State Supreme Court Rejects Fishing Expedition of Experts' Employer

The Texas Supreme Court rejected plaintiffs' attempt to engage in a "fishing expedition"  of the employer of two experts retained in a product liability dispute. See In re Ford Motor Co., No. 12-1000 (Tex., 3/28/14).

In this design-defect case, the plaintiff sought to discover alleged  potential bias of the defendant’s two testifying experts by seeking to depose a corporate representative of each expert’s employer. This suit arose from injuries plaintiff Saul Morales allegedly sustained after a Ford vehicle allegedly struck him. Morales had been in his own vehicle, fleeing police who suspected he was driving drunk, said the court. Eventually, Morales stopped his vehicle and continued his flight on foot. One of the police officers likewise left his 2004 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor, then pursued and apprehended Morales. While the officer attempted to handcuff Morales, the officer’s vehicle allegedly began rolling backward toward the pair. The vehicle allegedly struck the plaintiff, injuring him. 

Morales sued Ford Motor Company, which designed and manufactured the police car, and the car’s seller, Ken Stoepel Ford, Inc. Morales alleged the vehicle had a design defect that allowed the officer unintentionally to place the gear-shift selector between park and reverse, which then caused the vehicle to go into an idle-powered reverse. To defend the lawsuit, Ford retained two expert witnesses: Erin Harley, of Exponent, Inc., and Hugh Mauldin, of Carr Engineering, Inc. After deposing both Harley and Mauldin, Morales sought corporate-representative depositions from Exponent and Carr Engineering on seventeen topics, arguing the additional depositions were necessary to prove each testifying expert’s bias in favor of Ford and other automobile manufacturers.

The courts have expressed concerns about allowing overly expansive discovery about testifying experts that can “permit witnesses to be subjected to harassment and might well discourage reputable experts” from participating in the litigation process. Ex parte Shepperd, 513 S.W.2d 813, 816 (Tex. 1974). The particular deposition notices in this case. said the court,  highlighted the danger of permitting such expansive discovery. In his deposition notices to Carr Engineering and Exponent, Morales sought detailed financial and business information for all cases the companies have handled for Ford or any other automobile manufacturer from 2000 to 2011. Such a "fishing expedition," said the court, seeking sensitive information covering twelve years, is just the type of overbroad discovery the rules are intended to prevent.

In any event, the most probative information regarding the bias of a testifying expert comes from
the expert herself. In this case, for example, Harley testified that 5% of the cases she handles
are for plaintiffs and that she has never testified against an automobile manufacturer. Similarly,
Mauldin testified that historically about 50% of Carr Engineering’s work is done for Ford.  That was all plaintiff was entitled to, and the lower court order was quashed.

 

 

 

Rare Class Decision Describing Adequacy Prong

The adequacy prong of Rule 23 as applied to named representatives probably does not garner as much attention in litigation as the other prerequisites.  A federal court decision reminds readers that there are proposed class actions where the adequacy prong can be vital.  See In re Kosmos Energy Ltd. Sec. Litig., No. 3:12-CV-3733-B (N.D. Tex. , 3/19/14).

The issue before the court was whether to grant Lead Plaintiff’s motion to certify a class of investors who purchased or otherwise acquired common stock from Defendant Kosmos Energy Ltd. (“Kosmos”), through its May, 2011 initial public offering (“IPO”), and were allegedly damaged thereby. The court concluded that Lead Plaintiff fell short of the dictates of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011), and Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 133 S. Ct. 1426 (2013), as well as the Fifth Circuit’s standard for class certification in securities cases set out in Berger v. Compaq Computer Corp., 257 F.3d 475, 483 (5th Cir. 2001). Instead, and to its apparent detriment, plaintiff relied on pre-Comcast case authority. The prevailing current view  is that a plaintiff seeking class certification must affirmatively demonstrate his compliance with Rule 23(a) by showing that there are in fact sufficiently numerous parties, common questions of law or fact, typicality of claims or defenses, and adequacy of representation.

At the heart of defendants’ opposition to the pension plan’s request to be appointed as class
representative was their assertion that there was a fatal absence of evidentiary support for the Plan’s request. Defendants argued that a purported class representative must demonstrate that it possesses a sufficient level of knowledge and understanding to be able to control the litigation, that a potential representative must also establish that it—not the lawyers—is directing the litigation, and that it is not only sufficiently informed about the case to properly manage the effort, but that it must also be willing and able to take an active role and protect the interests of absentee class members. 

Defendants asserted that Lead Plaintiff fell far short of satisfying this stringent standard for  adequacy. They pointed out that the Plan offered little, if any, evidence to prove its adequacy to as
class representative. For their part, defendants submitted the deposition transcript of the Plan’s Board Chair Ms. Saville, which was taken in conjunction with the certification proceedings. Saville’s
deposition, Defendants claimed, established that the Plan had virtually no knowledge about the case, and in fact, did not understand their own allegations or the core themes permeating the complaint. Defendants pointed to portions of Saville’s deposition which they asserted showed that she had never seen, much less read, the Registration Statement, nor could she identify a single misstatement in it, was unable to recognize the names of certain defendants, and was either confused or did not know whether the Kosmos stock price dropped, or if it did, what might have caused the drop, after the Plan purchased the stock.

Adequacy is a constitutional prerequisite to class certification. In fact, it has been said that, due process issues are the single most important feature of class litigation, and adequacy looms
over the entire class debate.  There was no dominant, discernable standard of proof for the requirement. Some courts presumptively favored finding class representatives adequate, requiring little or no evidence to support the determination. Others employed a more robust review of the issue, incorporating the due process considerations inherent in the concept, making certain that the representative possessed the character traits necessary to guarantee his commitment to his fiduciary duties to the class.  The court concluded that the Supreme Court’s recent decisions in Wal-Mart and Comcast, leave no doubt that plaintiffs can no longer rely upon the lax adequacy standards employed at times in the past. Instead, plaintiffs seeking certification must produce actual, credible evidence that the proposed class representatives are informed, able individuals, themselves—not the lawyers––actually directing the litigation.

Applying this rigorous adequacy review—in practice—can involve consideration of a number
of factors, said the court. For example, courts often consider the proposed representative’s personal attributes, including evidence of the representative’s character, honesty, and conscientiousness.  The representative’s familiarity with the case is also important. Certification may be denied where the representative lacks knowledge or a basic understanding of what the suit is about. Likewise, evidence of the representative’s willingness or ability to participate in the litigation is relevant. When it appears that the potential representatives are simply lending their names to a suit controlled entirely by the class attorney, or where the representative is too closely affiliated with class counsel, courts may find them to be inadequate. Failing to appear at the class certification hearing has also been considered a negative factor in the adequacy assessment.  

In terms of evidence, deposition testimony of the proposed representative—where the party opposing certification was able to  question the individual in person—may trump a written, sworn statement by that representative. Here, the only evidence submitted by the Pension Plan in support of its claims of adequacy was the Declaration of its Board Chair, Suzanne Saville. The Declaration, however, contained little more than formulaic, boiler-plate assertions over two pages of substantive text. The court determined that the deposition taken carried more weight. Lead Plaintiff’s defense of the Saville deposition, in turn, fell short.  And without facts to support its position, the Plan failed the rigorous test posed by Berger, Wal-Mart and Comcast.

Moreover, when focusing on the factors listed above that courts have examined in assessing adequacy, (e.g. close affiliation with and dependence upon class counsel, knowledge of the basic facts of the case and defendants involved, desire to vigorously prosecute the case, among others), the court noted that here the plaintiff and counsel maintained the type of close affiliation that calls into question whether the Plan or its counsel was the one actually pursuing the case.  The court referred to the type of free securities monitoring service that counsel provided the Plan, which has been criticized by other courts as fostering tendencies toward lawyer-driven litigation.

Moreover, Saville did not attend the class certification hearing and sought permission to be excused from attending court-ordered mediation in person. These facts indicated that the Plan lacked the incentive needed to fulfill its fiduciary duties and vigorously prosecute the claims filed on behalf of “likely thousands” of potential class members who would not have the opportunity to represent themselves in court.

All in all, one of the more comprehensive recent discussions of the adequacy prong.

Proposed Class Rep Not Adequate: Got Your Dates Straight?

A federal court in New Jersey last week joined the small but growing trend (call it a simmer not a boil) of courts putting some real meaning into the prerequisites to class certification found in Rule 23(a).  The court in Coyle v. Hornell Brewing Co., No. 1:08-cv-02797-JBS-JS (D.N.J. 2011) found that the factual inaccuracies and/or inconsistencies in the proposed class representative's testimony constituted fatal flaws under Rule 23(a)(4) requiring an adequate class representative.

Plaintiff alleged that she was misled by labels on bottles of Arizona brand beverages touting “All Natural” ingredients, and thereby induced into buying bottles of Arizona beverages that contained High Fructose Corn Syrup (“HFCS”), which she claimed is not “natural”. Plaintiff sought to certify, under Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(2), a class of consumers who purchased similarly labeled Arizona beverages that contained HFCS, seeking only declaratory and injunctive relief.  The underlying claims were based on the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“NJCFA”). [Full disclosure, we are partial to their Arizona Sports thirst-quenchers.]

The court denied plaintiff’s motion for class certification because she could not satisfy the adequacy requirement of Rule 23(a)(4).  The reasoning is instructive. During the course of discovery in this case, plaintiff produced a retainer agreement she signed in anticipation of this lawsuit. But, the agreement was signed on August 9, 2007, more than seven months before plaintiff alleged that she was first misled by defendants’ “all natural” labeling in her product purchase on March 30, 2008.  Indeed, plaintiff repeated the 3/08 purchase date in her deposition.

Problem. Solution? Nearly two months after her deposition, plaintiff produced a signed declaration that contradicted her deposition testimony (and prior answers to interrogatories and the allegations in both her original Complaint and subsequent Amended Complaints).  She now said she meant to claim the alleged purchase occurred in March, 2007 rather than on March 30, 2008. But she offers no explanation for why she had previously alleged the March 30, 2008 date in her Complaints and in certified answers to interrogatories.

The court noted that in the procedural posture, the substantive allegations of the complaint must be taken as true.  But class certification questions are sometimes enmeshed in the factual and legal issues comprising the plaintiff's cause of action, and courts may delve beyond the pleadings to determine whether the requirements for class certification are satisfied.  The Third Circuit calls for a “rigorous analysis”  of a motion to certify a class. In re Hydrogen Peroxide Antitrust Litig., 552 F.3d 305, 309 (3d Cir. 2008). Specifically, the district court must make findings that each Rule 23 requirement is met.  Id. at 310. Plaintiff has the burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence that she has met each and every element of Rule 23.

Rule 23(a)(4) seeks to ensure “that the representatives and their attorneys will competently, responsibly, and vigorously prosecute the suit and that the relationship of the representative parties’ interests to those of the class are such that there is not likely to be divergence in viewpoint or goals in the conduct of the suit.”  Bogosian v. Gulf Oil Corp., 561F.2d 434, 449 (3d Cir. 1977). On the subsidiary question whether the named plaintiff has interests antagonistic to those of the class, courts often have to evaluate attacks on the named plaintiff’s credibility.

Here, defendants argued that plaintiff’s inconsistent allegations and testimony regarding the date of her qualifying purchase of an Arizona product render her an inadequate class representative. See Friedman-Katz v. Lindt & Sprungli (USA), Inc., 270 F.R.D. 150, 159 (S.D.N.Y. 2010). Plaintiff  responded that, to the extent that defendant raised a problem of plaintiff’s credibility, such a credibility question is one for the jury to decide; it would be improper for the court to make a credibility determination, on the factual dispute of when plaintiff last purchased an Arizona product, at this certification stage of the litigation.  However, the court properly recognized it had an independent obligation at the class certification stage to make findings on whether the named plaintiff satisfied each of the Rule 23 elements. The court thus had an obligation to look at whether the credibility problems raised by plaintiff’s contradictory testimony and subsequent declaration rendered her an inadequate class representative.

The court observed that it need not find plaintiff to have intentionally lied to hold that she does not meet the adequacy element of Rule 23(a)(4). The issue was not simply whether plaintiff in fact lied, but whether her inconsistent testimony makes her vulnerable to a unique factual or legal defense not faced by other class members, thereby rendering her interests potentially too antagonistic to the interests of the other class members.  And that is exactly the case; the court found that plaintiff’s factual inconsistencies raised sufficiently grave credibility problems as to prevent her from serving as an adequate class representative.

First, she filed three separate Complaints alleging with specificity that she was misled by  defendants’ labeling when she first purchased an Arizona beverage in March, 2008, but she had retained an attorney on this issue seven months previously.  She repeated these claims in at least two answers to interrogatories, assisted by counsel, and again repeated the claim in her  deposition, even after being confronted with the apparent inconsistency of such a claim. Her subsequent declaration, in which she attempted to “clarify” the time-line in her deposition, did not explain how she had repeatedly asserted the incorrect date in her Complaints and discovery answers.  This level of inconsistency logically demonstrated either (1) an effort to disguise the fact that she did purchase the Arizona beverage in 2008 as alleged, but for the sole purpose of bringing the lawsuit she had already hired a lawyer for, or (2) a significant carelessness about the specific highly material facts she has alleged in the case, said the court.

Under either scenario, the court would find that plaintiff was not an adequate class representative.  Were she to be a class representative, she would be required to address defendants’ argument that she made her only documented purchase of Arizona iced tea in March of 2008 solely for the purpose of bringing the instant lawsuit and therefore suffered no ascertainable loss. This argument would divert attention from the substance of the claims advanced on behalf of the class.  That would risk that the class could fail in its claim because its representative was unable to prove she made a qualifying purchase, noted the court.

Finally, the court found, as an alternative basis to deny class certification, that plaintiff’s counsel’s adequacy was also brought into question through the existence of these material discrepancies. Under the "most charitable interpretation" of these facts, counsel submitted three separate Complaints to the court alleging an incorrect date of purchase, at least two answers to interrogatories repeating the same purportedly incorrect purchase date. The court thought that was insufficient attention to detail to show the ability to effectively represent the interests of a class.

 

Class Rep Who Dismisses Individual Claim Lacks Standing to Appeal Denial of Certification

A proposed class representative who voluntarily dismisses his individual claims lacks standing to appeal the denial of certification of the class claims, according to the Fourth Circuit.  Rhodes v. E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., No. 10-1166 (4th Cir.,  4/8/11).

The plaintiffs were residents of the City of Parkersburg in Wood County, West Virginia, and  customers of the Parkersburg City Water Department  which supplied water to homes located in Wood County.  DuPont operated a manufacturing facility in Wood County. For an extended period of time, DuPont’s plant  allegedly discharged perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) into the environment
surrounding the plant. Measurable quantities of PFOA were allegedly detected in the water that is pumped by the Water Department into the plaintiffs’ residences.

In 2006, the plaintiffs filed a complaint against DuPont in the Circuit Court of Wood County, West Virginia. Defendant removed. The plaintiffs asserted six common law claims, individually and on behalf of a class of customers of the Water Department, addressing the contamination of their municipal water supply and the alleged resulting presence of PFOA in their blood. The plaintiffs sought damages and injunctive relief to obtain medical monitoring for latent diseases on behalf of a class of Water Department customers allegedly exposed to PFOA beginning in 2005.

After conducting a hearing on the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b), the district court concluded that the elements of a medical monitoring claim could not be proved on a class-wide basis using the type of evidence presented by the plaintiffs. The district court therefore denied the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification of their stand alone medical monitoring claims. The district court further held that the plaintiffs had not met their burden under Rule 23 for certification of a class to pursue medical monitoring relief based on the plaintiffs’ claims of negligence, gross negligence, battery, trespass, and private nuisance, the common law torts. The district court then denied the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification of the traditional common law tort claims for damages also.

DuPont filed motions seeking summary judgment on all the plaintiffs’ claims. The district court granted in part and denied in part DuPont’s motions. The district court granted DuPont’s
motions with respect to all the plaintiffs’ traditional common law tort claims, Rhodes v. E.I. Du Pont De Nemours and Co., 657 F. Supp. 2d 751, 762-73 (S.D.W. Va. 2009), but denied summary judgment with respect to the plaintiffs’ individual claims of medical monitoring.

Rather than proceed to trial on those remaining individual claims, in order to appeal immediately the adverse summary judgment and certification rulings, the plaintiffs filed a stipulation of voluntary dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a)(1) of their individual claims for medical monitoring.

The court of appeals affirmed the summary judgments, but what will be of more interest to our readers is DuPont’s argument that the 4th Circuit lacked appellate jurisdiction to address the merits of plaintiff’s appeal of the denial of class certification of their medical monitoring claims. DuPont asserted that the plaintiffs no longer had standing to advance this argument on appeal because, by voluntarily dismissing their individual claims for medical monitoring, the plaintiffs abandoned their interest in litigating the certification question. As a result, DuPont contended, the plaintiffs had no personal stake in this issue and did not satisfy the requirements for Article
III standing.

In response, the plaintiffs maintained that litigants routinely are permitted to dismiss various claims in order to appeal other claims and, that under federal precedent, this court could review the denial of class certification for a particular claim even though no plaintiff presently was advancing individual claims asserting that cause of action. The plaintiffs further argued that by its plain terms, their stipulated dismissal applied only to their individual medical monitoring claims. Thus, the plaintiffs contended that they did not abandon their stake in the certification question.

As a general matter, circumstances may change while a case is pending, thereby leaving a plaintiff
without the personal stake necessary to maintain Article III standing. For example, claims can expire, or parties can settle or dismiss their claims entirely. In such situations, the district court or appellate court must dismiss the case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. On the other hand, generally, a class representative not only has a "personal stake" in the substantive claim he or she asserts, but also a distinct procedural right to represent the interests of similarly situated individuals. This second, representative interest sometimes gives a putative class representative a sufficient "stake" in the class certification question to appeal an adverse certification ruling even after the putative class representative’s claim is mooted by intervening events.

Two conditions must be met, however, to retain Article III jurisdiction, according to the 4th Circuit. The imperatives of a dispute capable of judicial resolution must be sharply present, and there must be self-interested parties vigorously advocating opposing positions.

Other federal circuit courts addressing this issue have reached different conclusions on the question whether a plaintiff may voluntarily settle or dismiss his or her individual claims and still
appeal a certification denial. Some courts have held that standing is maintained when a named plaintiff expressly reserves the right to appeal a certification denial. See Richards v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 453 F.3d 525 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (express reservation of class claim preserves standing of class
representative to appeal certification denial); Dugas v. Trans Union Corp., 99 F.3d 724 (5th Cir. 1996) (reservation of right sufficient to give putative class representative who settles individual claims standing to appeal denial of class certification). Cf. Narouz v. Charter Commc’ns, LLC, 591 F.3d 1261 (9th Cir. 2010) (putative representative retains standing to appeal unless releases interest in class claims in settlement agreement). Other courts have held that even an express reservation of right is not sufficient to satisfy Article III standing requirements. See Muro v. Target Corp., 580 F.3d 485 (7th Cir. 2009) (recitation in settlement agreement that plaintiff reserves right to appeal denial of class certification not sufficient to create concrete interest in class certification issue); Anderson v. CNH U.S. Pension Plan, 515 F.3d 823 (8th Cir. 2008) (same).

Although several of these cases held that the language of a plaintiff’s settlement agreement is determinative of that plaintiff’s "stake" in an appeal, the 4th Circuit seemed less concerned about the language of the dismissal than the fact of dismissal. It concluded that when a putative
class plaintiff voluntarily dismisses the individual claims underlying a request for class certification, as happened in this case, there is no longer a "self-interested party advocating" for class treatment in the manner necessary to satisfy Article III standing requirements.

The court held that it thus did lack jurisdiction to decide the issue whether the district court abused its discretion in denying the plaintiffs’ request for class certification of their medical monitoring
claims.

Medical Monitoring Class Actions Rejected in Beryllium Cases

The Third Circuit has affirmed the dismissal of two putative class actions that sought medical monitoring for workers and neighbors of factories using beryllium. Sheridan, et al.  v. NGK Metals Corp., et al., 2010 WL 2246392 (3d Cir. June 7, 2010). 

Readers may recall that previously we posted on the district court's dismissal of the claims against one of the defendants, an engineering firm that, according to the plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint, was involved with testing, sampling, analyzing, and monitoring the air quality and levels of beryllium at one plant involved in the cases. The Third Circuit affirmed.  Boiled down to its core, plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint contended that the engineering firm breached its duty of reasonable care by failing to warn members of the community surrounding one of the plants at issue about the alleged beryllium emissions from the facility. But there was no legal duty to warn.  In order for the engineers to have negligently failed to warn plaintiffs of harmful beryllium exposures, they must have undertaken the responsibility of making that warning. Plaintiffs never alleged that the firm negligently performed the tasks it actually undertook—that is, testing, analyzing, and monitoring the levels of beryllium, and reporting those tests to the owner and operator of the facility. 

Also of note for readers is the remainder of the court's analysis regarding other defendants, which focused on one of the elements of medical monitoring.

Some background.  Plaintiffs in each case filed a putative class action lawsuit against multiple defendants, alleging negligence in connection with beryllium exposure, and seeking a medical monitoring trust fund based on their alleged increased risk of developing chronic beryllium disease int he future. In the first action, (the “Anthony action”), the District Court granted defendants’ joint motion for summary judgment. In the second (the “Zimmerman action”), the District Court addressed three separate legal issues— medical monitoring under Pennsylvania law, claim preclusion of the claims of one named plaintiff, Sheridan, and third-party liability—and issued final orders in favor of defendants. Although the cases presented similar legal issues, they arose out of different locations and distinct facts. However, plaintiffs’ lawyers, many of the expert witnesses, and one defendant, were the same in each case. The Third Circuit did not consolidate the two separate appeals, but resolved them in one opinion.

Inhaling beryllium particles can lead to scarring of the lungs, a condition known as chronic beryllium disease.  CBD occurs when the immune system mounts an attack against beryllium particles that have entered the body. The lung sacs become inflamed and fill with large numbers of white blood cells that accumulate wherever the beryllium particles are found. The cells form balls around the particles called granulomas. Eventually, the lungs become scarred and lose their ability to transfer oxygen to the blood stream.

The dose-response picture is a bit unusual. Mere exposure itself appears to be insufficient because only persons who have a particular genetic “marker”—the Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA)-DPB1 allele—can potentially recognize beryllium in the lungs as an antigen. This reaction is called beryllium sensitization (“BeS”). The parties did not dispute that BeS is a necessary precursor to CBD. BeS by itself causes no abnormal lung function and requires no treatment (i.e., it is asymptomatic).  The experts debated how many people have the marker with estimates ranging from below 10% to 40% of the population. The most common test for sensitization is the beryllium lymphocyte proliferation test (“BeLPT”), which is not a test for the genetic marker, but a reasonably accurate test for sensitization according to the experts.

Readers know that one of the typical elements of a medical monitoring claim is proof of a significantly increased risk (of contracting the latent disease for which plaintiff seeks medical monitoring). Plaintiffs' expert testimony was that all individuals exposed to beryllium at above background levels are at a significantly increased risk and require medical monitoring. They  declared that there is a direct relationship between the level of exposure and risk, and that CBD is not qualitatively different from any other environmental exposure disease.  Defendants' expert opined that given class rep Anthony’s negative result in the test to show whether he had become sensitized, and the fact that only a small percentage of the population can become sensitized, Anthony was not at a significantly increased risk of developing CBD.

In the other class action, the parties stipulated that class rep Zimmerman was not beryllium sensitized. Plaintiff experts argued, however, that anyone who has lived in the area surrounding the plant in question was at a significantly increased risk given the levels of beryllium in the
ambient air and documented cases of CBD in the community. They made a quantitative risk assessment based on collected exposure data, concluding that the risk of contracting CBD to the members of the proposed class represented by Zimmerman was 3 per 10,000, and for those
individuals who have lived near the plant for at least ten years, the risk allegedly increased to 1 per 500.

The Third Circuit noted that the intermediate appellate court in Pennsylvania had addressed analogous medical monitoring claims in Pohl v. NGK Metals Corp., 936 A.2d 43 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2007). The Pennsylvania Superior Court concluded there that the record provided no support for plaintiffs’ contention that they were sensitized to beryllium and thus that they faced a significantly increased risk of contracting CBD. Plaintiffs in federal court contended that Pohl was neither controlling nor persuasive, because it was a fact-specific decision in which the state court dismissed the three plaintiffs’ claims based on their individual failure of proof.

The court of appeals, however, concluded that the state court drew a line along the exposure-to-disease continuum -- at sensitization. The Third Circuit held that unlike its role in interpreting federal law, it may not "act like a judicial pioneer" in a diversity case. Contrary to both Anthony’s and Zimmerman’s contentions, Pohl was not based only on a simple lack of proof; it was based on plaintiffs’ failure to meet the requisite threshold for establishing significantly increased risk due to (1) the undisputed facts about beryllium exposure, BeS, and CBD, and (2) plaintiffs’ inability to demonstrate a significant increase in risk of disease before sensitization. Although the disparate data on how many people have the marker shows the gaping holes in the current state of scientific research, as well as the substantial factual disagreements between scientists, it was not material to this appeal. The parties stipulated that Anthony had not developed BeS, and there was no proof that he has the genetic marker associated with CBD. This background data did not prove his individual significantly increased risk.

As to the Zimmerman class (all persons who resided within a one-mile radius of the Reading Plant for at least six months during the time period between 1950 and 2000), the court noted that plaintiffs tried to make a different showing, including by presenting data on specific exposure levels around the Reading Plant and the number of documented cases of CBD in the community there. From Zimmerman’s perspective, exposure to beryllium is analogous to exposure to other toxins, such as asbestos and PCBs. Defendants contended CBD’s immunological nature distinguishes beryllium from other toxins, which do not invoke an allergic response in only a subset of susceptible persons and instead have a more linear exposure-to-disease relationship.

The state of the art is that only a small subset of an exposed population (those who carry the genetic marker) is at risk of developing CBD; the relationship between beryllium exposure and CBD is relatively non-linear, making generalized risk assessments inappropriate. Thus, there was a failure of proof on the risk element, given the current state of scientific knowledge on the
relationship between beryllium exposure and disease. Plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence that as a proximate result of the exposure, he had a significantly increased risk of contracting
CBD.

The failure of the class reps to show they could meet a necessary element of the claim meant that the class actions could not proceed. (Sheridan's claim was barred.)

Facebook Groups and Class Actions

Plaintiffs have sued the Procter & Gamble Co. in a proposed national class action, alleging that  new Pampers diapers containing “Dry Max” technology is causing rashes and "chemical burns" in some infants. See Clark, et al. v. Procter & Gamble Co., No. 10-301 (S.D. Ohio, 5/11/10). Plaintiffs seek reimbursement for the cost of diapers, as well as for alleged medical expenses and treatment.  The plaintiffs allege that P&G knew or should have known that the diapers with Dry Max technology could harm kids' bottoms. They assert causes of action for breach of implied warranty of merchantability, breach of  implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose, violation of consumer fraud acts, negligence, unjust enrichment, and strict liability.  Then came word that the Consumer Product Safety Commission would review consumer complaints regarding Pampers with the new Dry Max technology.

P&G notes that the Dry Max technology is a significant innovation in diapers. The Dry Max technology allows the diapers to be thinner and lighter, but still absorbent.  The Proctor & Gamble website notes the safety of the diapers  for babies, and the heavy testing -- the product is one of the most tested diapers in the company's history. To date, there have been in excess of two billion diaper changes using the new product, with only a handful of rash complaints, none of which were shown to be caused by the type of materials in the product. In fact, the company has received fewer than two complaints about diaper rash for every one million diapers sold, which apparently is average for the diaper business and does not deviate from the number of calls received prior to Dry Max.

It is hard to imagine that common issues will predominate over the individual issues arising from causation and injury, in the putative class action. Diaper rash is very common, and sometimes severe, regardless of the diaper used. At any given moment, more than 250,000 babies will experience a serious rash. Disposable diapers in fact have helped reduce the incidence of rash by more than 50 percent since they were first introduced in the 1960s because they pull wetness away from a baby's skin. It is very common for long-time consumers of child care or personal care products to correlate a change in product style or design with an adverse effect.

What is most interesting for our readers, perhaps, is the fact that this litigation was apparently spurred by the social networking site, Facebook, where some parents have been blaming the new diapers for rashes.  This has spread not only word of the incidence of a possible problem, but also the non-scientific, non-expert attribution of causation.  Here, for example, there have actually been very few complaints to the CPSC, but the CPSC said the on-line activism was part of what has prompted them to examine the alleged diaper issues.

Sites like Facebook give consumers a bigger platform to voice their opinions and find other similarly situated individuals, and product sellers need to realize how that can spur litigation. Social media alone do not produce litigation, of course.  But from a potential liability standpoint, the social networking sites are becoming a new resource for plaintiff product liability  attorneys.   Facebook provided plaintiff attorneys potential access to thousands of product users documenting their experiences with the product.  Some even have posted relevant photographs. The diaper Facebook group apparently grew to more than 10,000 members. Such Internet activity can include product users talking about the possibility of litigation and searching for attorneys. Some members of the plaintiff bar have used on-line media to communicate with potential clients, and identify ideal class representatives.  

Defense lawyers need to recognize they can research and learn from plaintiffs' on-line activities, as well, particularly before the involvement of plaintiff attorneys. Discovery requests for
Facebook profiles, forensic examinations of computers, or, at proper times, third-party requests directly to the social networking site, may be part of their arsenal.  There may be information about named class representatives, or the class in general. After litigation is filed, some class members continue to participate in Facebook groups.  People will say things in that informal environment that they might not say in a deposition.

Of course, several advisory ethics opinions remind litigators that rules of professional responsibility apply when accessing social networks for case purposes. Contacting parties or witnesses through a “friend request” must be done in accordance with the applicable Rule of Professional Conduct.

 

Canadian Court Rejects Pharmaceutical Class Action

We have posted before about just how difficult Canada is becoming as a jurisdiction for class actions defendants, particularly companies in the pharmaceutical industry. Frequently, identical consumer products, drugs, and medical devices are marketed in Canada as well as the U.S.  When a product is recalled, or new science suggests risks in a product leading to American product liability and mass tort litigation, Canadian plaintiff attorneys have not been bashful about bringing copycat litigation, borrowing from U.S.-conducted theories and discovery.

A ray of hope to the north?  The Quebec Superior Court last week declined to certify (authorize is the term they use) a class action for Canadians claiming to have experienced side effects from the use of GlaxoSmithKline Inc.’s antidepressant Paxil.  This is the first time a Quebec court has rejected a class action involving a prescription pharmaceutical product -- ever as far as we can tell. See Goyette v. GlaxoSmithKline Inc., Quebec Superior Court, No. 500-06-000157-020 (8/17/09).

Plaintiff sought to represent a national class of Paxil users. Three issues were prominent: Did the claims of the class members raise identical, similar or related questions of law or fact?  Did the facts alleged seem to justify the relief sought? And was the plaintiff an adequate class representative?  Importantly, at the time of the complaint, the class rules required plaintiff to submit a supporting affidavit (on which she was cross-examined).  Since that time, Quebec has sought to minimize the amount of factual material presented to the court in support of class certification (making opposition a bit more difficult).

The first issues sounds like the commonality aspect of U.S. class procedure. GSK argued that the highly subjective nature of the alleged symptoms in the present case, such as headaches, nausea, vertigo, the infinite variations on the symptoms, and the intensity and duration are so subjective that they cannot be decided collectively and so cannot satisfy the common question element.  Nevertheless, the court found that while the claim for exemplary damages was not common, there were common questions concerning the warnings GSK had given.

However, even in the absence of a true predominance requirement, some Canadian courts will look at whether and what issues will require individual determination. Here, the court agreed that the underlying question is whether allowing the suit to proceed as a representative one will avoid duplication of fact-finding or legal analysis. Thus an issue will be “common” only where its resolution is necessary to the resolution of each class member’s claim. The court found that if  "a class action were permitted here, there would be no saving in judicial time since there is no real common question and each case must be litigated on its on merits."  The court noted that each year there was a different set of information in the CPS (Canadian PDR), and accordingly, there would be different sub-classes depending on changes in the relevant wording in each of the years.

Similarly, in this case, civil liability must be determined by assessing the specific risks disclosed for each individual patient which risks vary depending on multiple factors:

 a) whether the adverse effects occur during the use of the product and lead to discontinuation;

 b) whether adverse effects follow discontinuation;

c) whether the user was advised prior to use, by either their physician or pharmacist, of whether they may experience dependency or withdrawal symptoms;

d) whether the symptoms suffered were described in the C.P.S. (PDR);

e) whether the symptoms were not described in the C.P.S. but are proved to be directly related to the use of Paxil; or

f) to the extent that the symptoms arose following discontinuation, whether such symptoms were "mild and transient" and were described in the C.P.S.

Next, the court determined that the facts alleged do not support the relief requested. All of the symptoms that Ms. Goyette alleges to have experienced were mentioned by GSK in the C.P.S. and that any fault must have been through the misreading of the C.P.S. by Ms. Goyette's prescribing physician.  And she made no specific allegations about the injuries of the absent class members.  Accepting as true the well-pleaded allegations, in essence, the facts that are taken as proven do not include impressions, opinion, legal argument, inferences or hypotheses that are not verified.

Finally, adequacy of representation is evaluated on three criteria:

 1- an interest in undertaking the legal proceedings;

 2- an ability to instruct counsel; and

 3- absence of a conflict with the other group members.
 

Based on the previous analysis, the court found that Ms. Goyette could not represent a class since she herself does not have a valid cause of action.  Moreover, plaintiff had shown a singular lack of interest in that she never sought to speak with any of the other members of the proposed class, none of whom she knows; she has never sought to communicate with any of the individuals alleged to have signed up at her attorneys' website; and she could provide no explanation as to why these legal proceedings which started on May 2, 2002 remained dormant for several years.

An analysis with a little bit of teeth.