1256, 1268 n.12 (11th Cir. 2009).

The court granted the motion, finding that the named plaintiffs had failed to show that they were injured as a result of Snapple's labeling.  According to Snapple, because the plaintiffs had not offered evidence showing either the price they paid for Snapple or the prices charged by competitors for comparable beverages, they could not demonstrate that they paid a premium for the “All Natural” Snapple product and thus could not show harm stemming from the allegedly misleading label.  Neither of the plaintiffs had any record of his purchases of Snapple. Their most recent purchases were made in 2005 and 2007, or 3 to 5 years before their deposition testimony was taken. Not surprisingly, they had only vague recollections of the locations, dates, and prices of their purchases of Snapple. Besides being unable to establish the actual price they paid for the Snapple products at issue here, the plaintiffs have offered no other evidence from which to
calculate the premium they paid for Snapple. The court agreed that plaintiffs failed to prove that they paid more for Snapple's products than they would have for comparable beverages.

As for the breach of expressed warranty claim, an injured party is entitled to the benefit of its bargain, measured as the difference between the value of the product as warranted by the manufacturer and its true value at the time of the transaction. Because the plaintiffs
had not demonstrated that they purchased Snapple's drinks in reliance on the “all natural”
label, they could not show any such difference in value. 

Supreme Court Hears Argument in Personal Jurisdiction Cases

Continuing our Supreme Court theme.  We have posted before about two cases involving personal jurisdiction over foreign corporations in state courts, now pending in SCOTUS.  McIntyre Machinery Ltd. v. Nicastro, U.S., No. 09-1343 (certiorari petition granted 9/28/10); Goodyear Luxembourg Tires SA v. Brown, U.S., No. 10-76 (certiorari petition granted 9/28/10). The former involves the assertion by New Jersey courts of jurisdiction over a European manufacturer of a machine that allegedly injured a state resident; the latter involves the assertion by North Carolina courts of general jurisdiction over the European affiliates of the manufacturer of tires allegedly responsibly for a vehicle accident in Europe injuring state residents on vacation there.

NICASTRO ORAL ARGUMENT
Several members of the Supreme Court were active in questioning the advocates in the Nicastro oral argument.  The defendant kept its argument focused on the “purposeful availment” branch of the prior case law on personal jurisdiction, the rule that a foreign company needs to intentionally take advantage of doing business in a state, and arguing that it matters whether the manufacturer directed the distributor to go to a certain state or controlled the relationship with customers in that state.

Several of the justices asked hypothetical questions about a variety of fact patterns beyond those presented by the case.  As difficult as the individual case may be per se, the Court recognizes that whatever rules it lays down here will have a potentially dramatic impact on foreign and domestic corporations, including small business, and the economy. Accordingly, a number of  questions were asked to help explore how the rules might impact other factual scenarios as well. Justice Kagan asked defense counsel to explain the difference between targeting the “United States” with your product and targeting one or more individual states, and whether targeting the country meant that you were automatically targeting each state within the country. (Traditionally, of course, the case law had focused on contacts with the individual state in which the defendant was being sued.) Justice Scalia asked whether the same issue arises for a domestic corporation; that is, a U.S. manufacturer could thus be sued in every state if it simply targeted the country as a whole.

Justice Ginsburg expressed concern about the whether plaintiff would be left with no forum (other than England) if New Jersey was not available, which led to a lengthy debate about Ohio, the home of the U.S. distributor, and the importance of the distributor contract. Justice Scalia returned to the notion of targeting the country, as opposed to a state, and wondered if the federal courts could be given jurisdiction over such cases by Congress, to which Justice Kennedy wondered aloud whether it would be “odd” to have federal courts but no state courts having jurisdiction over a state law-based product claim. This even led to a brief mention of the pending foreign manufacturer legislation in Congress, which we have posted on.

Justice Sotomayor asked about the facts in the record that the English company traveled to trade shows in the U.S., “approved” the marketing efforts of the distributor, or “suggested” certain advertising, and whether that would be enough to make it reasonable to be hauled into court where the product then has been sold. (Justice Kagan later asked plaintiff’s counsel about this, seemingly trying to get at whether the manufacturer knew and expected that people from all 50 states might attend the trade shows).  Chief Justice Roberts asked plaintiff’s counsel about what a manufacturer has to do to not be targeting a specific state, getting plaintiff to concede that both intent and conduct on the part of the manufacturer is needed to purposefully avail oneself. Justice Breyer and Justice Scalia seemed to observe that “availment” doesn’t mean much at all if the conduct of the English manufacturer here was sufficient.
 

Justice Breyer expressed the policy concern about subjecting every small business, even in developing countries, to the products liability law of each of the 50 states simply because they agreed to sell to an independent company that was going to sell in the U.S. generally. Justice Kagan and Justice Ginsburg prompted plaintiff’s counsel to say that a U.S. company doing the same thing in Europe as the English company did in this case would be subject to suit in the foreign country (implying that it was fair for the U.S. courts to do to foreign companies what foreign courts allegedly do to U.S. companies abroad). Chief Justice Roberts asked a hypothetical designed to address the issue of a plaintiff who lives in state A and commutes into state B to use the product at work, and whether he can also sue in his home state A, stating that “the stream of commerce doesn’t wash over the United States evenly.”

C.J. Roberts and Justice Kagan then asked about component parts makers. Plaintiff answered that there should be a different test for a component part maker and acknowledged that mere knowledge that the part would go into a machine to be sold in the U.S. was insufficient for the exercise of jurisdiction.

Justice Alito brought up the difficult issue of Internet websites, and Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and Kennedy all later chimed in on this topic. Plaintiff drew a distinction (as some lower courts have) between a passive website, and an active site at which a plaintiff may have conducted the transaction for the product from his home computer. Plaintiff argued that the actual conduct of the sale was purposeful availment sufficient to be hauled into court there.


BROWN ORAL ARGUMENT
The Court then heard argument in the Brown case. Here, the argument generated far fewer questions.  While Justice Ginsburg seemed to ask the defendant difficult question in the New Jersey case, here she found “troubling” the North Carolina court’s apparent and questionable blending of the concepts of general and specific jurisdiction. Indeed, the argument focused on general jurisdiction as opposed to specific jurisdiction.

Much of the early part of the argument also involved a discussion of the relationship between the foreign subsidiary defendants and the parent U.S. corporation, which here had consented to jurisdiction. There were numerous questions about the subsidiaries and parent as a joint enterprise, the parent as agent of the subsidiaries, and whether the actions of the parent could be attributed to the subsidiaries for purposes of establishing jurisdiction over the subsidiaries. Justice Sotomayor asked whether plaintiff’s argument really was nothing more than a reverse of the typical principal-agent theory.

The federal government appeared in the case as amicus curiae and argued on behalf of defendants, against the finding of jurisdiction. It argued that even if the contacts of the parent could be attributed to the subsidiaries, those contacts still did not rise to the level necessary for the finding of general jurisdiction; and that the consent to jurisdiction of the parent would not extend to every corporation in the corporate family. Justice Scalia, in particular, seemed to be expressing some doubt that the level of coordination between the defendants demonstrated a unitary enterprise. The last part of the argument concerned policy issues, such as whether the finding of jurisdiction would cause companies to move all operations out of the U.S. for fear that even the actions of a separate entity in the corporate family would keep them in the U.S. courts.

Both cases were submitted for consideration, with decisions expected late in the spring of 2011.

Supreme Court Passes on Case Involving State Retention of Private Counsel

The U.S. Supreme Court declined last week to review a California Supreme Court ruling that permitted cities and counties to engage private attorneys for public nuisance litigation against lead paint defendants on a contingency fee basis.  See Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Santa Clara County, Calif., No. 10-546 (U.S. cert. denied 1/10/11).

Readers may recall our previous posts on the important issue of  the power of government agencies to retain private plaintiffs attorneys on a contingency fee basis to prosecute nuisance litigation.  One case we posted on was County of Santa Clara v. The Superior Court of Santa Clara County, Cal., No. S163681 (7/26/10), in which a group of public entities composed of various California counties and cities were prosecuting a public-nuisance action against numerous businesses that manufactured lead paint.

The state supreme court permitted the use of contingency fee counsel with restrictions. To pass muster, neutral government attorneys must retain and exercise the requisite control and supervision over both the conduct of private attorneys and the overall prosecution of the case. Such control of the litigation by neutral attorneys supposedly will provide a safeguard against the possibility that private attorneys unilaterally will engage in inappropriate prosecutorial strategy and tactics geared to maximize their monetary reward. Accordingly, when public entities have retained the requisite authority in appropriate civil actions to control the litigation and to make all critical discretionary decisions, the impartiality required of government attorneys prosecuting the case on behalf of the public has been maintained, said the court. 

We noted that the list of specific indicia of control identified by the court seem quite strained, and to elevate form over substance, written agreements over human nature. Defendants sought cert review. In amicus filings, various trade organizations including the American Chemistry Council, the American Coatings Association, and the National Association of Manufacturers, argued that the financial incentives inherent in contingency-fee agreements simply distort the decision-making of both the government lawyers and the private attorneys they retain. Inadequately grounded contingency fee arrangements distort the state's duty of even-handedness not only to defendants, but also to the public. The amici argued that public nuisance cases are not typical tort lawsuits because they claim to be pursued in the public interest. It violates due process for the type of personal financial assessment made by contingency fee private lawyers to impact the decisions in a public nuisance action brought in the government's sovereign capacity. The briefing also raised another important practical issue: the attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrines will block any meaningful inquiry into whether the government is actually exercising the appropriate control that he state court said would solve these issues.

These kinds of contingency fee prosecutors threaten to diminish the public's faith in the fairness of civil government prosecutions. These arrangements frequently result in allegations that government officials are doling out contingency fee agreements to lawyers who make substantial campaign contributions.


 

CPSC to Hold Webinars on New Product Safety Database

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is holding two Web conferences to demonstrate to interested stakeholders various aspects of its new (and still controversial) consumer product safety information database.  The conferences will focus on the incident reporting form, industry registration and comment features, and the search function of the publicly available part of the database.

The first Web conference will be held from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. today, January 11, 2011, and the second Web conference will be held from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 20th. The first Web conference will focus on the incident form that the public will use to file a report of harm and the search function of the database. The Web conference is intended to inform all interested stakeholders of the information required on the form to be used to report an incident, in addition to an explanation of the public search function of the Database.  The second Web conference will focus on the industry registration and comment features, the process for reporting incidents, and the public search component of the database.  It will address how to access and use the new business portal, and how to register an account on the business portal, which is designed to facilitate more efficient electronic notice, review, and comment on reports of harm before they are published in the database.  The database is set to go live March 11 through the CPSC's website.

As we have noted, the database raises a number of significant issues for our readers, as the CPSC will not be able to guarantee the accuracy of reports before it publishes them on the database, important confidentiality concerns may be compromised, and the data appears vulnerable to trolling and misuse by plaintiff lawyers.  Reports of harm will be published in the database 10 business days after the company has been provided notice of the report of harm. The CPSC has acknowledged that it will not be able to independently verify the accuracy of the information in the reports in that time, so  manufacturers will need to attempt to ask the CPSC to remove “materially inaccurate information” and “confidential information” in the report before it is published, or file comments about the report of harm to be published along with the report in the database.  As a practical matter, it may be difficult for a company to fully investigate the allegations in the report in that time frame. Moreover, any such investigation will likely not include an interview of the person who filed the report, because the person filing the report can choose to not release his or her name.

Reports may be filed not only by consumers but by health care workers, attorneys, and many others. Plaintiffs' lawyers have an unhealthy incentive to seed the database with self serving reports, and, at the least, may search the database looking for products to go after.

Again, companies should register with the CPSC so that they can receive the most timely notice of a report filed about their products.  It may make sense to consider developing an SOP for reviewing and following up on reports in the database, including designation of a lead reviewer or team to follow through. This SOP may include a plan for quickly preparing the appropriate documentation that the company's products are in fact reasonably safe, and for dealing with any adverse PR.  


 

Dismissal of FEMA Trailer MDL Bellwether Plaintiff Affirmed

With the recognition by many courts of the inappropriateness of the use of the class action device for personal injury claims, the use of other methods to manage mass torts has emerged.  One approach frequently seen within MDLs is the bellwether trial.  Only a proportion of the cases are selected for case specific discovery; only a fraction of them go into a trial pool; and only a percentage of them are selected for trial, to serve as bellwethers for the remaining cases. The hope is that the trial-selected cases provide sufficient information, about claims and defenses, and case values, to inform and propel the disposition of the remaining cases. Such trials may force plaintiffs' counsel to prepare their standard trial package, and the trials may give some sense of how sound that package is. The bellwether trials may give the court a context to resolve legal questions that arise at a trial as witnesses begin to take the stand. Bellwether trials may test the expert witnesses and theories, and give both parties a sense of how much it costs to try a case to verdict. In theory, test trials are to produce valuable information that will allow the parties to assess the strength and settlement value of all the related cases. Accordingly, which cases go first, from among the hundreds or thousands in the mass tort can be extremely significant.

The process for selection of the bellwether cases is crucial.  If plaintiffs are permitted to handpick their best cases to go first, the process works only if plaintiffs lose their best cases; if they win their best cases, that comes as no surprise to anyone.  Ideally the court would pick truly representative cases. 

A significant, although less well recognized issue, is what happens when a bellwether plaintiff cannot or will not go to trial.  Plaintiffs often adopt this tactic to replace a plaintiff whose claim turns out to be, after discovery, not as strong as originally expected.  In the FEMA trailer formaldehyde MDL, the Fifth Circuit recently confirmed that plaintiffs cannot play fast and loose with the procedure, dropping plaintiffs from the line for trial without some sanction. The court of appeals refused to resuscitate a bellwether claim that was dismissed with prejudice after the plaintiff said he could not go forward with trial. In re: FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litig., No. 09-31131 (5th Cir. 12/14/10).

Raymond Bell and his mother, like thousands of other plaintiffs, filed suit against multiple defendants who participated in the government’s program to supply temporary housing for victims of the devastating 2005 hurricanes. These cases were assigned by the Multi-District Litigation Panel for pretrial management by Judge Engelhardt in New Orleans. The MDL court set dates in 2009 and 2010 for four bellwether cases, each to be prosecuted by a plaintiff against one of the four trailer manufacturers estimated to have the most units at issue in the suits. The case of Diana Bell, Raymond’s mother, was identified as the bellwether case against Keystone RV, manufacturer of the trailer in which her family had lived.  Diana then dropped out, and voluntarily dismissed her case with prejudice. After consulting with counsel, the court promptly selected Raymond Bell as the next bellwether plaintiff in order to maintain the benefit of trial preparation concerning the particular trailer they both had lived in. The next Bell, however, also moved to substitute a new bellwether plaintiff or obtain a continuance of the 2010 trial date.

He made three arguments in support of this dual motion. He asserted he could not take two weeks off from his job to attend trial;  he could not afford to forego at least one week of income; and the trial dates would interfere with his participation in Community College classes at the beginning of the spring semester.

The trial court concluded that Raymond Bell really did not want to go to trial. He moved for a dismissal without prejudice and attached an affidavit asserting as fact the arguments noted above. He expressed doubt about the curative impact of the judge’s proposed instruction if he were to be absent from part of the trial.  The MDL court noted that plaintiffs’ counsel should take notice that all plaintiffs who assert claims in an MDL have to be ready and willing to serve as bellwether plaintiffs, if called upon to do so. The claims of those plaintiffs who refuse to do so, when called upon, will be dismissed with prejudice.

The reasoning was that the parties had expended much time, effort, and money into readying the case involving the Bell trailer for trial. Based on the decisions of the plaintiffs, all the pre-trial work and discovery relating to the Bell trailer was rendered utterly useless. All of the resources spent in preparing this case for trial had been wasted. Because the parties had to choose another bellwether plaintiff, which will involve conducting discovery on an entirely different trailer and readying a completely different case for trial, the claims of Mr. Bell, like those of Mrs. Bell, should be dismissed with prejudice.   Not doing so would possibly cause other bellwether plaintiffs to “jump ship” at the last minute; this is obviously a tactic that any MDL court does not wish to encourage.

On appeal the Fifth Circuit found that it was not hard to justify the court’s decision to deny the plaintiff's alternative motions. Raymond Bell’s attempt to withdraw as plaintiff or to continue seemed contrived, especially in light of his mother’s less than diligent prosecution of a claim bearing on the same trailer. Nothing in his motion papers distinguished Bell’s inconvenience in going forward with trial from the inconvenience that any plaintiff may suffer from having to try the case he has filed. The case had been pending for months, the parties had been actively preparing for trial.

Plain legal prejudice would have accrued to defendants from an unconditional dismissal of Raymond Bell’s case without prejudice. The court would have to realign Keystone RV with a new bellwether plaintiff who resided in a different trailer and whose suit would almost surely add a different group of subsidiary defendants. Not only would Bell be able to refile his suit, but the appellees were in no way spared the continuing costs of legal defense. Defendants'  investment in trial preparation for Bell’s case was wasted. Moreover, other plaintiffs in the FEMA trailer formaldehyde litigation were disadvantaged by the tactics employed on Bell’s behalf as they were delayed in acquiring trial information important for their cases. The size and scope of this multiparty litigation inescapably heightened the prejudice from Bell’s motion to dismiss.

Bottom line is that Bell wanted to have his cake and eat it too by withdrawing from a bellwether
trial and then sitting back to await the outcome of another plaintiff’s experience against the appellees. When a plaintiff files any court case, however, sitting back is no option. He must be prepared to undergo the costs, psychological, economic and otherwise, that litigation entails. That the plaintiff becomes one of a mass of thousands pursuing particular defendants lends urgency to this reality. Courts must be exceedingly wary of mass litigation in which plaintiffs are unwilling to move their cases to trial. Any individual case may be selected as a bellwether, and no plaintiff has the right to avoid the obligation to proceed with his own suit, if so selected.

 

 

Court of Appeals Affirms Exclusion of Plaintiff Causation Experts in Toxic Tort Case

Insecticide manufacturers held on to summary judgment as the Eight Circuit affirmed the lower court's causation ruling under DaubertJunk v. Terminix International Co., No. 08-3811 (8th Cir., 12/9/10).

The plaintiffs'  home had been infested with spiders during the mother's pregnancy, and she contacted Terminix about the problem.  Defendant thereafter sprayed a pesticide inside and outside the Junks' home, approximately 20 times, the last occurring two years after her son's birth. Junk alleged that the child's multiple medical conditions were caused by exposure to ingredients in Dursban, an insecticide manufactured by Dow, distributed by Terminix.

The defendants moved to exclude the causation testimony of plaintiffs' two medical experts, and for summary judgment.  The trial court first excluded the testimony of Dr. Richard Fenske, who had been retained to determine whether the son had been exposed to an unsafe level of the insecticide during his mother's pregnancy and after his birth. Dr. Fenske testified that when making toxic exposure and dosage estimates he usually relied on a "deterministic modeling" method in which he creates an exposure model that accounts for numerous variables. In this case, however, he did not have sufficient data to perform such an analysis. Instead, he compared what he knew about the circumstances of the child's exposure with those in published studies. This comparative analysis led him to conclude that plaintiff had been exposed to an unsafe level. Observing that Dr. Fenske had not followed his own usual methodology and concluding that he had relied on a number of ungrounded assumptions in his comparative approach, the district court excluded his opinion on the ground that his methodology was not sufficiently reliable.

Dr. Cynthia Bearer's testimony was also excluded. She was a neonatologist and board certified pediatrician whom Junk retained to give her opinion on general and specific causation.  Because Dr. Bearer's opinion on specific causation relied on Dr. Fenske's conclusions, after the court excluded Dr. Fenske's testimony, it found Dr. Bearer's opinion on specific causation also lacked a scientific factual basis and declined to admit it.

Plaintiffs appealed.

The court of appeals agreed that Dr. Fenske's comparative analysis depended on various unsupported assumptions. He did not account for differences between conditions in the Junk household and those described in the articles he consulted. In one instance, his only basis for comparison was the fact that the Junk household and those in a particular study were all treated with the Dursban ingredient chlorpyrifos. In another, he relied on a study where the only common variable between the Junks' experience and the homes studied was the total amount of chlorpyrifos applied. Dr. Fenske thus disregarded other important variables such as where and how chlorpyrifos was applied in the household and whether the homes in a comparison study were the same size as the Junks' home.


While Dr. Fenske was not required to produce a mathematically precise table equating levels of exposure with levels of harm, he was required to have a "scientifically valid" method to estimate that plaintiff's exposure exceeded a safe level. The expert's failure to follow his own general practice and his reliance on unfounded assumptions in his comparative method created "too great an analytical gap" between his opinion and the data on which it relied.

Because Dr. Bearer's differential diagnosis depended on Dr. Fenske's opinion on exposure, the district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding it. A differential diagnosis begins with an expert's "ruling in" plausible causes of an injury. See Kudabeck v. Kroger Co., 338 F.3d 856, 860–61 (8th Cir. 2003). Then the expert "rules out" less likely causes until the most likely cause remains. Without a scientific basis for including unsafe chlorpyrifos exposure in her differential, her opinion amounted to speculation.

To succeed in her claims, Junk needed to present expert testimony showing that the chlorpyfiros could have caused the son's injuries and that it did in fact cause those injuries. Junk's  experts did not survive the district court's Daubert analysis. After the court properly excluded Dr. Bearer's
testimony, Junk could not prove specific causation as required under Iowa law. As there was no longer a genuine issue of material fact as to that necessary element, Dow and Terminix were entitled to judgment.

 

 
 

Seventh Circuit Sticks to Its Criticism of CopyCat Class Action

Last month we posted about a class action decision from the Seventh Circuit, in which the court of appeals approved an injunction against copycat litigation once class certification was denied.  Thorogood v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., No. 10-2407 (7th Cir., 11/02/10).

Ordinarily the ability to plead res judicata or collateral estoppel gives a litigant adequate protection against being harassed by repetitive litigation by the loser in a previous suit against him. But this case was unusual, said Judge Posner, both because it involved class action litigation and because of the specific tactics employed by class counsel. Class members are interested in relief for the class but the lawyers are primarily interested in their fees, and the class members’ stakes in the litigation are ordinarily too small to motivate them to supervise the lawyers in an effort to align the lawyers’ incentives with their own. The defendant wants to minimize outflow of expenditures
and the class counsel wants to increase inflow of attorneys’ fees. "Both can achieve their goals if they collude to sacrifice the interests of the class.” Leslie, “The Significance of Silence: Collective Action Problems and Class Action Settlements,” 59 Fla. L. Rev. 71, 79-81 (2007). And when the
central issue in a case is given class treatment and so will be resolved once and for all, a trial becomes a roll of the dice. Depending on the size of the class, a single throw may determine the outcome of an immense number of separate claims (hundreds of thousands, in this home dryer
litigation)—there is no averaging of decisions over a number of triers of fact having different abilities, priors, and biases. The risk of error becomes asymmetric when the number of claims aggregated in the class action is so great that an adverse verdict would push the defendant into bankruptcy; in such a case the defendant will be under great pressure to settle even if the merits
of the case are slight.

The plaintiff appellee filed a petition for panel rehearing, and rehearing en banc. All the judges  voted to deny the petitions, and typically that is the end of the appeal.  But the court wrote an opinion about the denial, "in view of the accusations leveled in the petition by the plaintiff’s lawyer."

On the merits, said the court, the petition ignored the principal reasons for enjoining the copycat class actions, and said virtually nothing about the All Writs Act, which was the very grounds for the prior decision.  The petition also ignored the point that class certification was improper given the nature of the plaintiff's claim, which did not present common issues that would support a class action.  It ignored the panel's criticism of the district court reasoning, and mischaracterized the scope of the injunction, as individual claims were not enjoined.

The petition's main concern was with the language used in the opinion describing plaintiff counsel as pugnacious, pertinacious to a fault, and a "nuisance." To which the panel responded that the petition ignored the facts and analysis that supported those characterizations, and the right of a court to  and the duty of a court to note unacceptable tactics.

The petition claims the panel did not treat the counsel with respect, to which the court noted that the lawyer had compared Judge Posner to Simon Cowell.

What the panel had said is that the structure of class actions gives plaintiff lawyers an incentive to negotiate settlements that enrich themselves but give scant rewards to class members. With numerous citations, the panel noted that the criticisms in the prior opinion of the tactics employed by some class action lawyers are not criticisms made by judges alone, let alone judges of the panel or judges of the Seventh Circuit.

So far from retracting any criticisms or modifying any language, the court reaffirmed its key criticisms.

Use of Contingency Fee Private Counsel Appealed

A variety of business groups have weighed in as amici, asking the Supreme Court to recognize how contingency fee arrangements by California counties and cities pursuing lead paint litigation violated the due process rights of the defendants. Atlantic Richfield Co. v. County of Santa Clara, No. 10-546 (U.S., amicus curiae brief submitted 11/24/10).

Readers may recall our previous posts about how the California supreme court had taken a major step backward by modifying a 1985 decision that had limited the power of government agencies to retain private plaintiffs attorneys on a contingency fee basis to prosecute nuisance litigation. County of Santa Clara v. The Superior Court of Santa Clara County, No. S163681 (Cal. 7/26/10).

A group of public entities composed of various California counties and cities were prosecuting a public-nuisance action against numerous businesses that manufactured lead paint. Defendants moved to bar the public entities from compensating their privately retained counsel by means of contingent fees. The lower court, relying upon People ex rel. Clancy v. Superior Court, 39 Cal.3d 740 (1985), ordered that the public entities were barred from compensating their private counsel by means of any contingent-fee agreement, reasoning that under Clancy, all attorneys prosecuting public-nuisance actions must be “absolutely neutral.”

The state supreme court acknowledged that Clancy arguably supported defendants' position favoring a bright-line rule barring any attorney with a financial interest in the outcome of a case from representing the interests of the public in a public nuisance abatement action. The court proceeded to engage in a reexamination of the rule in Clancy, however, finding it should be "narrowed," in recognition of both (1) the wide array of public-nuisance actions (and the corresponding diversity in the types of interests implicated by various prosecutions), and (2) the different means by which prosecutorial duties may be delegated to private attorneys supposedly without compromising either the integrity of the prosecution or the public's faith in the judicial process.

The state court had previously concluded that for purposes of evaluating the propriety of a contingent-fee agreement between a public entity and a private attorney, the neutrality rules applicable to criminal prosecutors were equally applicable to government attorneys prosecuting certain civil cases. The court had noted that a prosecutor's duty of neutrality stems from two fundamental aspects of his or her employment. As a representative of the government, a prosecutor must act with the impartiality required of those who govern. Second, because a prosecutor has as a resource the vast power of the government, he or she must refrain from abusing that power by failing to act evenhandedly.

But then, the court concluded that to the extent Clancy suggested that public-nuisance prosecutions always invoke the same constitutional and institutional interests present in a criminal case, that analysis was "unnecessarily broad" and failed to take into account the wide spectrum of cases a state may bring. The court described a range of cases; criminal cases require complete neutrality. In some ordinary civil cases, neutrality is not a concern when the government acts as an ordinary party to a controversy, simply enforcing its own contract and property rights against individuals and entities that allegedly have infringed upon those interests. The nuisance cases fall between these two extremes on the spectrum of neutrality required of a government attorney. The case was not an “ordinary” civil case in that the public entities' attorneys were appearing as representatives of the public and not as counsel for the government acting as an ordinary party in a civil controversy. The case was being prosecuted on behalf of the public, and, accordingly, the concerns identified in Clancy as being inherent in a public prosecution were, indeed, implicated.

But, despite that, state supreme court found that the interests affected in this case were not similar in character to those invoked by a criminal prosecution or the nuisance action in Clancy. The case would not have resulted in an injunction that prevents the defendants from continuing their current business operations. The challenged conduct (the production and distribution of lead paint) has been illegal in the state since 1978. Accordingly, whatever the outcome of the litigation, no ongoing business activity would be enjoined. Nor would the case prevent defendants from exercising any First Amendment right. Although liability may be based in part on prior commercial speech, the remedy would not involve enjoining current or future speech, said the court.

While a heightened standard of neutrality was required for attorneys prosecuting public-nuisance cases on behalf of the government, that heightened standard of neutrality is not always compromised by the hiring of contingent-fee counsel to assist government attorneys in the prosecution of a public-nuisance abatement action. Use of private counsel on a contingent-fee basis is permissible in such cases if neutral, conflict-free government attorneys retain the power to control and supervise the litigation.

In so finding, the court downplayed the reality that the public attorneys' decision-making conceivably could be influenced by their professional reliance upon the private attorneys' expertise and a concomitant sense of obligation to those attorneys to ensure that they receive payment for their many hours of work on the case.To pass muster, neutral government attorneys must retain and exercise the requisite control and supervision over both the conduct of private attorneys and the overall prosecution of the case. Such control of the litigation by neutral attorneys supposedly will provide a safeguard against the possibility that private attorneys unilaterally will engage in inappropriate prosecutorial strategy and tactics geared to maximize their monetary reward. .

The list of specific indicia of control identified by the state supreme court seem quite strained, however, and to elevate form over substance, and written agreements over human nature. The authority to settle the case involves a paramount discretionary decision and is an important factor in ensuring that defendants' constitutional right to a fair trial is not compromised by overzealous actions of an attorney with a pecuniary stake in the outcome.  In reality, even if the control of private counsel by government attorneys is viable in theory, it fails in application because private counsel in such cases are hired based upon their expertise and experience, and therefore always will assume a primary and controlling role in guiding the course of the litigation, rendering illusory the notion of government “control”.

Defendants are seeking cert review. In amicus filings, various trade organizations including the American Chemistry Council, the American Coatings Association, and the National Association of Manufacturers, have argued that the financial incentives inherent in contingency-fee agreements simply distort the decision-making of both the government lawyers and the private attorneys they retain. Inadequately grounded contingency fee arrangements distort the state's duty of even-handedness not only to defendants, but also to the public.  The amici argue that public nuisance cases are not typical tort lawsuits because they claim to be pursued in the public interest. It violates due process for the type of personal financial assessment made by contingency fee private lawyers impacts the decisions in a public nuisance action brought in the government's sovereign capacity. The briefing also raises another important practical issue: the attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrines will block any meaningful inquiry into whether the government is actually exercising the appropriate control that he state court said would solve these issues.

CPSC Approves Product Safety Database Rule

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission last week gave final approval to the controversial
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. Readers may know that Section 212 of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (‘‘CPSIA’’) amended the Consumer Product Safety Act (‘‘CPSA’’) to require the Commission to establish and maintain a publicly available, searchable database on the safety of consumer products, and other products or substances regulated by the Commission.

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.

The rule will give consumers access to reports of alleged product-related safety incidents via a new publicly accessible database.  Consumers, government agencies, and various public health and safety interest groups will be able to post largely self-verified reports related to the safety of any product regulated by the CPSC.

Manufacturers will 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 will be accompanied by a weak disclaimer stipulating that CPSC has not verified the accuracy of any report.  But the Democratic commissioners rejected any system by which the CPSC could investigate obviously questionable claims and find out the origin of such reports before allowing the public to see and use them.   We posted about these very issues last Spring, and argued that the CPSC had not fully addressed them.  It still seems that insufficient attention has been paid by the majority commissioners 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.

Accordingly, a product seller may only make a comment in response to the report of harm, which may be published; claim the report of harm contains confidential business information, triggering a CPSC review of the claim; and/or claim the report of harm contains materially inaccurate information (e.g., that it is not the manufacturer or private labeler of the product), triggering a CPSC review of the claim. Materially inaccurate information is narrowly defined to include information that is false or misleading and relates to a matter which is so substantial and important as to affect a reasonable consumer’s decision making about the product. 

CPSC is expected to have the database go live at www.saferproducts.gov in March, 2011. In the meantime, the Commission plans to start outreach on business portal registration and features; conduct workshops with manufacturers and private labelers; offer training webinars; and finalize the new incident report form.

City Passes Ban on Happy Meals

We haven't weighed in yet on the latest crazy development in the food world, that attack by some of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on "Happy Meals."  And no, this is not sour grapes for the Giants having beaten the Phillies. The Board of Supervisors recently voted to ban meals packaged with toys unless the meal contains fruits and vegetables, is less than 600 calories and is very low in fat and sodium, and, presumably, doesn't taste good and won't make your kid happy. 

So much is wrong with that, it's hard to know where to start. 

It undercuts the rights of consumers to choose. If more people wanted these kinds of meals, more fast food restaurants would sell them. (You can get carrots and milk with a Happy Meal by the way.) That's the way a free economy is supposed to work. San Francisco (or at least a majority of the Board) is simply taking choice away from consumers, the right to eat or drink what he or she chooses.  Apparently, these Board members are part of that new government mindset in which individuals are incapable of making decisions for themselves.  Only the government can make those choices.
 

But, it's about obesity in children, argues the Board.  We say parents, not politicians, should decide what their children eat. So the impact on kids is actually another reason this bill is a bad idea, an unwise and unprecedented governmental intrusion into parental responsibilities and family choices.  It is a parents' right and responsibility — not the government's — to make their own decisions and to choose what’s right for their children.

On this basis, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom wisely vetoed the ban on Happy Meals, but the Board of Supervisors voted 8-3 just this week to override Newsom’s veto.

Put aside the policy debate, one of the most troubling aspects is the quote from a sponsor that this bill was part of "an agenda of food justice.”  Seen in this light, the bill is part of a broader legal campaign that will include litigation against food companies.  Indeed, as we have posted on before, the so-called Center for Science in the Public Interest has threatened to  file a lawsuit against McDonald’s, attacking the company's marketing of Happy Meals. In our view, the CSPI needs to worry more about junk science than junk food.

 

Update on Jurisdiction Cases Pending in Supreme Court

We alerted readers recently that the Supreme Court had granted review in two product liability cases that raise cutting edge personal jurisdiction issues that may not only impact foreign manufacturers but and may also alter due process/personal jurisdiction jurisprudence generally. See J. McIntyre Machinery Ltd. v. Nicastro, U.S., No. 09-1343 (certiorari petition granted 9/28/10); Goodyear Luxembourg Tires SA v. Brown, U.S., No. 10-76 (certiorari petition granted 9/28/10).

Personal jurisdiction, of course, 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 very 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 is: 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 general, overall U.S. market for the sale of its product and that product is purchased by a forum state consumer. The corresponding issue in Brown is: 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.

"Stream of commerce" personal jurisdiction, debated frequently in the lower courts, if recognized by the Supreme Court, might allow any state to assume jurisdiction over any product manufacturer whose product found its way into the state, no matter how many independent, separate distributors the product had passed through in separate legal transactions. The original stream of commerce idea had included the element of a manufacturer's expectation that its products will be purchased in the specific forum state. Many foreign and out-of-state manufacturers reasonably should know that their products are distributed through a system that might result in sales in any given state. Should that be enough? Readers may recall that the Supreme Court took a look at "stream of commerce" jurisdiction over 20 years ago, and split with no majority decision. But a plurality rejected the "stream of commerce" concept in Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court of California, 480 U.S. 102 (1987).

The foreign companies appealing the two state court rulings in two product liability cases recently filed merits briefs. See J.  McIntyre Machinery Ltd. v. Nicastro, No. 09-1343 (U.S. brief submitted 11/12/10); Goodyear Luxembourg Tires SA v. Brown,  No. 10-76 (U.S. brief submitted 11/12/10). There's a link to the Goodyear brief from the ABA Supreme Court Preview, and the McIntyre brief. Also, amici curiae filed briefs, including PLAC, Dow Chemical Canada ULC, the former ATLA now know as American Association for Justice, the Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America, and  the Organization for International Investment and Association of International Automobile Manufacturers Inc. 

In the NJ case, the defendant asks how a “new reality” of “a contemporary international economy” permits a state to exercise in personam jurisdiction over a foreign manufacturer pursuant to the stream of commerce theory solely because the manufacturer targets the US market for the sale of its product and the product is purchased by a forum state consumer?  The petitioner argues that the analysis in Justice O’Connor’s concurring opinion in Asahi is the better view; first, it embodies the requirement of active engagement, of personal agency, that the Supreme Court has made the centerpiece of its formulations of personal jurisdiction limits under the Constitution. Second, it avoids the subjectivity that inheres in the test of mere awareness advanced by
Justice Brennan on the other side of the Asahi split. A concrete formulation is especially valuable in giving out-of-state actors the fair notice that the Court  has  deemed essential in allowing persons to conform their behavior to avoid, if they choose, the possibility of being haled into the courts of a state.  A defendant must intentionally act and direct that action at, and sufficiently in, the very state that seeks to exercise power over that person. Only through purposeful availment a producer will have a fair opportunity to conform its conduct so as to avoid state power if the producer chooses. To predicate jurisdiction on anything less leads to a rule where every seller of chattels would in effect appoint the chattel his agent for service of process and his amenability to suit would travel with the chattel.

 
The Goodyear brief notes that, unlike specific jurisdiction—which inherently must adapt to the permutations raised by varying claims—general jurisdiction, which does not vary from claim to claim, is more susceptible to precise rules. Indeed, one of its primary functions is to provide a certain and predictable place where a person can be reached by those having claims against him. No Supreme Court decisions have held that a manufacturer’s mere participation in the stream of
commerce could create general jurisdiction wherever the manufacturer’s products were distributed. To the contrary, most courts have repeatedly indicated that injecting a product, even in substantial volume, into a forum’s stream of commerce, without more, does not support general jurisdiction. General jurisdiction based on the stream of commerce theory violates traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice because essentially universal jurisdiction would exist in every state’s courts over every significant seller of goods, foreign or domestic. Because general jurisdiction must be justified solely by reference to the relationship between the state and the defendant, that relationship must be so significant — sufficiently substantial and of such a nature — as to give the state a basis for global judicial authority over all of the defendant’s conduct, wherever it occurs.
 

The Supreme Court has set argument in the two cases for Jan. 11, 2011. They will be argued separately.

 

Court of Appeals Enjoins Copycat Class Actions

The Seventh Circuit has held that a "copycat" class action suit cannot go forward in federal court in California after a similar class action had already been denied certification in federal court in Illinois.  Thorogood v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., No. 10-2407 (7th Cir., 11/02/10).

The first class action in the package of related cases was filed in state court in Illinois but removed to federal court under the Class Action Fairness Act.  Thorogood, a Tennessean, bought a Kenmore-brand clothes dryer from Sears (Kenmore is a Sears brand name). The words “stainless steel” were imprinted on the dryer, and point-of-sale advertising explained that this meant that the drum in which the clothes are dried was made of stainless steel. Thorogood claimed to have thought that this meant that the drum was made entirely of stainless steel, whereas part of the front of the drum—a part the user would see only if he craned his head inside the drum—is made of a ceramic-coated steel. 

The district court certified a multi-state class of Kenmore-brand clothes dryer purchasers. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit called the case “a notably weak candidate for class treatment.” Not only did common issues of law or fact not predominate over the issues particular to each purchaser of a stainless steel Kenmore dryer, as Rule 23(b)(3) requires, there were, the court said, “no common issues of law or fact.” 547 F.3d at 746-47.  It was well-nigh inconceivable, said the court,  that the other members of the class had the same understanding of Sears’s advertising as Thorogood claimed to have. Sears hadn’t advertised the dryers as preventing rust stains on clothes; and it’s not as if such stains are a common concern of owners of dryers—there was no suggestion of that either.

Stainless steel appliances are popular even among consumers, undoubtedly the vast majority, who do not expect a dryer to cause rust stains. Stainless steel does not rust, and that is certainly a plus, clothing stains to one side. But ceramic doesn’t rust either.  Advertisements for clothes dryers mention a host of features that might matter to consumers, such as price, size, electrical usage, appearance, speed, and controls, but not the prevention of clothing stains attributable to rust. The litigation of the class members’ claims would thus have devolved into a series of individual hearings in which each class member who wanted to pursue relief against Sears would testify to what he understood to be the meaning of a label or an  advertisement that identified a clothes dryer as containing a stainless steel drum. Few if any of them would have shared Thorogood’s alleged concerns, which, were a confabulation, said the court.

After the court of appeals thus ordered the first class decertified, thus shrinking the suit to Thorogood’s individual claim, Sears made Thorogood an offer of judgment under Rule 68 of $20,000 inclusive of attorneys’ fees. The district judge, believing that Thorogood should receive no attorneys’ fees, dismissed the suit. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of attorneys’ fees and dismissal of the suit. 595 F.3d 759 (7th Cir. 2010).

The same plaintiffs' lawyer then brought Murray v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., No. 4:09-cv-
5744-CW (N.D. Cal.). Murray was a member of Thorogood’s class, and he brought essentially the identical claim in California.  Sears Roebuck sought an injunction halting the new class action in front of Judge Leinenweber, who had presided over and eventually dismissed Thorogood’s original class suit, but he ruled that Sears could obtain adequate relief against being harassed by repetitive litigation by pleading collateral estoppel in Murray’s suit in California. Sears appealed, asking the court to to reverse the district court's denial of  Sears’s motion to enjoin the virtually identical class action suit.

The Seventh Circuit (Judge Posner writing) noted that the class in Murray’s case was smaller than
Thorogood’s because it was limited to California purchasers, but it was still very large. The claims in Murray’s original complaint, when Sears pleaded the defense of collateral estoppel, were identical to Thorogood’s; they challenged the same advertising for the same models of clothes dryer. Murray acknowledged that he was alleging “a similar general set of operative facts as alleged in the Thorogood case.”  That caused the California court to find for Sears on collateral estoppel grounds.  So re judicata saves the day, just like the Illinois district court predicted in denying the requested injunction.

But (wouldn't be a blog-worthy case without the but) Murray then amended his complaint to allege additional facts in an effort to show that he had a different case, perhaps one more amenable to class action treatment. On the basis of the amendment, the district judge in California reversed his earlier ruling, and having thus rejected the defense of collateral estoppel allowed discovery to begin.

Ordinarily the ability to plead res judicata or collateral estoppel gives a litigant adequate protection against being harassed by repetitive litigation by the loser in a previous suit against him. But this case was unusual, said Judge Posner, both because it involved class action litigation and because of the specific tactics employed by class counsel. Class members are interested in relief for the class but the lawyers are primarily interested in their fees, and the class members’ stakes in the litigation are ordinarily too small to motivate them to supervise the lawyers in an effort to align the lawyers’ incentives with their own.  The defendant wants to minimize outflow of expenditures
and the class counsel wants to increase inflow of attorneys’ fees. "Both can achieve their goals if they collude to sacrifice the interests of the class.” Leslie, “The Significance of Silence: Collective Action Problems and Class Action Settlements,” 59 Fla. L. Rev. 71, 79-81 (2007). And when the
central issue in a case is given class treatment and so will be resolved once and for all, a trial becomes a roll of the dice. Depending on the size of the class, a single throw may determine the outcome of an immense number of separate claims (hundreds of thousands, in the dryer
litigation)—there is no averaging of decisions over a number of triers of fact having different abilities, priors, and biases. The risk of error becomes asymmetric when the number of claims aggregated in the class action is so great that an adverse verdict would push the defendant into bankruptcy; in such a case the defendant will be under great pressure to settle even if the merits
of the case are slight.

Moreover, in most class action suits, there is far more evidence that plaintiffs may be able to discover in defendants’ records (including emails, the vast and ever-expanding volume of
which has made the cost of discovery soar) than vice versa. Usually the defendants’ conduct is the focus of the litigation and it is in their records, generally much more extensive than the plaintiffs’ (especially when as in a consumer class action the plaintiffs are individuals
rather than corporations or other institutions), that the plaintiffs will want to go in search of a smoking gun.

There is no way in which Sears could recoup the expense of responding to Murray’s discovery requests and of filing preclusion defenses against even more soon-to-be-filed duplicative class actions in other states. The harm it faces from the denial of the injunction was irreparable and its remedy at law against settlement extortion nonexistent, found the Seventh Circuit.  Sears’s action under the All Writs Act was its only means, other than submitting to plaintiffs' lawyer’s  demands, of avoiding being drowned in the discovery bog.

Here, despite the artful pleading in the amneded complaint in California, there was nothing materially new in Murray’s complaint that should have allowed allow an escape from the bar of collateral estoppel. The critical issue was and is what consumers would understand by representations that the Kenmore dryer has a stainless steel drum. The finding in the first court was that common issues did not predominate in Thorogood’s suit; neither did they in Murray’s; the differences between the suits did not bear on that particulat finding.  Yet, the California court did not agree.

Sears’s motion had been filed under the “All Writs Act,” which authorizes a federal court to issue “all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of [its] jurisdiction and agreeable to the usages and
principles of law,” 28 U.S.C. § 1651(a), and which has been interpreted to empower a federal court “to issue such commands . . . as may be necessary or appropriate to effectuate and prevent the frustration of orders it has previously issued in its exercise of jurisdiction otherwise obtained.” United States v. N.Y. Tel. Co., 434 U.S. 159, 172 (1977). Abuse of litigation is a conventional ground for the issuance of an injunction under the All Writs Act, because without an injunction a defendant might have to plead the defense of res judicata or collateral estoppel in a myriad of jurisdictions in order to ward off a judgment, not without risks, and would be helpless against settlement extortion pressures.

The court of appeals left the details of the injunction to be worked out by the district judge, but noted that it had ordered the class decertified inthe first case because of the absence of issues common to all the class members. That ruling—as the injunction must make clear—does not preclude any of the class members from filing individual suits, should they choose. For it was not a ruling on the merits of any class member’s claim (including Thorogood’s). All that would be precluded is the filing (by members of Thorogood’s class, which includes the members of Murray’s class, or by the lawyers for those classes) of class action suits that are indistinguishable, so far as lack of commonality among class members’ claims is concerned, from Thorogood’s.  The plaintiff lawyers should be included in the injunction, as has been done in other cases. See In re Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., Tires Products Liability Litigation, 333 F.3d at 769; Newby v. Enron Corp., 302 F.3d 295, 300-03 (5th Cir. 2002).


 

Class Action Claims Against Labeling of Snack Food Preempted

Last week, a federal district court held that federal food labeling law does preempt state law claims attacking the use of phrases such as “0 Grams of Trans Fat” on snack food packaging. See Peviani v. Hostess Brands Inc., No. 2:10-cv-02303 (C.D. Cal., 11/3/10).

 In this putative class action, plaintiffs alleged that the defendant used misleading and deceptive statements to market the "Hostess 100 Calorie Packs" baked goods. In particular, plaintiffs alleged that the label noting "0 Grams of Trans Fat" was inconsistent with the products containing partially hydrogenated oils (PVHO).  Plaintiffs alleged that PVHO is linked to various health problems, and therefore is supposedly a "dangerous trans fat."

Plaintiffs alleged they purchased the 100 Calorie Pack foods relying on the no trans fat claim.  They asserted false advertising under the Lanham Act, violations of the California Unfair Competition Law, the California False Advertising Law, and the Consumer Legal Remedies Act. The two classes proposed were a restitution and damages nationwide class of those that purchased the foods, and an injunctive relief class of those who commonly purchase such foods.

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the claims were preempted by federal law.  The  court noted that the FDCA sets forth a comprehensive federal scheme for the regulation of food. In 1990, Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, 21 U.S.C. 341, which clarified FDA's authority to require and regulate nutrition labeling on food.  Two provisions directly apply to use of phrases like "0 Grams of Trans Fat."  One provision requires the labeling in the Nutrition Facts Panel to include the amount of saturated fat and total fat in each serving; and this regulation requires that if a serving contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat, the amount "shall be expressed as zero."  Second, a regulation permits certain nutrient claims outside the Facts Panel about the level or range of a nutrient in the food, such as sodium, or calories or fat.  The NLEA permits such a statement as long as it is not false or misleading. 21 U.S.C. §§ 343(q) and (r).

The court noted that laws regulating the proper marketing of food are within the states' historic police powers, and thus subject to a presumption against preemption.  Nevertheless, consumer protection laws, such as those invoked here, are nonetheless preempted if they seek to impose requirements (through their use in litigation) that contravene the provisions of the federal law.  The NLEA contains an express preemption clause relating to any requirement  in state law that is not identical to the federal provisions.  But the court noted that implied preemption can accompany express preemption, as the essential inquiry always remains the substance and scope of Congress' intent to displace state law.

Plaintiffs alleged that the trans fat label outside of the Nutrition Facts Panel was an express nutrient content claim, and was false and misleading.  But the court noted that the FDA has declined to promulgate any regulation as to whether actual values must be used in labeling or rounded values may be used. In fact, the FDA has said that the difference between actual and rounded values are nutritionally insignificant, and thus either value relays the same basic information.  Here, since the phrase "0 grams of Trans Fat" is not false or misleading when used in the Nutrition Facts Panel, defendant's use of the exact same phrase elsewhere on the product label cannot be found false or misleading. If 0 and less than 0.5 grams mean, nutritionally, the same thing in the important Panel section, use of the exact same claim could not be misleading elsewhere on the label.

In essence, plaintiffs were trying, under state law, to enjoin on the label the use of the very phrase that federal law permits on another part of the label.  Plaintiffs' claims failed because they would impose a state law obligation for trans-fat disclosure that is not required by federal law.  (The plaintiffs' federal claim, for false advertising under the Lanham Act, failed for lack of standing,.)

The decision echoed Chacanaca v. Quaker Oats Co.,  No. 5:10-cv-00502 (N.D. Cal., Oct. 14, 2010), which dismissed similar claims over the phrase “0 Grams Trans Fat” on preemption grounds.

These types of claims illustrate the lengths to which plaintiffs are going to attack the food and beverage industries.  No one was sick from the snacks, which were labeled in exact accordance with explicit federal requirements.  Yet, a multi-count claim is brought in state court, with the legal theory that, in essence, federally approved language in one part of a food label is false and misleading under state law when it appears in another part of the same label. This is not about helping consumers.  How could it benefit consumers and clarify the information they have to make their own free and individual purchase decisions (with all the factors that go into what we decide to buy and eat) if the FDA-approved language in the Nutrient Facts Panel is allowed to be called false and misleading by a state court jury in California?


 

Claim Against Starbucks For Hot Tea Rejected

A federal appeals court has upheld the exclusion of plaintiffs' experts in a design defect case alleging Starbucks Coffee Co.'s tea/coffee cup design caused severe burns to an elderly customer. See Moltner v. Starbucks Coffee Co., No. 09-4943 (2d Cir. 11/2/10).

Plaintiff alleged she purchased a venti-sized cup of tea, served double-cupped and lidded. She had difficulty removing the lid, and in the course of her attempts to pry it off, she alleged that the tea spilled onto her left leg, causing severe burns.

In support of her design defect claim, she presented the reports of four experts. The District Court for the Southern District of New York excluded the experts under Daubert and granted the coffee maker summary judgment.

The Second Circuit unanimously agreed that proof from Moltner's these design defect experts failed to meet the standards of Federal Rule of Evidence 702.  As the district court discussed, and the court of appeals affirmed, the first (Diller) report was unreliable because its conclusions were conclusory, devoid of any factual or analytical basis, and this report thus did not demonstrate a sufficient level of intellectual rigor. The second (Dr. Gerstman) report likewise was unreliable because it does not state the basis or analysis from which its conclusions were derived.  Third, the (Anders) report was the product of a method of testing that was insufficiently reliable and lacked “the same level of intellectual rigor that characterizes the practice of an expert in the relevant field.” The report by a fourth expert (DiMaria), which supported Moltner's negligence claim, was properly barred because it would not assist the jury in determining whether Starbucks breached its duty of care to the plaintiff.

We note this decision not so much for the Daubert analysis (which is not lengthy), but because it strikes us as another good example of what is wrong with so much product liability litigation today.  An elderly woman with serious injury is a sympathetic plaintiff in front of a jury.  But such a case should never get to a jury. The panel also rejected Moltner’s theory of negligence as infirm as a matter of law under Fung-Yee Ng v. Barnes & Noble, Inc., 764 N.Y.S.2d 183, 183-84 (1st Dep’t 2003) (“‘Double cupping’ is a method well known in the industry as a way of preventing a cup of hot tea from burning one’s hand.”).  Products are not defective just because they are capable of being involved in an injury.  Products need not be designed to prevent any injury no matter what the consumer does with the product.   Almost every design choice, including something as simple as double cupping, may have potential impact on the relative risks of injury.   A proper negligence analysis supports the decision to minimize the risk of injuries, yet juries are often incapable of confirming that analysis when confronted with a sympathetic plaintiff.  And while they should, juries confronted with a seriously injured plaintiff may find it difficult to recognize the proper role of personal responsibility in cases like this: regardless of the design of the cup or lid, when you are dealing with a very hot beverage, you must exercise precaution; it's a matter of common sense, common knowledge, common awareness. Hence the need for rules keeping out junk science and the need for courts to grant summary judgment. 


 

Class Action Alleging False Food Ads Rejected

Plaintiffs have failed in a proposed class action against McDonald's in which they alleged that the food company's advertising somehow misleads customers into believing that they can eat fast food daily without any potential health consequences.  Pelman v. McDonald's Corp., No. 02-civ-07821 (S.D.N.Y. 10/27/10).  Yes, loyal readers, you read that correctly: the claim is that the people of New York only know about fast food what they read in (or into) ads.

Plaintiffs in this action were New York State consumers claiming, pursuant to Section 349 of New York’s General Business Law, injury from defendant McDonald’s Corporation’s allegedly deceptive marketing scheme.  Plaintiffs claimed that the effect of defendant’s marketing – from 1985 until the filing of this case in 2002 – was to mislead consumers into falsely believing that defendant’s food products can be consumed on a daily basis without incurring any adverse health effects.  They alleged that, as a result of this marketing scheme, class members suffered injury. Specifically, plaintiffs alleged that defendant attempted to mislead plaintiffs and putative class members with misleading nutritional claims, in widespread advertising campaigns, that its foods were healthy, nutritious, of a beneficial nutritional nature, and/or were easily part of anyone’s healthy daily diet, each and/or all claims supposedly being in contradiction to medically and nutritionally established acceptable guidelines. Plaintiffs claimed that  they suffered injury in the form of the financial costs of defendant’s  products; “false beliefs and understandings" as to the nutritional content and effects of defendant’s food products, and physical injuries in the nature of obesity, elevated levels of  cholesterol, pediatric diabetes, high blood pressure, etc.

Plaintiffs moved for class certification pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3).  The court "begins and ends" its analysis of class certification with consideration of the predominance requirement of Rule 23(b)(3). The court concluded that establishment of the causation and injury elements of plaintiffs’ claims would necessitate extensive individualized inquiries; the questions of law and fact which would be common to putative class members would not predominate over questions affecting only individual members. Accordingly, certification of this action for class litigation under Rule 23(b)(3) was not appropriate. 

The court found that the focus was on whether the elements of plaintiffs’ cause of action under GBL § 349 may be established by common, class-wide proof.  The court had earlier in the case ruled that in accordance with GBL § 349’s requirement that plaintiffs’ injuries be "by reason of" defendant’s conduct, the plaintiffs had be aware of the nutritional scheme they alleged to have been deceptive, and that the injuries that were suffered by each plaintiff  were by reason of defendant’s alleged deceptive marketing.  However, allegations of “false beliefs and understandings” did not state a claim for actual injury under GBL § 349.  Neither did allegations of pecuniary loss for the purchase of defendant’s products. (In some states that kind of "the product worked and didn't harm me but I wouldn't have purchased it" argument does fly.)

Accordingly, the only alleged injuries for which putative class members could claim damages under GBL § 349 were those related to the development of certain medical conditions; and the causal connection, if any, for those kinds of injuries depended heavily on a range of factors
unique to each individual. Defendant’s nutritional expert concluded there are many factors that contribute to obesity and to obesity-related illnesses, and thus it is improper to generalize and make assumptions as to causation in any individual.  Many foods, not just defendant's, are high in fat, salt, and cholesterol, low in fiber and certain vitamins, and contain beef and cheese, and there is no evidence to suggest that all who consume such foods develop the kinds of medical conditions which were at issue in this case. 

Moreover, whether or not plaintiffs’ claims (that they ate McDonald’s food because they believed it to be healthier than it was in fact) are true for any particular person was an inquiry which also required individualized proof. A person’s choice to eat at McDonald’s and what foods (and how much) he eats may depend on taste, past experience, habit, convenience, location, peer
choices, other non-nutritional advertising, and cost, etc.

Plaintiffs also argued for issue classes, asserting that the 1) existence; 2) consumer-orientation; and 3) materially misleading nature of the marketing scheme alleged by plaintiffs were each
questions which could be settled upon a showing of objective evidence and legal  argument. Even if true, the court noted that all elements of the class action rule have to be met even for issue classes. Named plaintiffs did not present any specific evidence about the number of other persons within the relevant age group who were exposed to the nutritional marketing at issue, then regularly ate at McDonald’s, and subsequently developed the same medical injuries as those allegedly suffered by named plaintiffs.  So they hadn't even shown numerosity.


 

Inside Counsel Explores California Green Chemistry Regs

Your humble blogger is quoted in the latest edition of the fine publication INSIDE COUNSEL.  See “Proposed Regulation Requires Companies To Go Green,” Inside Counsel, November 1, 2010.

Readers know we have posted on California's Green Chemistry program.  This new article explores its potential impact, which will likely reverberate far beyond that state’s borders.  for example, I spoke to the publication about the impracticality of making two versions of many products, one for California and one for the rest of the nation. 

The article also suggests that plaintiffs attorneys will likely find plenty of litigation opportunities in the initiative, including the argument that changes made to comply with the regulation could and should have been made earlier, as I discussed with the author.

I also pointed out that there doesn’t appear to be an easy mechanism for getting a chemical or product off the state's target list once it’s finalized, hi