Federal Court Denies Class Certification in "Smart Meter" Case

A Florida federal court recently denied class certification in a case alleging negligence against Honeywell  over its installation of smart electric meters at the homes of Florida Power & Light customers. See Cortes, et al. v. Honeywell Building Solutions SES Corporation, et al., No. 1:14-cv-20429 (S.D. Fla., Sept. 25. 2014). 

Plaintiffs alleged the meters were defective, damaging the connections and allegedly causing electrical arcing, which resulted in more extensive damage to items like pools and air conditioners. 
They sought certification of a class defined as “All Florida Power & Light customers in Florida who had a Smart Meter installed at their property after September, 2009 and who have suffered or will suffer unreimbursed economic loss arising from the defendant’s improper installation of the Smart Meter."

The court noted that, although the trial court should not determine the merits of the plaintiffs’ claim at the class certification stage, the trial court can and should consider the merits of the case to the degree necessary to determine whether the requirements of Rule 23 will be satisfied. Valley Drug Co. v. Geneva Pharms., Inc., 350 F.3d 1181, 1188 n.15 (11th Cir. 2003).  Indeed, sometimes it may be necessary for the court to probe behind the pleadings before coming to rest on the certification question; certification is proper only if the trial court is satisfied, after a rigorous analysis, that the
prerequisites of Rule 23 have been satisfied. Frequently that rigorous analysis will entail some overlap with the merits of the plaintiff’s underlying claim. That cannot be helped.

Before analyzing the Rule 23(a) requirements, a court must determine whether the class definition is adequate. O’Neill v. The Home Depot U.S.A., Inc., 243 F.R.D. 469, 477 (S.D. Fla. 2006); see also Bussey v. Macon Cnty. Greyhound Park, Inc., 562 F. App’x 782, 787 (11th Cir. 2014).  A vague
class definition portends significant manageability problems for the court.  O’Neill, 243 F.R.D.
at 477. “An identifiable class exists if its members can be ascertained by reference to objective criteria."   The analysis of the objective criteria also should be administratively feasible, said the court. Administrative feasibility means that identifying class members is a manageable process that does not require much, if any, individual inquiry.  Bussey, 562 F. App’x at 787.

Defendants argued that membership in the proposed class required a determination whether the
Smart Meter was improperly installed; whether the customer had unreimbursed economic loss;
and whether the loss was caused by the improper installation. The court agreed that the proposed class definition impermissibly required a finding of liability and causation at the class certification stage. For the court to determine membership, it would also need to determine the validity of putative class members’ claims and defenses to those claims. The focus on individuals’ experiences — merely to determine membership in the class — would typically require the putative class members to self-report electrical problems started occurring after the Smart Meters were installed. As such, “the only evidence likely to be offered in many instances will be the putative class member’s uncorroborated claim that he or she” observed electrical problems after the Smart Meter installation. Perez v. Metabolife Int’l, Inc., 218 F.R.D. 262, 269 (S.D. Fla. 2003). This self-interested reporting, often unverifiable but for the Plaintiffs’ own testimony, implicates defendants’ due process rights, and “individualized mini-trials would be required even on the limited issue of class membership.” Id.  The repeated use of these procedures would result in inefficient resolution of the claims, defeating one of the central purposes of the class action tool. See McGuire v. Int’l Paper Co.,
1994 WL 261360, at *5 (S.D. Miss. Feb. 18, 1994).

The court also found the definition of the class impermissibly vague in its inclusion of “customers . . . who have suffered or will suffer unreimbursed economic loss . . . .”  Plaintiffs were requesting a class to be certified of individuals who, at any point in the future, may suffer economic losses as a result of the Smart Meter installations. Apart from the considerations of causation, this proposed subset of class membership was presently impossible to determine.

The court also questioned the showing of numerosity ( a somewhat rare gem for the class action defense reader). Plaintiffs made reference to 603 FPL customer inquiries involving alleged property damage related to Smart Meter installation, but they failed to indicate whether any of these 603 inquiries involve “unreimbursed economic loss,” a requirement contained in the proposed class definition. Plaintiffs then tried to point to evidence of a subset of customers who sought repairs following installation. But nothing in plaintiffs’ factual showing indicated these customers’ problems were caused by the Smart Meter installation — as opposed to any number of other factors — or, again, involved unreimbursed economic loss, two prerequisites to membership in the proposed class. Thus, said the court, these assertions did not come close to showing the number of plaintiffs is large enough to satisfy the numerosity requirement. See Hugh’s Concrete & Masonry Co. v. Southeast Pers. Leasing, Inc., No. 8:12-CV-2631-T-17AEP, 2014 WL 794317, at *2 (M.D. Fla. Feb. 26, 2014) (“[T]he Court cannot find Plaintiff’s bases for numerosity go beyond mere speculation, bare allegations, or unsupported conclusions. Thus, Plaintiff fails the numerosity requirement.”).


Turning to predominance under Rule 23(b)(3), under the law of the Eleventh Circuit, the combination of significant individualized questions going to liability and the need for individualized assessments of damages precludes Rule 23(b)(3) certification. In re Conagra Peanut Butter Products Liab. Litig., 251 F.R.D. 689, 698 (N.D. Ga. 2008).  As is typical, plaintiffs pointed to alleged common issues of defendant's conduct, such as training of employees on installation. While defendants may well have employed similar methods of training employees to install the Smart Meters, those actions were but one component of the tort inquiry. Plaintiffs also would need to prove a breach of duty, if any, was the proximate cause of the damages. The proximate cause determinations would predominate over the determination of the common issue of defendants’ alleged conduct, due to the numerous potential causes of meter can damage. The mere fact that installers were negligent in installations does not mean that negligence caused any damages. Even assuming negligence could be proven, plaintiffs “would still have the bulk of
their cases to prove,” namely injury in fact and causation. Neenan v. Carnival Corp., 199 F.R.D.
372, 376 (S.D. Fla. 2001); see also In re Agent Orange’ Prod. Liab. Litig. MDL No. 381, 818 F.2d 145, 165 (2d Cir. 1987) (“The relevant question, therefore, is not whether Agent Orange has the capacity to cause harm, . . . but whether it did cause harm and to whom. That determination is highly individualistic [] and depends upon the characteristics of individual plaintiffs (e.g. state of health, lifestyle) and the nature of their exposure . . . .”).  The fact-finder would still need to make specific determinations of proximate causation for additional plaintiffs, which would predominate over a class-wide determination of negligence.

Certification denied.

 

Rule 23's "Ascertainability" and "Numerosity" Prerequisites Again Prove Their Worth in Defeating Class Certification

Today a special treat for our readers: my partner Becky Schwartz has submitted a post as guest blogger.  Becky has defended numerous high profile class actions for tobacco, pharmaceutical, medical device, and alcoholic beverage manufacturers, and others. Her focus is a recent Third Circuit class action decision.  And she writes:

Good news for defendants facing threatened consumer class actions: the Third Circuit has once again confirmed that ascertainability and numerosity, two seemingly humble definition-related prerequisites of Fed. R. Civ. P. 23, can be sufficient to foil class certification. In a companion decision to last year’s Marcus v. BMW of North America, LLC, 687 F.3d 583 (3d Cir. 2012), last week the Third Circuit vacated a New Jersey district court’s order certifying a class against defendant Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. See Hayes v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., No. 12-2522, 2013 WL 3957757 (3rd Cir. Aug. 2, 2013). Plaintiff asserted claims for violation of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, breach of contract and unjust enrichment in connection with the sale of extended warranty (service) plans for items sold at Wal-Mart’s wholly owned subsidiary, Sam’s Club. Plaintiff had allegedly purchased two “as is” items from Sam’s Club a clearance area, along with extended warranty service plans for each item. The express terms of the service plans sold, however, allegedly made them inapplicable to the “as is” items. The district court certified a class of persons who had purchased service plans to cover ineligible “as is” products sold at Sam’s Club, and Wal-Mart appealed the class certification on an interlocutory basis pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(f).

Ascertainability and Numerosity Are Evidentiary Questions the Proponent of Certification Must Prove.

The district court’s certification of the Hayes class occurred before last year’s decision by the Third Circuit in Marcus, where the appellate court addressed Rule 23’s ascertainability, and numerosity requirements in significant detail. The Third Circuit here agreed to consider Wal-Mart’s appeal based on the company’s argument that Hayes had failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the class was both ascertainable and sufficiently numerous under the class action rule. Specifically, Wal-Mart argued that the district court had erred by finding the Hayes class ascertainable without considering whether it was administratively feasible to determine class membership. And as to numerosity, Wal-Mart asserted that plaintiff had not adduced evidence sufficient to demonstrate that anyone (including himself) and thus that sufficient claimants could satisfy the proposed class definition.

Putative Class Members’ “Say So” Is Not Enough to Establish Class Membership.

Last year in Marcus, the Third Circuit held that to satisfy the implied Rule 23 prerequisite of ascertainability, a proposed class must be defined with reference to objective criteria, and an administratively feasible mechanism must exist for determining whether putative class members fall within the class definition. 687 F.3d at 593-94.  One key factor in assessing ascertainability is whether the defendant possesses records that could show whether individuals should be included in the class; if not, the class definition would be insufficient. Id. at 593.

In Hayes, the evidence reflected that Wal-Mart kept some records related to “as is” clearance items for sale, but lacked records that could definitively link the sale of extended service plans to ineligible “as is” clearance items. The Third Circuit confirmed that in such circumstances, a lack of evidence is the class proponent’s problem, not the defendant’s. “[T]he nature or thoroughness of a defendant’s record-keeping does not alter the plaintiff’s burden to fulfill Rule 23’s requirements,” particularly where there is no “statutory or regulatory authority obligating [defendant] to create and maintain a particular set of records.” Hayes, 2013 WL 3957757 at *4. “Rule 23’s requirements . . . cannot be relaxed or adjusted” simply because a defendants’ records prove to be no help to plaintiff. Id. Importantly, a dearth of evidence in defendant’s possession cannot be overcome by form affidavits provided by putative class members: a “petition for class certification will founder if the only proof of class membership is the say-so of putative class members or if ascertaining the class requires extensive individual fact-finding.” Id. at *5.

Mere Speculation Is Insufficient to Prove Rule 23(a) Numerosity.

The Third Circuit also made clear that precise proof is required to prove numerosity. Just as it had previously in Marcus, 687 F.3d at 596-97, the Third Circuit in Hayes considered whether and when “common sense” or “logic” could be substituted for such evidence. Sam’s Club had records reflecting 3,500 sales transactions that might have qualified purchasers for class membership, but no record evidence to establish which of those transactions actually did qualify purchasers for class membership. Proof of class membership would thus have required impermissible mini-trials for each putative class member. The district court nonetheless found the Rule 23(a)’s numerosity prerequisite met by reasoning that if even a mere hypothetical 5% of those potential class members actually qualified, the class would be sufficiently numerous under Rule 23. Hayes, 2013 WL 3957757 at *5.

Despite acknowledging that in some limited instances “circumstantial evidence” might permit the district court to make a factual finding by using “’common sense’ to forgo precise calculations and exact numbers,” the Third Circuit made clear that a district court cannot certify a class based on “improper speculation.” Id. at *6. And that, it found, is precisely what the district court had done: “the only conclusion that can be drawn from the evidence presented to the trial court is that the number of class members would equal-to-or-less than 3,500 and equal-to-or-greater than zero,” meaning that the court “can only speculate as to the number of class members.” Id. at *6. “[W]here a putative class is some subset of a larger pool, the trial court may not infer numerosity from the number in the larger pool alone.” Id. (citations omitted). Nor can a trial court take a “wait-and-see approach” to numerosity (or any other requirement of Rule 23). Id.

Key Takeaways.

Defense counsel working with clients facing class action allegations – particularly in the consumer fraud context where complete transactional histories and other class membership related records may not be available in defendants’ records – should recognize the potential power of Rule 23’s ascertainability and numerosity prerequisites to bar class certification.  

Keep the following in mind:
- Lack of available evidence to prove ascertainability and/or numerosity is plaintiff’s problem, not defendant’s;
- Class member affidavits alone (mere “say-so”) cannot be used to establish class membership; the result would be an impermissible compromise of defendants’ rights;
- Plaintiffs’ imperative to find evidence supportive of class certification could very well give rise to surprisingly aggressive and contentious discovery;
- Some trial courts may require reminders of the evolving standards applicable to these Rule 23 prerequisites, including burden of proof; and
- Defendants’ briefing and argument should focus on any gaps (when available) in the evidence supporting ascertainability and/or numerosity; courts must be dissuaded from employing speculation masquerading as “common sense” and “logic” to fill such gaps.

Court of Appeals Vacates Class Certification in Tire Case

Last week, the Third Circuit reversed a trial court's certification of a class of consumer who alleged their vehicles were equipped with allegedly defective run-flat tires. Marcus v. BMW of North America LLC, Nos. 11-1192, 11-1193 (3d Cir.,  8/7/12).

As their name suggests, run-flat tires  can “run” while “flat.” Even if an RFT suffers a total and abrupt loss of air pressure from a puncture or other road damage, the vehicle it is on remains operable.  Plaintiff alleged he experienced four “flat” tires during his three-year lease of a BMW equipped with this tire technology.  In each case, the RFT worked as intended. That is, even though the tire lost air pressure, Marcus was able to drive his car to a BMW dealer to have the tire replaced. He nonetheless sued BMW and the tire maker Bridgestone, asserting consumer fraud, breach of warranty, and breach of contract claims. in part because the tires needed to be replaced rather than repaired.  The District Court certified plaintiff’s suit under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3) as an opt-out class action brought on behalf of all purchasers and lessees of certain model-year BMWs equipped with Bridgestone RFTs sold or leased in New Jersey with tires that “have gone flat and been replaced.” Defendants appealed.

The requirements set out in Rule 23 are not mere pleading rules. The party seeking certification bears the burden of establishing each element of Rule 23 by a preponderance of the evidence. The Third Circuit has repeatedly emphasized that actual, not presumed, conformance with Rule 23 requirements is essential. Newton v. Merril Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., 259 F.3d 154, 167 (3d Cir. 2001) (quoting Gen. Tel. Co. of the Sw. v. Falcon, 457 U.S. 147, 160 (1982)).  To determine whether there is actual conformance with Rule 23, a district court must conduct a “rigorous analysis” of the evidence and arguments put forth. When doing so, the court cannot be bashful. It must resolve all factual or legal disputes relevant to class certification, even if they overlap with the merits — including disputes touching on elements of the cause of action.

The term "game-changer" is often misused and overused as a buzz word in the business world by those who want sound trendy, but the Third Circuit here correctly recognized that, as a practical matter, the certification decision is "typically a game-changer, often the whole ballgame," for the parties and counsel. That is, denying or granting class certification is often the defining moment in class actions. 

The Third Circuit first addressed the issue of numerosity.  When a plaintiff attempts to certify both a nationwide class and a state-specific subclass, as plaintiff did here, evidence that is sufficient to establish numerosity with respect to the nationwide class is not necessarily sufficient to establish numerosity with respect to the state-specific subclass. See Vega v. T-Mobile USA, Inc., 564 F.3d 1256, 1266-68 (11th Cir. 2009) (plaintiff could not simply rely on the nationwide presence of T-Mobile to satisfy the numerosity requirement without Florida-specific evidence).  The District Court found that the New Jersey class met the numerosity requirement because “it is common sense" that there will probably be at least 40 class members in New Jersey. The court of appeals noted that this may be a bet worth making, but it cannot support a finding of numerosity sufficient for Rule 23(a)(1);  a district court must make a factual determination, based on the preponderance of the evidence, that Rule 23’s requirements have been met. Mere speculation is insufficient.

The second major issue was predominance. A plaintiff must demonstrate that the elements of the legal claim capable of proof at trial through evidence that is common to the class predominate over the issues that must be litigated through proof individual to its members. The court’s  obligation to consider all relevant evidence and arguments on a motion for class certification  extends to expert testimony on the common or individual nature of issues and proof, whether offered by a party seeking class certification or by a party opposing it. Expert opinion with respect to class certification, like any matter relevant to a Rule 23 requirement, calls for rigorous analysis. Weighing conflicting expert testimony at the certification stage is not only permissible, it may be integral to the rigorous analysis Rule 23 demands.  

Here, the District Court then found plaintiff could show, without resort to individual proofs, that the alleged common defect (RFTs go "flat" too easily) caused the class members’ damages. But that causation finding was an abuse of discretion.  Central to plaintiff's claim was what caused class members’ tires to go flat and need replacement. Causation was pivotal to each of Marcus’s claims. The District Court failed to analyze an undisputed, fundamental point: any tire can “go flat” for myriad reasons. Even “defective” tires can go flat for reasons completely unrelated to their defects. Critically, to determine why a particular class member’s Bridgestone RFT had “gone flat and been replaced” requires an individual examination of that class member’s tire. But these individual inquiries are incompatible with Rule 23(b)(3)’s predominance requirement.

For example, of the two tires plaintiff presented for inspection in his lawsuit, one went “flat” and was replaced because he ran over a jagged chunk of metal, and the other because he ran over a sharp object that tore and gouged the tire and damaged the sidewall. All the experts agreed that the two tires could not have been repaired and that any tire (run-flat or conventional, defective or not) would also have been damaged under the circumstances. Thus, even if Marcus could prove that Bridgestone RFTs suffer from common, class-wide defects, those defects did not cause the damage he suffered for these two tires: the need to replace them. In this sense, Marcus was no different than a class member who, seconds after buying his car, pulled off the dealership lot and ran over a bed of nails -- neither could claim a “defect” caused his tires to go flat and need replacement.

One other key aspect of the opinion for our readers: the court of appeals also raised an issue should plaintiffs attempt to get a different class certified on remand.  Many courts have recognized that an essential prerequisite of a class action, at least with respect to actions under Rule 23(b)(3), is that the class must be currently and readily ascertainable based on objective criteria. See, e.g., John v. Nat. Sec. Fire & Cas. Co., 501 F.3d 443, 445 (5th Cir. 2007).  If class members are impossible to identify without extensive and individualized fact-finding or “mini-trials,” then a class action is inappropriate. Some courts have held that where nothing in company databases shows or could show whether individuals should be included in the proposed class, the class definition fails. See Clavell v. Midland Funding LLC, No. 10-3593, 2011 WL 2462046, at *4 (E.D. Pa. June 21, 2011); Sadler v. Midland Credit Mgmt, Inc., No.06-C-5045, 2008 WL 2692274, at *5 (N.D. Ill. July 3, 2008); In re Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Wage & Hour Litig., No. C 06-2069 SBA, 2008 WL 413749, at *8 (N.D. Cal. Feb. 13, 2008); Deitz v. Comcast Corp., No. C 06-06352 WHA, 2007 WL 2015440, at *8 (N.D. Cal. July 11, 2007).

The ascertainability requirement serves several important objectives. First, it eliminates serious administrative burdens that are incongruous with the efficiencies expected in a class action by insisting on the easy identification of class members.  Second, it protects absent class members by facilitating the “best notice practicable” under Rule 23(c)(2) in a Rule 23(b)(3) action. See Manual for Complex Litigation, § 21.222 (4th ed. 2004). Third, it protects defendants by ensuring that those persons who will be bound by the final judgment are clearly identifiable. See Xavier v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., 787 F. Supp. 2d 1075, 1089 (N.D. Cal. 2011). Ascertainability is needed for properly enforcing the preclusive effect of final judgment. The class definition must be clear in its applicability so that it will be clear later whose rights are merged into the judgment; that is, who gets the benefit of any relief and who gets the burden of any loss. If the definition is not clear in its applicability, then satellite litigation will be invited over who was in the class in the first place.

If plaintiff attempts to certify a class on remand, the District Court would have to resolve the critical issue of whether the defendants’ records can ascertain class members and, if not, whether there is a reliable, administratively feasible alternative. The Third Circuit cautioned against approving a method that would amount to no more than ascertaining by potential class members’ say so. For example, simply having potential class members submit affidavits that their Bridgestone RFTs have gone flat and been replaced may not be “proper or just.”  Defendants would be able to cross-examine an individual plaintiff at trial about whether and why his tires “have gone flat and been replaced.” So, forcing defendants to simply accept as true absent persons’ declarations that they are members of the class, without further indicia of reliability, "would have serious due process implications."

 

Plaintiffs' Class Allegations Flattened in Tire Case

A federal court in New York last week denied plaintiffs' motion for class certification in a case alleging that the run-flat tires on defendant BMW's MINI Cooper S were defective. See Oscar v. BMW of North America LLC, No. 1:09-cv-00011-RJH (S.D.N.Y. 6/7/11).

Oscar purchased a new 2006 MINI Cooper S from BMW-MINI of Manhattan, an authorized MINI dealership, but prior to purchasing the MINI did not do any sort of research. Nor did he take the car for a test drive. The car came with run-flat tires (RFTs), an innovation that allows drivers to drive to the nearest service station even after the tire was flat. As of December 2, 2009, a period of about three years, Oscar had had five flat tires.  Plaintiff alleges that  his troubles stemmed from the fact that his car was equipped with RFTs rather than with standard radial tires. He considered the number of flat tires he experienced to be evidence of a widespread defect.

Plaintiff proposed a nationwide class (or a New York class) of all consumers who purchased or leased new 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009 MINI vehicles equipped with Run-Flat Extended Mobility Technology tires manufactured by Goodyear and sold or leased in the United States whose Tires have gone flat and been replaced.

On the first prerequisite of Rule 23(a), the court offered an interesting discussion arising from the fact that most of plaintiff's evidence of numerosity did not correlate directly to his class definition: data that may have included other vehicles, or non-RFT tires, or makers other than Goodyear. But the opinion noted that courts have relied upon "back-of-the-envelope calculations in finding numerosity satisfied."  Conservative assumptions leading to a likelihood of numerosity have at times sufficed. This case fell "right on the border between appropriate inference and inappropriate speculation."  Accordingly, numerosity was satisfied for the proposed national class but not the New York class.

Turning to the Rule 23(b)(3) requirements, the court confronted the choice of law issues inherent in a national class. Although plaintiff conceded that the law of the fifty states plus the District of Columbia would apply to the members of the nationwide class, he argued that the differences between the states’ laws on implied warranty claims were negligible because the implied warranty is a Uniform Commercial Code claim. But numerous courts have recognized that there are significant variances among the interpretation of the elements of an implied warranty of merchantability claim among the states. See Walsh v. Ford Motor Co., 807 F.2d 1000, 1016 (D.C. Cir. 1986); In re Ford Motor Co. Ignition Switch Litig., 194 F.R.D. 484, 489 (D.N.J. 2000).  In particular, several states still require privity; so, plaintiff advanced a theory of privity-by-agency. But this theory has not been accepted in all states. Readers know that choice of law issues impact, among other things, the manageability of the class and the superiority of the use of the class device.

The court also found that plaintiff failed to demonstrate that common questions of fact predominate. Plaintiff was unable to articulate and allegedly common defect, merely hypothesizing that the failure rate could stem from the RFTs’ "stiffness" and stating that further discovery would be necessary to ascertain the precise nature of the defect. Plaintiff did not provide the court with any evidence that Goodyear RFTs are likely to fail because of a particular common defect. The failure to specify an alleged common defect provided a further basis for concluding that plaintiff had not demonstrated predominance. See Am. Honda Motor Co. v. Allen, 630 F.3d 813, 819 (7th Cir. 2010) (holding predominance was not satisfied where forty-one plaintiffs owners alleged that their motorcycles wobbled, but failed to provide competent evidence that a common defect underlay their claims).

Even if Oscar had put forth evidence of a common defect, breach of warranty suits like this one often involve complicated issues of individual causation that predominate over common questions regarding the existence of a defect. See, e.g., In re Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., 288 F.3d 1012, 1018-19 (7th Cir. 2002) (noting that class treatment of tire defect litigation was unmanageable in part because individual factors could affect the alleged tire failure); Sanneman v. Chrysler Corp., 191 F.R.D. 441, 451-52 (E.D. Pa. 2000) (declining to certify a class of vehicle owners whose paint had delaminated allegedly because of faulty painting process in part because the paint could delaminate for reasons other than the alleged defect); In re Ignition Switch Litig., 194 F.R.D. at 490-91 (declining to certify a class of vehicle owners whose passenger compartments caught on fire allegedly because of a faulty ignition switch because issues of individual causation would predominate); Feinstein v. Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., 535 F. Supp. 2d 595, 603 (S.D.N.Y. 1982) (declining to certify a class of tire purchasers because of “myriad [individual] questions,” including “other possible causes of the problem encountered”); see also Wolin v. Jaguar Land Rover N. Am., LLC, 617 F.3d 1168, 1172-74 (9th Cir. 2010).

Here, individualized issues of causation would swamp the common inquiry into an as yet to be identified tire design defect.  Even if the plaintiffs were to show that the Goodyear RFTs suffered from a common defect, they would still need to demonstrate that this defect caused each class member’s RFT to puncture. But tires can puncture for any number of reasons, and not all of these reasons will relate to the alleged defect. RFTs can go flat for reasons that would also cause a standard radial tire to go flat -- for example, if the driver ran over a nail, tire shredding device, or large pothole, or if a vandal slashed the tire. In order to demonstrate liability, plaintiff would have to demonstrate in each individual class member's case that the tire punctured for reasons related to the defect, rather than for a reason that would cause any tire to fail.

Similarly, under the state consumer fraud law claim, where the link between the defendant’s alleged deception (about the tires) and the injury suffered by plaintiffs is too attenuated and requires too much individualized analysis, courts will not certify a class. See, e.g., Pelman v. McDonald’s Corp., 272 F.R.D. 82 (S.D.N.Y. 2010) (declining to certify a class allegedly misled by McDonald’s claims that its food was healthy).  Again, determining whether each tire failed as a result of the allegedly concealed defect or as a result of unrelated issues, e.g., potholes or reckless driving habits, would devolve into numerous mini-trials.

Certification denied.

 

 

Federal Court Denies Class Certification in Boat Fuel Case

A federal court last week denied class certification in a case arising from alleged damage to boats allegedly caused by ethanol blended gasoline. Kelecseny v. Chevron U.S.A., Inc., et al., No. 08-61294-CIV-ALTONAGA/Brown (S.D. Fla. Nov. 25 2009).

Recent federal and state legislation requires that ethanol usage be expanded and that gasoline contain 9 to10% ethanol by December 31, 2010. Plaintiff sued several defendant gasoline manufacturers who have produced and/or marketed the ethanol blended gasoline (E10) used by the proposed class members for use in boats and watercraft in Florida allegedly without adequate warnings to consumers. The plaintiff asserted that E10 can cause difficulty starting the engine or rough engine operation, engine overheating, engine fires,  corrosion of aluminum tanks, degradation of fiberglass tanks and resins, and other damages.

The court noted the evidence that some defendants have, in other countries, posted warning signs that E10 may not be suitable for use in boats. Numerous articles have appeared in boating magazines, some boat manufacturers provide E10 warnings in their owners’ manuals, and many marine mechanics are aware that E10 may cause problems in certain types of boats.

 

The class sought relief against all defendants under a “market share” theory of negligence, based on Conley v. Boyle Drug Co., 570 So. 2d 275, 286 (Fla. 1990), alleging that because of the general methods for the use and distribution of gasoline used to fuel boats, plaintiffs did not know the identity of each of the named defendants that sold the ethanol blended gasoline that they purchased for use in their boats.

 

Our review focuses on the damages class, defined as owners of boats in the state of Florida whose fuel tanks are composed of polyester of vinyl ester resin fiberglass fuel tanks. The court noted first that even to determine whether certain individuals may be in the class, a detailed individual inquiry would be required. Because it would be impossible to definitively identify class members prior to individualized fact-finding and litigation, the proposed class fails to satisfy the most basic requirements for a class action under Rule 23, ascertainability.

 

Turning to the Rule 23(a) factors, while it is possible that the proposed class could satisfy the numerosity requirement, plaintiff had not made a clear showing that the number of actual class members will be so high that joinder of all members is impracticable. Plaintiff argued that his starting number (680) was so large that defense attempts to carve certain boats out of the total number would never work to defeat numerosity. However, courts have made it abundantly clear that the burden to satisfy numerosity is on the plaintiff seeking to certify a class, and a plaintiff is not permitted to make a purely speculative showing that numerosity has been met.

 

Next, although typicality “does not require identical claims or defenses,” a factual difference in the representative’s claims will render those claims atypical if the factual position of the class representative “markedly differs from that of other members of the class.” Named plaintiff’s damages claims and the defenses to those claims differed markedly from those of other potential class members, said the court. The uncontroverted expert testimony at the certification stage established that the type of fiberglass tanks at issue are found in relatively large boats that are not suitable to be transported or carried by trailer.  Owners whose boats are equipped with fiberglass fuel tanks, therefore, are most likely to purchase their fuel at marinas, where their boats are kept or to which they travel on water for fueling. In contrast, plaintiff purchased fuel for his boat at numerous gas stations by use of a fuel caddy that he carried in his pick-up truck. Expert witnesses and the parties agree that this behavior was atypical. This difference in behavior between named plaintiff and other potential class members “jeopardizes Plaintiff’s ability to sue Defendants collectively under a market share theory.”

 

Importantly, the court noted that plaintiff cited no case in which market share liability has been applied in a class action, “and there appears to be good reason why no such case exists.” It is simply untenable to apply market share liability [in those few states that recognize it], with its requirement of the narrowest possible geographic market, to a class action consisting of members whose activities cover an entire state.  The requirement of a narrowly tailored geographic market is particularly important in market share liability cases because only with a narrow geographic market may a defendant avail itself of the defenses afforded by the market share theory.

 

On the Rule 23(b) factors, plaintiff’s argument disregarded the many individualized inquiries that would be required in the proposed class action and which clearly outweighed the asserted common issues. As to each individual plaintiff, a fact finder would have to determine where that particular plaintiff purchased fuel, and what, if any, warnings were in place at that station at that time or at different times. Also, plaintiffs had to show that defendants’ failure to warn of the dangers of E10 was the proximate cause of the damage to the boats. This requisite showing raised two issues of individualized inquiry. First, each proposed class member must demonstrate that had warnings of the danger of E10 existed, he or she would have heeded those warnings and not used E10 in his or her boat. Non-ethanol blended fuel is more difficult to find than E10 and is generally more expensive than E10. It is conceivable that some boat owners, even if warned that E10 might damage their fuel tanks, would opt for the convenience and lower cost of E10, and assume the risk of damage. Indeed, plaintiff himself apparently continued to use E10 in his boat despite his knowledge of the risks.

 

The proximate cause requirement also mandates an individualized inquiry into whether each proposed class member had personal knowledge that E10 could damage fiberglass fuel tanks. As noted above, some information was available from other sources that E10 may not be appropriate.

Finally, the court noted something that is extremely important to readers of MassTortDefense, and which some courts ignore: fact issues can be created by defenses and by a defendant’s response to plaintiff’s claims. If those fact issues are individual, that is every bit as important to the class certification decision as individual issues raised by plaintiff’s own affirmative proof. While plaintiff’s experts asserted that no individual examination of fiberglass fuel tanks was necessary, defendants’ experts disagreed. Thus, inspection of the fuel tank of each proposed class member was a reasonable request to determine whether any existing damage was actually caused by E10.

Similarly, defendants have the right to assert the comparative fault defense, and its assertion would involve individual inquiries concerning each proposed class member’s knowledge and behavior. Inquiry would be necessary as to whether each boat owner received an owner’s manual that warned against the use of E10; whether any had ever been told by a mechanic not to use E10; whether any had ever seen a warning sign at a marina or researched E10 on the internet; and whether, despite personal knowledge, the boat owner nonetheless chose to fuel the boat with E10 based on convenience and cost savings.