Supreme Court Denies Cert In Nationwide Class Despite Absence of Choice Of Law Analysis

The U.S. Supreme Court has denied General Motor's cert petition seeking review of the Arkansas Supreme Court's affirmation of a nationwide class of owners of pickup trucks and sports utility vehicles with allegedly defectively designed parking brakes. General. Motors Corp. v. Bryant, U.S., No. 08-349, certiorari denied 1/12/09.


GM filed the petition after the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled, in June, 2008, that an Arkansas circuit court was not required to conduct a choice-of-law analysis before certifying a multi-state class action.


Last June, we called this a “disturbing” opinion. General Motors had noted that the significant variations among the fifty-one pertinent product defect laws should defeat predominance. [Most courts have accepted this notion.] But the trial court 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 agreed.

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.

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 Arkansas 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. 

Perhaps it is not surprising that the Supreme Court would decline to weigh in on a state procedural law issue, particularly one billed by respondents as a preliminary determination, but a shame that resources will be wasted on a clearly inappropriate class action.  And let's not forget the "blackmail settlement" pressure that these types of cases create.  Castano v. American Tobacco Co., 84 F.3d 734, 746 (5th Cir. 1996); In re Rhone-Poulenc Rorer, Inc., 51 F.3d 1293, 1298-99 (7th Cir.1995); Bruce L. Hay & David Rosenberg, “ ‘Sweetheart’ and ‘Blackmail’ Settlements in Class Actions,” 75 Notre Dame L.Rev. 1377, 1389-92 (2000).