Court of Appeals Compels Arbitration, Not Class Litigation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Laptop Claims Were Mere Puffery

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

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

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

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

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

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

  

Court Dismisses Consumer Fraud Claims Against iPad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Spyware Claim Does Not Survive Summary Judgment

A federal court has granted a software maker summary judgment in a case arising from the use of "spyware."  The plaintiff failed to convince the court that product liability claims were proper against the company who made the software the plaintiff's former wife allegedly targeted him with.  Hayes v. SpectorSoft Corp., 2009 WL 3713284 (E.D.Tenn. 11/3/09).

Plaintiff alleged that his former wife purchased software, including one called the “Spector Professional Edition for Windows," and installed it on his computer.  Plaintiff contends that following the installation of these software programs, the software recorded all his chat conversations, instant messages, e-mails sent and received, and the websites visited by plaintiff whenever he used his laptop computer, and re-transmitted such electronic communication to her (or a sister). SpectorSoft's software is apparently primarily used by parents and employers to monitor Internet use by children and employees.

The parties disputed whether SpectorSoft knew of the illegal use of the SpectorSoft software to gain access to plaintiff's private laptop communications. Plaintiff alleged that SpectorSoft knew or should have known about such usage. He thus asserted several causes of action (including negligence) against SpectorSoft for its alleged role in allowing his personal computer usage to be captured--  and that defendant  “aided and abetted” in the violation of his rights.

The court concluded first that plaintiff had not created a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether SpectorSoft aided and abetted the alleged invasion of his privacy. There was no evidence that SpectorSoft took an affirmative act that encouraged the women to violate plaintiff's rights. In fact, SpectorSoft attempted to protect the rights of persons like plaintiff by requiring purchasers to accept its licensing terms prior to being allowed to install its software (which prohibited this kind of use). There was similarly no evidence that SpectorSoft knew anything about how the women were using its software. While some retailers marketed SpectorSoft's products to spouses concerned about adultery, SpectorSoft itself did not market its product for such uses, and it provided its users with a licensing agreement that it had reason to believe was valid. Furthermore, said  the court, even a broad-based marketing campaign does not provide the requisite affirmative act of specific encouragement or assistance to the individuals at issue in this case.

Turning to the claim under the state Products Liability Act , a seller of a consumer product may be liable for “injury to a person or property caused by the product” if “the product is determined to be in a defective condition or unreasonably dangerous at the time it left the control of the manufacturer or seller.”  The court did not reach the issue whether software constitutes a “product” under the statute (nor the "misuse" issue which springs to mind), because the  Act defines a “product liability action” as one brought “for or on account of personal injury, death or property damage."  But plaintiff cited to no Tennessee authority suggesting that a products liability claim can be brought for emotional injuries alone, unaccompanied by some sort of physical injury or actual damage to property. Plaintiff did not allege in his Complaint that the alleged invasion of his privacy actually damaged his property, such as his computer or his business.

Similarly, plaintiff failed to provide appropriate legal support for his general negligence claim. Tennessee law does recognize a claim for general emotional distress caused by the negligent actions of another in the form of a negligent infliction of emotional distress claim. See Eskin v. Bartee, 262 S.W.3d 727, 733 (Tenn.Sup.Ct.2008). But the Tennessee Supreme Court has established that where a case is purely one for emotional injury unaccompanied by damages for physical injury or other damages, the plaintiff must present material evidence as to each of the five elements of general negligence --duty, breach of duty, injury or loss, causation in fact, and proximate or legal, cause -- and, in order to guard against trivial or fraudulent actions, the law ought to provide recovery only for “serious” or “severe” emotional injury. 

On the duty element, the general duty of care does not include an affirmative duty to act for the protection of another, unless the defendant stands in some special relationship to either the person who is the source of the danger, or to the person who is foreseeably at risk from the danger.  There is no precedent for the proposition that a manufacturer of spyware software owes a duty to avoid emotional injury to the victim of the misuse of that software in violation of the software's licensing agreement. Plaintiff fails to demonstrate legal support for the proposition that SpectorSoft had a special relationship or that SpectorSoft somehow assumed a duty of care towards plaintiff.

Finally, plaintiff failed to present evidence of his severe or serious emotional distress. Without such evidence of severe emotional distress, plaintiff's negligence claim that asserts only garden variety anxiety and mental distress as damages must be dismissed. 

 

Class Action Dismissed In Printer Litigation

The federal court has dismissed a proposed class action accusing Dell Inc. of fraudulently marketing an ink-jet printer feature to convince customers to replace ink cartridges that don't need to be replaced yet. Dajani v. Dell Inc., 2009 WL 1833983 (N.D.Cal. June 25, 2009).

Dajani alleged that Dell fraudulently marketed its Ink Management System, a technology feature on all Dell ink jet printers.  The feature will display ink levels on a status window during a print job. The complaint alleged that the Ink Management System was highly imprecise and inaccurate, and that it was designed to deceive customers into replacing what they believed to be nearly empty cartridges, when they actually still contained a substantial amount of usable ink. Dajani sought to represent a class of all Californians who own or have owned Dell ink jet printers.

Judge Susan Illston rejected the lawsuit, without leave to amend the complaint.  Previously, the court had dismissed California-law based claims, as the terms and conditions of his sales agreement provided for Texas law to be allied to all claims. The amended complaint alleged a claim under Texas law for breach of implied warranty of merchantability and a claim of unjust
enrichment.

The court ruled last week that the claim for the breach of implied warranty of merchantability could not survive, because the printer was not unmerchantable as the term is defined under Texas law. The product must be unfit for the ordinary purposes for which it is used because of a lack of something necessary for adequacy.  Dell argued that the ordinary use of the product was printing, not measuring ink, and that any alleged imprecision in the Ink Management System had no impact on that basic function. The court agreed, finding that at most, plaintiff had alleged that the use of the Ink Management System is cumbersome because of allegedly premature replacement prompts. The device still worked.  And plaintiff hurt his claim by alleging that upon receiving “low ink” warnings, he simply removed and discarded his ink cartridge and replaced it with a new one. Such was "plainly at odds" with the product’s instruction manual, which states that a low ink warning appears when ink cartridges are low, not yet empty, and that a separate "reserve tank"  window appears when they are empty.

The judge also dismissed the unjust enrichment claim because under Texas law, when a valid, express contract covers the subject matter of the parties' dispute, there can be no recovery under a theory of unjust enrichment. Fortune Prod. Co. v. Conoco, Inc., 52 S.W.3d 671, 684 (Tex.2000) (“Parties should be bound by their express agreements. When a valid agreement already addresses the matter, recovery under an equitable theory is generally inconsistent with the express agreement.”).

Because plaintiff cannot cure the defects mentioned above through the pleading of additional facts which do not contradict those already made, plaintiff's complaint was dismissed without leave to amend.

Canadian Court Certifies Another Class Action

The Ontario Court of Justice earlier this month certified a class action against Dell Canada Inc. for alleged damage caused to about 120,000 individuals, corporations, and government agencies by allegedly defective notebook computers. See Griffin v. Dell Canada Inc., Ontario Superior Court of Justice, No. 07-CV-325223D2 (2/3/09). Here at MassTortDefense, we have posted about just how difficult Canada is becoming as a jurisdiction for class actions defendants. Frequently, identical consumer products, drugs, and medical devices are marketed in Canada as well as the U.S.

The court concluded that a class action was the preferred option to address the issues, that it was “fanciful” to think that any claimant could pursue an individual claim in a complex products liability case, and rejected Dell's arguments that an arbitration clause in its terms and conditions of sale precluded direct litigation by its customers.


The court minimized the importance under the Class Proceedings Act of plaintiffs’ obligation to produce a workable litigation plan. Such a plan is necessary to help the court decide whether a class action is the preferable procedure, and whether the litigation is manageable. The more complex the litigation, the more detailed a plan is needed that indicates how to manage the litigation. The court ruled, however, that the plaintiff is not required to show that there is a fair, efficient, and manageable method of resolving the claim, but only that there is a fair, efficient, and manageable method for advancing the claim. Order at para. 95. Who cares about theoretical advancement if the claim cannot efficiently be resolved?  A class proceeding in this case achieved this lesser goal and met the objective of judicial economy, even though plaintiff’s plan provided no detail of the resources the class law firm has to administer a claims process of this dimension to ensure that the interests of class members are protected, and there was no analysis of the resources that will be required to litigate the class members' claims to conclusion. Nevertheless, the court went ahead and certified the action conditionally, subject to the plaintiffs producing an acceptable litigation plan. Order at para. 102.

The court rejected Dell Canada’s argument that the significant individual issues involved in each of the potential claims far outweigh the common issues, as merely a “familiar refrain.” Order at para. 90.  Perhaps it is familiar because it is frequently true? The court concluded that the trial judge will be able to fashion efficient and fair trial plan procedures using the extensive powers and discretion conferred on the court by Sec. 25 of Ontario's Class Proceedings Act. The prospect of individualized mini-trials on whether, and to what extent, other factors contributed to the computer failures did not deter the certification. Nor did potentially difficult issues of causation and damages. Order at para. 90.

Dell did not propose that consumers undertake individual lawsuits, but argued that adjudication through arbitration administered by the National Arbitration Forum, as specified in Dell's terms and conditions of sale, was preferable to a class action. The court found, however, that arbitration was not the kind of process that would be easy for class members to navigate without legal representation. The multitude of individual issues that Dell says precludes class treatment would also lead to more complex and therefore more costly arbitration hearings, said the court. Order at para. 92-93.

“On the other hand, aggregating similar individual actions in a class proceeding avoids unnecessary duplication of fact-finding and analysis, and distributes fixed litigation costs among class members, making it economical to prosecute this claim, thereby improving access to justice.” Order at para. 93.
.