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.

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.

 

 

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. 

Toyota MDL Judge Issues Discovery Order

The judge overseeing the Toyota unintended acceleration MDL has issued an order permitting expanded discovery. In Re: Toyota Motor Corp. Unintended Acceleration Marketing, Sales Practices, and Products Liability Litigation, Case No. 8:10ML2151 JVS (Order No. 5: Phase I Discovery Plan, July 20, 2010).

Judge Selna (C.D. Calif.) noted that the Phase I Discovery Plan being promulgated was intended solely to educate the parties about foundational issues involved in the litigation, including the identification of the proper parties to this litigation, the identity of relevant third-parties, organizational structure, the identify of relevant witnesses, and identity, nature, and location of relevant documents. The court expects that discovery on foundational issues during Phase I will enable the parties to develop a more narrowly tailored discovery plan for subsequent phases of the litigation and to be more focused, economical and efficient in subsequent phases of discovery. In addition to the foundational information to be provided to plaintiffs by Toyota, Phase I will also provide Toyota the opportunity to obtain foundational, threshold information from plaintiffs, the class representatives, and relevant third-parties.

Phase I Discovery will last for 100 days, and the parties agreed the Phase I discovery plan needs to be coordinated to the extent feasible with related cases pending in state courts.

Under the order, the Toyota Defendants are to produce witnesses pursuant to Rule 30(b)(6) to testify concerning the twenty-one issues, including:

• organizational structure,
• the roles and responsibilities of each of the various Toyota companies with respect to the design, manufacture and sale of Toyota vehicles,
• the identity, nature, location and retention of documents related to the design, evaluation, manufacture, and testing of the ETCS system and any modifications or adaptations of the ETCS system for Toyota vehicles,
• the identity of the persons and departments involved in the design, evaluation, testing and manufacture of the ETCS and its components,
• the identity, nature, location and retention of documents related to information Toyotas has received about speed control, surge, and SUA events in Toyota and Lexus vehicles, including specifically warranty records, customer complaints, claims and lawsuits,
• procedures employed for investigating and responding to complaints of unintended acceleration by owners or operations of any Toyota vehicles, and
• the internal decision-making process by the Toyota Defendants about what and when to inform Toyota customers, governmental agencies and the public about SUA events and the identities of the persons and departments involved in that decision-making process and the identity of the persons and departments involved in that process.

The court ruled that during this litigation the parties must endeavor to avoid duplicative depositions or repetitive questions and to avoid deposing any witness more than once on the same subject matter. But it held off on ruling on Toyota’s position that no Toyota witness deposed during Phase I
would be deposed again in subsequent phases of this litigation on the same subject matter, except by agreement of the parties. Plaintiffs did not agree with Toyota’s position.

Plaintiffs are to provide completed Plaintiff Fact Sheets and Class Representative Fact Sheets, including the production of any documents responsive to the fact sheets. Fact Sheet Responses to information requests are deemed interrogatory responses pursuant to FRCP 33 and may be treated as such at time of trial, under the order. Responses have to set forth all information known or reasonably ascertainable to the party and/or their counsel. The parties are obligated to make a reasonable search and diligent inquiry for information or documents responsive to the request.
Fact Sheet Responses to document requests and the production of documents are deemed responses and production under FRCP 34. 

Additionally, the Toyota Defendants shall be permitted to conduct inspections of the subject vehicles.  Plaintiffs and class representatives have to identify whether the subject vehicle exists, and if so, its current location, general condition, and vehicle identification number, if known.  The parties agreed that vehicle inspections would be permitted commencing in Phase I. The protocol for vehicle inspections will apparently be determined on a case-by-case basis.