Class Action on Smoke Detectors Dismissed: All Smoke No Fire

A California federal court recently rejected rejected a proposed class action in which plaintiffs alleged smoke alarms were defective in that the product’s packaging allegedly omitted safety information.  See Bird v. First Alert Inc. et al., No. 4:14-cv-03585 (N.D. Cal. ).

The defendant sells two types of smoke detectors — ionization, which the opinion said are better at catching fast-flaming fires, and photoelectric, which are reportedly more sensitive to smoldering fires. The basis of plaintiff's complaint is that the defendant failed to adequately disclose the
dangers of using ionization smoke alarms – specifically, that ionization smoke alarms do
not alert occupants of smoldering-type fires as effectively as photoelectric smoke alarms.  However, the ionization alarm, which Bird purchased, explains these differences clearly on its packaging and recommended the use of both types of alarms for “maximum protection." 

Defendant moved to dismiss. The allegations in the complaint "must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007).  A motion to dismiss should be granted if the complaint does not proffer enough facts to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face. See id. at 558-59. W]here the well-pleaded facts do not
permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged – but it has not shown – that the pleader is entitled to relief.  Although the court generally may not consider material outside the pleadings when resolving a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the court may consider matters that are properly the subject of judicial notice. Knievel v. ESPN, 393 F.3d 1068, 1076 (9th Cir. 2005); Lee v. City of Los Angeles, 250 F.3d 668, 688-89 (9th Cir. 2001). Additionally, the court may consider exhibits attached to the complaint, see Hal Roach Studios, Inc. v. Richard Feiner & Co., Inc., 896 F.2d 1542, 1555 n.19 (9th Cir. 1989),

Plaintiff obviously had a high hurdle to overcome to state a claim here, given that the product packaging explains that the two types of smoke alarms respond differently to different types of fires, and recommends that consumers utilize both types. Nevertheless, plaintiff contended that the disclosures on the packaging did not constitute a "warning" and did not amount to a "sufficient disclosure" of the extent of the "safety defect" inherent in the ionization smoke detectors, because they allegedly failed to state that the ionization smoke detectors might not safely alert consumers in time to escape the deadly effects of smoldering fires.

The court recognized that even a nondisclosure claim sounding in fraud must still be pled with particularity. Kearns, 567 F.3d at 1126-27; see also Marolda v. Symantec Corp., 672 F.Supp. 2d 992, 1002 (N.D. Cal. 2009). Specifically, the plaintiff must set forth an explanation as to why the omission complained of  made the warning or label false and misleading in order to state a claim under Rule 9(b). Bias v. Wells Fargo & Co., 942 F.Supp. 2d 915, 935 (N.D. Cal. 2013). Thus, plaintiff must describe the content of the omission and where the omitted information should or could have been revealed, as well as provide representative samples of advertisements, offers, or other representations that plaintiff relied on to make her purchase and that failed to include the allegedly omitted information. See Eisen v. Porsche Cars North Am., Inc.,, 2012 WL 841019 at *3 (citing
Marolda, 672 F.Supp. 2d at 1002). While the complaint alleged that the "packaging" on plaintiff's ionization smoke detector did not contain any warning, instructions, or other information disclosing,
describing, or warning about the smoke detector's inability to adequately, effectively, and
safely detect, warn, alert, and protect occupants from smoldering-type fires,  in fact the packaging did disclose information regarding the performance of ionization alarms in smoldering fires.

Yet, the complaint alleged no facts regarding these disclosures – in particular, when plaintiff looked
at the packaging (if ever), whether she reviewed the disclosures on the packaging (if at all),
or why she disregarded the clear recommendation that she use both ionization and photoelectric alarms. Nor did the complaint allege any facts showing that the disclosures were inadequate.

Motion to dismiss granted without prejudice.

No Second Bite of the Apple for HT Plaintiffs

A federal court granted summary judgment in litigation brought by hormone replacement drug plaintiffs whose suits were previously ruled untimely by a New York court. See Rick v. Wyeth Inc.,  No. 08-1287 (D. Minn., 9/23/10).

Plaintiffs, all citizens of New York, were women, and spouses of women, who allegedly used
hormone therapy drugs manufactured and sold by defendants. Plaintiffs further alleged that they developed breast cancer as a result of the use of HT drugs.  Plaintiffs had previously brought suit individually in New York state court where their claims were consolidated into a single
coordinated proceeding. In the New York proceeding, defendants moved for summary judgment based on the New York statute of limitations. Foreseeing the end of their suits, plaintiffs moved for a discontinuance without prejudice. While the dueling motions in the New York proceeding were pending, plaintiffs commenced another action in federal court in Minnesota (where there is a much longer, highly controversial statute of limitations; none of plaintiffs, nor any of the claims at issue, had any connection to Minnesota. Instead, it seems this case, like hundreds of others involving HT drugs, was brought solely to take advantage of Minnesota’s six-year statute of limitations.)

The New York trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment and denied the
plaintiffs’ motion for "discontinuance without prejudice." In doing so, the New York trial court reasoned that the defendants would be unfairly prejudiced by allowing the litigation to re-start in another forum after having completed discovery and reached the summary judgment phase in the New York proceeding.

In the federal court proceeding, defendants then moved for summary judgment arguing that the New York judgment was entitled to preclusive effect.  The traditional rule for claim preclusion was that dismissal for untimeliness does not bar a second action in another jurisdiction with a longer, unexpired statute of limitations. Semtek Int’l Inc. v. Lockheed Martin Corp., 531 U.S. 497, 504 (2001). However, the actual test for a federal court determining the preclusive effects of a prior state-court judgment is to ask ask what preclusive effect that state intends other jurisdictions to accord its judgments.  Here, the federal court determined that New York has not definitively answered that question in this context. Therefore, the court had to determine what rule New York would likely apply.

On one hand, the New York Court of Appeals has stated that, in general, New York views statutes of limitations as procedural rather than substantive. However, the New York Court of Appeals has also held that, in the narrow context of claim preclusion, statutes of limitations “in a practical sense may also be said to be substantive.”  Thus, said the federal court, the procedural/substantive distinction that formed the foundation of plaintiffs’ argument here was hardly clear under New York law. Indeed, while the procedural/substantive distinction may be a useful tool in some instances, a clear line between procedure and substance is not always ascertainable.

In interpreting this ambiguous area of New York law, the federal court was also mindful of the overarching principals of claim preclusion. Claim preclusion doctrine values judicial economy, preventing parties from burdening courts with claims already litigated.

Against this backdrop, the federal court found the procedural posture of the case decisive.  In the New York proceeding, the plaintiffs moved for a discontinuance without prejudice. Under New York law, an element of granting such a motion is whether the adverse party will suffer prejudice. The NY trial judge believed that a discontinuance without prejudice would not have preclusive effects in the federal action, and noted that granting the plaintiffs’ motion might thus allow plaintiffs’ Minnesota action to continue. Concluding that defendants would be highly prejudiced if forced to continue litigation in another forum, the trial judge denied the plaintiffs' motion. Implicit in that reasoning was that the grant of summary judgment instead would have preclusive effect in the federal litigation. Indeed, the New York trial court specifically stated that defendants had a right to judgment on the merits.

Thus, at the summary judgment phase, the timeliness issues were “sufficiently close to the
merits” to implicate claim preclusion. Plaintiffs chose to bring their claims in New York and continued litigation up to summary judgment.