Motion to Strike Class Allegations Granted

Mercedes-Benz USA LLC made a successful preemptive strike against class certification in a proposed class action suit over alleged suspension problems in GL model Mercedes vehicles. See Becnel v. Mercedes-Benz USA, LLC, No. 2:14-cv-00003 (E.D. La., 6/3/14).

 

This matter arose from Plaintiff's claims for negligence, strict product liability, breach of implied warranty, fraud, and violations of the Louisiana Unfair Trade Practice Act,and the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act. Plaintiff's claims arise from his purchase of a 2008 Mercedes-Benz GL320 from Mercedes-Benz of New Orleans.  Plaintiff brought the vehicle to the Dealer for service several times. Each time that Becnel tendered the vehicle to the Dealer, the Airmatic Suspension System allegedly was cited as the problem and was repaired. Plaintiff alleged that MBUSA knew that the Suspension System was defective but concealed that fact from current, future, and past owners and/or lessors of GL model vehicles. Plaintiff filed a class action complaint on January 2, 2014 against MBUSA on behalf of "[a]ll current and past owners or people who leased Mercedes-Benz USA, LLC GL model of vehicles since 2007."

Defendant moved to strike the class allegations. The standard applied to the motion to strike is essentially identical to the standard applied in class certification motions. See Grant,2010 WL 3303853; see also Markey v. Louisiana Citizens Fair Plan, 2008 WL 5427708 (E.D. La. Dec. 30, 2008)(Vance, J.) ; Truxillo v.Johnson & Johnson, et al., 2007 WL 4365439 *1 (E.D. La. Dec. 12, 2007)(Barbier, J.) (noting that the issues raised in a motion for judgment on the pleadings regarding class allegations overlap with the issues raised in a motion to certify the class.)

Defendant advanced several arguments in support of its motion to strike.   For example, MBUSA contended that due process barred the Court from applying Louisiana law to all the claims of absent class members from other states, and that the application of every other applicable state's laws would be unmanageable. Plaintiff suggested that this argument was premature. He argued that despite the potential for uncommon issues of law, it cannot be denied that there were some common issues of fact. Even if the Court would have to engage in a conflicts analysis to determine if the various state laws were incompatible, that only means that class certification may be improper further along in litigation, but was not improper now.

The court focused on the predominance and manageability challenges that were presented by the proposed class. The Court said it could not accept Plaintiff's assertion that he "cannot foresee any manageability problems." Based on the pleadings alone, the Court pointed to several issues: it was reasonable to assume that this matter will require the application of laws from fifty-one different jurisdictions, as it was readily apparent that at least one person from every state and the District of Columbia will be found to have purchased or leased a 2007 GL Class Mercedes. The Court anticipated serious manageability issues in applying these differing laws to Plaintiff's numerous state law causes of action, including claims for: negligence; products liability based on manufacturing defects, design defects, warning defects, and breach of express warranty; redhibition; fraudulent concealment; and unfair trade practices.

Additionally, Plaintiff, and presumably other class members, faced serious prescription.statute of limitations issues that would ultimately hinge on their ability to show that the discovery doctrine tolled the prescriptive period. The use of the discovery doctrine would necessarily involve the task of determining at what time it became unreasonable for each class member to ignore the problems with the vehicles at issue. See Chevron USA, Inc. v. Aker Mar., Inc., 604 F.3d 888, 893-94(5th Cir. 2010) (noting that in such cases, "the prescriptive period [does] not begin to run until [a plaintiff has] a reasonable basis to pursue a claim against a specific defendant.") The same issue would present itself with regard to the fraud claims, in that the Court would have to determine the element of reliance for each and every class member. See Castano, 84 F.3d at 745 ("fraud class action cannot be certified when individual reliance will be an issue.")

These serious manageability problems far outweighed any benefit that a class action would create, said the court. Plaintiff conclusorily pointed to the usual presumed benefits highlighted in class certification motions, but did not propose any concrete strategy for achieving these goals. In light of the manageability issues. The Court said it could not imagine that that the many issues that would require individual treatment for each class member would not outweigh or at least balance out any benefit conferred by class treatment.

Motion to strike granted.

 

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 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.

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.

 

 

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. 

Summary Judgment in Ignition Lock Class Action

A federal judge has dismissed a class action against Ford Motor Co. over allegedly defective ignition locks. Richard Smith, et al. v. Ford Motor Co., No. 06-00497 (N.D. Calif. 9/13/10).  The case offers an interesting take on the interplay of express warranties and fraud/failure to disclose claims.

Plaintiffs alleged that Ford unlawfully concealed information concerning the failure rate of the ignition locks in its Focus vehicles. An ignition lock is the vehicle part in which the key is inserted and turned to activate the ignition; its purpose is to start the car. When an ignition lock fails, the driver is prevented from turning the key. Following the launch of the Focus, there was a spike in warranty claims related to the ignition locks. In order to counter the relatively high warranty repair rates, Ford and its ignition lock manufacturer made manufacturing and design changes to the subject ignition locks, which resulted in a substantial decrease in the warranty repair rates. Specifically, from a warranty repair rate of 24.3 % for its 2000 model year Focus vehicles, Ford saw the rate drop to 6.9% for its 2001model year vehicles, then drop again to 3.1% for its 2002 model year vehicles.

In their complaint, plaintiffs asserted state law claims against Ford for, inter alia, Unfair and
Deceptive Acts and Practices in Violation of California’s Consumer Legal Remedies Act (“CLRA”), Cal. Civ. Code § 1750 et. seq.; and Unfair, Fraudulent, and Unlawful Practices under the Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”), Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code sections 17200-17209.

Ford moved for summary judgment, arguing that it had no legal duty to disclose the risk that the subject ignition locks would fail, and could stand on its standard three-year, 36,000 mile warranty.

The district court agreed, granting summary judgment.  The court noted first that  under California law, a manufacturer cannot be found liable under the CLRA for failure to disclose a defect that manifests itself after expiration of the warranty period unless such omission (1) is contrary to an express representation actually made by the defendant, or (2) pertains to a fact the defendant was obligated to disclose.  Plaintiffs argued there was an obligation to disclose "material" risks.  But where, as here, a plaintiff’s claim is predicated on a manufacturer’s failure to inform its customers of a product’s likelihood of failing outside the warranty period, the risk posed by such asserted defect cannot be “merely” the cost of the item's repair.  Rather, for the omission to be material, the failure must pose “safety concerns.”  In other words, under California law, a manufacturer’s duty to consumers is limited to its warranty obligations absent either an affirmative misrepresentation or a safety issue. 

Accordingly, because plaintiffs’ CLRA claim here was not based on any misrepresentation made by Ford, but rather was based on an allegation that Ford had a duty to disclose the risk its ignition locks would fail, plaintiffs’ claim, absent evidence of a safety concern, could not succeed. Plaintiffs argued that the ignition lock issue was a substantial "safety concern" because such locks can (1) prevent drivers from starting their vehicles, and (2) prevent drivers from shutting off their vehicles’ engines -- despite the fact that there were no reports that anyone has ever been injured by the failure of an ignition lock.  Plaintiffs hypothesized drivers getting stranded in unsafe locales. Ford argued that the dangers described by plaintiffs were too speculative to amount to a safety issue giving rise to a duty of disclosure.

The court agreed with Ford, noting “security” concerns are distinguishable from “safety” concerns. The dangers envisioned by plaintiffs were speculative in nature, deriving in each instance from the particular location at which the driver initially had parked the vehicle and/or the driver’s individual circumstances. Plaintiffs offered no evidence that the ignition-lock defect causes engines to shut off unexpectedly or causes individuals to stop their vehicles under dangerous conditions.

Similarly, to the extent plaintiffs’ fraudulent concealment claim was based on Ford’s alleged duty to disclose the risk of failure of the subject ignition locks, Ford was entitled to summary judgment on that claim also as there was no duty to disclose a failure rate, post-warranty, for a non-safety issue.  Again, as plaintiffs have failed to show an affirmative duty to disclose the risk of post-warranty failure of the ignition locks, plaintiffs also had not shown that a reasonable customer could have been deceived; as a matter of law, the only reasonable expectation customers could have had about the subject ignition locks was that they would function for the length of Ford’s express warranty. 

Chamber of Commerce Requests Open Debate on Science of Global Warming

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce last week filed a supplemental request for an “on-the-record” hearing to debate the evidence behind the Environmental Protection Agency’s expected finding that greenhouse gases endanger the public health and welfare.

Readers of MassTortDefense may recall that in 2007, in Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007), the Supreme Court found that greenhouse gases could be regarded as air pollutants, and held that EPA must determine whether or not emissions of greenhouse gases from motor vehicles cause or contribute to air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare, or whether the science is too uncertain to make a reasoned decision. In making these decisions, the agency is required to follow the language of section 202(a) of the Clean Air Act. The Supreme Court decision resulted from a petition for rulemaking under section 202(a) filed by more than a dozen environmental, renewable energy, and other organizations.

The EPA is proposing to find that the current and projected concentrations of the mix of six key greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) — in the atmosphere threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations. This is typically referred to as an "endangerment finding."  EPA is further proposing to find that the combined emissions of CO2, CH4, N2O, and HFCs from new motor vehicles and motor vehicle engines contribute to the atmospheric concentrations of these key greenhouse gases and hence to the threat of climate change.  While an endangerment finding under the Clean Air Act would not by itself automatically trigger extensive regulation under the entire Act, many observers expect such regulations.  Moreover, the finding could prod the Congress to pass controversial climate legislation.  Finally, it may impact the pace and weight of climate change litigation.

The Chamber argues that the informal notice-and-comment process employed here has not worked to air the issues, and the only real solution is an on-the-record hearing for a transparent review of all the evidence.  Having reviewed the evidence in EPA’s endangerment docket, the Chamber observes flaws and omissions in the reasoning underlying the proposed endangerment finding. The Chamber is thus asking for more transparency in this process, as the ruling could ultimately cause a "regulatory train wreck" with inescapable economic consequences, as well as an impact on mass tort litigation. The agency has apparently ignored evidence contradicting its preliminary conclusions on a wide range of issues, such as the alleged effect higher temperatures will have on net mortality and on the levels of other pollutants.  Media reports have surfaced that EPA ignored a study by two members of its staff concluding that the agency had relied on outdated studies and that the current state of climate science refutes the proposed endangerment finding.



 

Ninth Circuit Vacates Class Action Order in Honda MDL

The Ninth Circuit recently vacated a district court order certifying a class in litigation against American Honda Motor Co. See Bonlender v. American Honda Motor Co., 2008 WL 2873264 (9th Cir., 7/22/08). The named plaintiffs alleged that certain models of the Honda CR-V and Element were prone to under-hood oil-fed fires, despite a low incidence of such fires.

The plaintiffs had filed four putative statewide class actions, which were among the cases consolidated for pretrial purposes in a multidistrict litigation. In re American Honda Motor Co. Oil Filter Products Liability Litigation (C.D. Cal., No. 2:06-ml-01737).

Honda appealed the district court's order apparently certifying a nationwide class. The Ninth Circuit agreed that the district court abused its discretion by sua sponte certifying a nationwide class without making any findings regarding Rule 23's requirements for class certification, including 23(b)(3)'s requirement that common issues predominate over individualized ones.

Among other things, the district court failed to analyze whether variations in applicable state law defeated Rule 23(b)(3)'s predominance requirement. MassTortDefense has posted on the impact of choice of law issues on nationwide classes here and here.

The court further ordered that the case be reassigned to a different district court judge on remand.
 

California Supreme Court Grants Review Of Punitive Damages Decision

The ongoing saga that is Philip Morris USA Inc. v. Williams continues to reverberate through the lower courts. California's Supreme Court recently granted Ford Motor Co.'s petition to review an appeals court's July 2006 decision awarding $82.6 million to a woman left paralyzed by a 2002 rollover crash. Buell-Wilson v. Ford Motor Co., S-163102 (Cal. S.Ct. July, 2008), see here. But the Court deferred merits briefing on the issues until after the U.S. Supreme Court's next decision in Williams. One of the central issues in that case is the constitutional barrier to using punitive damages in product liability cases to punish companies for harm allegedly inflicted on those other than the plaintiffs.

The Ford case was brought by a woman left a paraplegic in 2002 allegedly after her Ford Explorer rolled over several times when she claims she swerved to avoid an object that fell from another vehicle onto the road. At trial, plaintiff claimed that the vehicle's design was dangerously unstable and prone to rollover; plaintiff also alleged the vehicle roof was inadequately supported and defectively weak. The jury found a design defect and a crash-worthiness design defect in the roof. The jury awarded the plaintiff (and spouse) more than $368 million, two-thirds of which was punitive damages. The judge in the case reduced the award to about $150 million. The California appeals court further reduced the total damages to $82.6 million -- $55 million in punitives -- in July, 2006.

Ford sought review, arguing the significant risk that the jury thought it could, and in fact did, punish Ford on behalf of people other than the plaintiff. Ford cited arguments from the plaintiff such as the one that went, “They go ahead and release the Bronco II in 1983 ... knowing it will roll over and kill or catastrophically injure many people, which it has.” Ford insisted in its petition for state Supreme Court review that the plaintiffs should not have been allowed to present any evidence of defects in the Bronco II sport utility vehicle model, which was not involved in the rollover case at bar. The jury thus may have gone ahead and punished the company for others allegedly harmed in Ford rollover accidents.

The grant of the petition notes that the case presents the following issues: (1) What procedural protections are required by Philip Morris USA v. Williams, 127 S.Ct. 1057, which held that due process requires that a jury not award punitive damages to punish for harm to third parties; and under what circumstances can those constitutional rights be deemed forfeited? (2) Are punitive damages prohibited in product liability cases where the manufacturer’s design conforms to governmental safety standards and industry standards and custom, and there is a “genuine debate” about what the law requires? (3) Is the amount of the punitive damage award in this case unconstitutionally excessive and arbitrary?

The court ordered briefing deferred pending the next decision of the United States Supreme Court in Philip Morris USA, Inc. v. Williams, No. 07-1216, cert. granted June 9, 2008. In the previous appeal of Williams, 127 S.Ct. 1057, the Court confirmed a significant constitutional principle limiting punitive damages awards: the Due Process Clause prohibits juries from basing punitive damages awards in part upon the desire to punish a defendant for harm to persons that are not before the court. Williams arose from an Oregon trial wherein a jury awarded $821,000 in compensatory damages and $79.5 million in punitive damages against cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris. At trial, the plaintiff’s attorney had urged the jury to punish Philip Morris for alleged harm to smokers other than the plaintiff by referring to the defendant’s market share and the number of smokers not only in the state of Oregon, but nationwide, who had allegedly contracted a smoking-related illness in the last 40 years. The Supreme Court held that the Due Process Clause forbids a jury from assessing punitive damages to punish a defendant for injury that it inflicts upon non-parties or “strangers” to this litigation. While a jury may consider the actual or potential harm to non-parties in the narrow context of determining “reprehensibility” of the conduct, which in turn is one of the factors relevant to an analysis whether the punitive damages award is excessive or not, it may not punish the defendant for the impact of its alleged misconduct on other people, who may bring lawsuits of their own in which other juries can resolve their claims. The Court cautioned state courts that they must make sure that the “jury will ask the right question, not the wrong one.” That is, evidence regarding alleged injuries of those not before the court must be used solely to judge the reprehensibility of the conduct, not to assess damages for the harm caused to those strangers. While the Court commented on the Oregon court’s refusal to give a jury instruction clarifying this distinction, it noted that state courts cannot authorize any procedures that create an unreasonable and necessary risk of any such confusion occurring. When evidence is introduced or argument made that risks this confusion, the state court must take steps to protect against that risk.


In both Williams and the Ford case, the lower courts have ignored the Supreme Court’s directive, asserting that the defendants had somehow waived their due process rights by not proposing jury instructions that explicitly and exactly anticipated the precise language of the Supreme Court decision that had not yet been issued. But the U.S. Supreme Court and now the California high court both seem unconvinced by plaintiffs’ waiver arguments.

State Supreme Court Upholds Certification of Nationwide Class

The Oklahoma Supreme Court earlier this month upheld certification of a nationwide class in litigation alleging DaimlerChrysler Corp. should have provided repairs to steering systems on vehicles manufactured between 1993 and 2001. Masquat v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., Okla., No. 104971 (7/1/08), found here.

Plaintiffs alleged that LH platform vehicles contained a defect in the power rack and pinion steering system. These vehicles were sold as various Dodge and Chrysler models during model years 1993 through most of 2001. Plaintiffs alleged that shortly after production and sale of the LH vehicles began, Defendant began to receive reports from consumers of steering related problems. Defendant eventually introduced a newly designed steering system bolt, in late calendar year 2000.  Plaintiffs' theory is that the cure/repair to the problem developed by Defendant was never provided to already-produced LH platform vehicles, and consumers were not adequately informed that the fix was available and that the repair should be made.

Among the defenses asserted was the fact that the claims of most of the proposed class members seemed time-barred. Plaintiffs’ response was that the statute of limitations was tolled, based on alleged "active concealment" of the alleged defect in the steering system.

Following a hearing on the motion for class certification, the trial court certified a nationwide class of current owners of the vehicles. Class certification in Oklahoma is governed by Okla. Stat. Tit. 12 Sec. 2023, which provides for numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy in language similar to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(a), and for predominance and superiority in the same manner as Rule 23(b)(3). Defendants appealed, continuing to assert that individual issues predominate, especially those raised by the choice of law issues. Nationwide classes typically are inappropriate because they require the class court to try to explain, and the jury to try to apply, the varying law of 51 different jurisdictions.

The Supreme Court first noted that the substantive law of Michigan would apply to all the breach of warranty claims in this matter. The class of plaintiffs is pursuing breach of warranty claims against a Michigan manufacturer. Under the "most significant relationship" test applied in Oklahoma, Michigan law applies. Furthermore, the factual issues associated with the breach of warranty claims appear to be essentially uniform across the class as they arise from the same event or course of conduct and give rise to the same legal or remedial theory, said the Court.

The more hotly contested issue was whether common issues predominate over individual issues in regard to Defendant's statute of limitations defense. Plaintiffs asserted that the statute of limitations was tolled because Defendant actively concealed information regarding the steering system tie rods from the class. Plaintiffs emphasized that they were not pursuing a common law fraud claim, which might require that the "law of 51 jurisdictions" be applied. Defendant, on the other hand, asserted that the choice of law rule applicable to the Court's determination of the proper limitation period, and thus the appropriate requirements for tolling that provision, must be found in Oklahoma's "borrowing statute." That act provided that the period of limitation applicable to a claim accruing outside of this state shall be that prescribed either by the law of the place where the claim accrued or by the law of this state, whichever last bars the claim. Defendant argued that application of the borrowing statute will require the comparison of Oklahoma's limitation period for a warranty claim to the warranty limitation period of each state in which a class member resides.

The Court agreed with Defendant, but only in part. The borrowing statute was the right approach, but because Michigan law applied to the warranty claims of the class, the Court need only compare the limitation period under Michigan law to that of Oklahoma and apply the one which "last bars" the claims.

Third, Defendant argued that predominance is defeated by the need to question each class member individually as to whether the class member exercised reasonable diligence in learning of the allegedly concealed defect. Some class members might well have been more diligent than others, and some class members may have known more about the alleged defect than others, based on their own experience, or the experience of people they know. In contrast to the choice of law issue, the Oklahoma Supreme Court admitted that it had never been presented with the opportunity to address the class action predominance requirement in the context of an asserted fraudulent concealment exception to the statute of limitations, with its possible factual roots.

The Court rejected the defense position, finding that the essence of fraudulent concealment is knowledge in possession of the person committing the fraud. Thus, in this matter, the principal focus on the statute of limitations defense will be Defendant's conduct, claimed the Court. The "common questions" supposedly arising from Plaintiff's assertion of fraudulent concealment were (1) whether Defendant affirmatively concealed the alleged defect, and thus concealed a breach of warranty, and (2) whether the class members, by exercising due diligence, could have determined that a breach had occurred.

On the latter point, which seems to MassTortDefense to raise basic individual issues, the Court stressed that common evidence included whether knowledge of the alleged defect was readily available so as to put an ordinary prudent class member on inquiry. This, of course, begs the question whether, even if not everyone should have known, some class members knew or should have known prior to the statutory period. But the Court concluded that any question of variation in individual reliance is eclipsed by the common questions surrounding the allegation of fraudulent concealment. “The mere presence of individual issues does not defeat predominance.”

Underlying this opinion may have been the factor that the trial court capped the amount of damages compensation at $310 for the bolt fix repair and $400 for other steering system repairs caused by the bolt problem, meaning that many class members might not pursue individual actions. The limited legal theories raised by class plaintiffs also limited the defense opportunity to unearth predominating individual issues.


 

State Supreme Court Affirms Class Certification In GM Case

In a very disturbing opinion, the Supreme Court of Arkansas rejected General Motor's appeal of a trial court decision to certify a class in a case involving allegedly defective parking brakes in GM vehicles. General Motors Corp. v. Bryant, et al., No. 07-437 (Ark., June 19, 2008). The case was originally brought in 2005 by named plaintiff Boyd Bryant, who alleged that a defectively designed parking brake incurred excessive wear after only 2,500 to 6,000 miles of use. GM allegedly discovered the defect in 2000 and redesigned the part, a spring clip, in 2001. The proposed class included owners of "1500 Series" pickups and utilities that were registered in the U.S. and were originally equipped with an automatic transmission and a PBR 210x30 Drum-in-Hat parking-brake system utilizing the high-force spring clip retainer. Plaintiff alleged that some 4,000,000 pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles sold by General Motors 1999-2002 were equipped with the defectively designed parking brakes. As causes of action, Bryant alleged breach of express warranty, breach of implied warranty of merchantability, violation of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, unjust enrichment, and fraudulent concealment/failure to disclose.

After a hearing, the trial court certified the class. GM appealed.

The Class Rule

Rule 23 of the Arkansas Rules of Civil Procedure governs class actions and requires, like the federal rule, numerosity, commonality of questions of law or fact, typicality of the claims or defenses, and adequacy of representation by named parties and their counsel. A class action may be maintained if the court finds that the questions of law or fact common to the members of the class predominate over any questions affecting only individual members, and that a class action is superior to other available methods for the fair and efficient adjudication of the controversy.

The Appeal

General Motors asserted three main points on appeal worthy of our discussion: (1) that extensive legal variations in state laws defeated predominance; (2) that extensive factual variations in the millions of claims defeated predominance; (3) that class certification was not superior.

Choice of Law

General Motors noted that the significant variations among the fifty-one pertinent product defect laws should defeat predominance. [Most courts have accepted this notion.] The trial court had provided four reasons for its finding that the potential application of multiple states’ law did not create predominance concerns. First, the court noted that, unlike the federal rule which requires a rigorous analysis of class certification factors including the impact state law variations may have on predominance, no such rigorous analysis is required in Arkansas. Second, the potential application of many states’ laws was not germane to class certification, but was instead a task for the trial court to undertake later in the course of exercising its autonomy and substantial powers to manage the class action. Third, the trial court found that assessing choice of law was a merits-intensive determination and thus inappropriate at the certification stage. “It would be premature for the Court, at this stage in the case, to make the call on choice of law.” Fourth, if application of multiple states’ laws was eventually required, and it proved too cumbersome or problematic, the circuit court could always consider decertifying the class.

The state Supreme Court found that whether or not the class members’ vehicles contained a defectively designed parking-brake system, and whether or not General Motors concealed that defect, are predominating questions, notwithstanding the various states’ laws that may be required in determining the allegations of breach of express warranty, breach of implied warranty, a violation of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, unjust enrichment, fraudulent concealment, damages, and restitution. The mere fact that choice of law may be involved in the case of some claimants living in different states is not sufficient in and of itself to warrant a denial of class certification. The Court viewed any potential choice of law determination and application as being similar to a determination of non-predominating individual issues, which would not defeat certification.

On the issue whether an Arkansas court must first conduct a choice of law analysis before certifying a multistate class action, the Court declined to follow the precedent of other jurisdictions, and rejected any requirement of a rigorous inquiry by the trial courts. Instead, it found that the circuit courts have broad discretion in determining whether the requirements for class certification have been met, recognizing the caveat that a class can always be decertified at a later date if necessary. Moreover, the Court believed that requiring the circuit court to conclude at this stage precisely which law should be applied could potentially stray into the merits of the action itself, which should not occur during the certification process.

The concurring opinion noted that this idea extended far past the holdings of prior case law, and potentially foreclosed analysis that could conceivably be required in some cases. A conclusion that choice-of-law issues not related to recovery or defenses will never predominate over common questions of law or fact is impermissibly overbroad.

MassTortDefense would suggest that most courts and commentators do not equate a choice of law analysis with an impermissible examination of the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims. Choice of law is a threshold question that ultimately permits a court to reach the merits of the dispute by establishing the governing legal rules. The selection of the proper law cannot fairly be termed a “merits-intensive determination” Moreover, the trial court need not make any determination about the merits of the causes of actions alleged in order to assess, based on relevant contacts, which state’s law ought to apply to those claims. Nor does the trial court even have to “make the final call” on what law will apply to each and every claim by every class member. It is sufficient for class certification for the trial court to discover that the law of many other states will likely have to be applied to many class members’ claims, and factor that into superiority and manageability of the proposed class.

Factual Variations

General Motors asserted that many factual variations preclude a finding of predominance, including issues of defect, causation, damages (was a parking brake repaired already under warranty and, if not, why not), notice of breach, class member knowledge about a potential parking-brake problem at the time of purchase, reliance, materiality, and affirmative defenses, such as comparative negligence.

The state Supreme Court found that the issue of defect was a predominating common issue. The Court viewed any need for individual inspections and/or the individual use factors merely as individual determinations relating to right to ultimate recovery or damages that pale in comparison to the purportedly common issues surrounding GM’s alleged defectively designed parking brake and alleged cover up to avoid paying warranty claims. (Of course, a proper choice of law analysis would have revealed that the issue of defect is not truly common.)

As is not uncommon, the trial court did not really address the question of how it would conduct a class trial, especially one involving legal standards from different states. But the Supreme Court stated, “We have repeatedly recognized that conducting a trial on the common issue in a representative fashion can achieve judicial efficiency.” The Court expressed general approval for the bifurcated approach to the predominance element by allowing circuit courts to divide a case into two phases: (1) certification for resolution of the preliminary, common issues; and (2) decertification for the resolution of the individual issues. Here, whether the parking-brake system installed in the class members’ vehicles was defective and whether General Motors attempted to conceal any alleged defect were “overarching issues” that could be resolved before the circuit court reaches any of the individualized questions raised by General Motors.

MassTortDefense notes that the courts rarely, if ever, focus on the manageability issues and due process concerns raised by this suggestion – devoid of analysis – that bifurcation of the trial and/or decertification following the “common” issues phase will somehow resolve all concerns. If separate juries are involved – and how can they not be with potentially millions of class members – the results of the first trial must be applied by the later juries. Fault of the defendant found in phase one must be compared with comparative fault of the plaintiff. The defect found in phase one must be shown to cause the injury and damages shown in the individual trial. False statements proven in phase one must be shown to have been relied on in the later phase. But the first trial, the common issues trial, is never tried in such a fashion (with verdict form and jury findings) that will allow that linking up to occur.

What is really happening is the transformation of class certification from a procedural tool for adjudicating large numbers of nearly identical claims into a device that aggregates disparate claims for the sole purpose of leveraging settlement. A grant of class status can put considerable pressure on the defendant to settle, even when the plaintiff’s probability of success on the merits is slight. Blair v. Equifax Check Servs., Inc., 181 F.3d 832, 834 (7th Cir. 1999); see also In re Rhone-Poulenc Rorer Inc., 51 F.3d 1293, 1298 (7th Cir. 1995) (companies facing millions of dollars in potential liability “may not wish to roll the dice. That is putting it mildly.”). Certifying a class without knowing whether it satisfies the requirements of Rule 23 misuses a procedural device to create settlement pressure where none should exist.


Superiority

General Motors contended that the superior method of handling a claim that particular  vehicles are defective is by petition to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The Court observed that the superiority requirement is satisfied if class certification is the more efficient way of handling the case, and it is fair to both sides. In determining whether class-action status is the superior method for adjudication of a matter, it may be necessary for the circuit court to evaluate the manageability of the class. The court assumed that opt outs and summary dispositions would shrink the class, and at the same time, that the proposed class of approximately 4,000,000 members makes it at least likely that without a class action, numerous meritorious claims might go unaddressed. [What happened to the hard and fast rule not to consider the merits?] While not the sole basis for certifying the class, the smallness of the individual claims is another factor to be considered in deciding superiority.

In any event, NHTSA twice rejected petitions dealing with the allegations made in the instant case, so resolution by that agency cannot be superior to a class action when the agency has made such a rejection, observed the Court. Moreover, the rule was not intended to weigh the superiority of a class action against possible administrative relief. The superiority requirement was intended to refer to the preferability of adjudicating claims of multiple-parties in one judicial proceeding.

MassTortDefense would suggest that the repeated references to the trial court’s ability to later decertify the class smacks of the improper, rejected, concept of conditional certification – a practice that has been soundly rejected in recent years by state and federal courts and is now prohibited under both the Arkansas Rules of Civil Procedure and the federal rules on which they are modeled. After considerable time and effort is expended, courts are reluctant to decertify. Here, for example, GM presented the court with a thorough analysis of conflicts of laws regarding the state-law fraud claims, breach of warranty, applicable statutes of limitations, and unjust enrichment. It seems unlikely that the trial court (after its certification was affirmed) will ever seriously revisit this issue in the context of a new predominance determination. If the court’s approach were correct, class certification would be a meaningless exercise since courts would not address the most difficult and important class certification-related questions – i.e., whether a class trial is fair or feasible – until long after certification. 

MassTortDefense wonders, along with amicus the Chamber of Commerce, if Arkansas is likely become the latest “magnet” jurisdiction for the plaintiffs’ bar, imposing huge costs on companies that do business in the state and placing an unnecessary strain on Arkansas courts by forcing them to devote substantial resources to managing large-scale litigation matters that have only a minimal connection to Arkansas consumers.