Federal Court Denies Certification in PFOA Medical Monitoring Class

A couple months ago, MassTortDefense posted about a decision in which the federal court in West Virginia denied class certification in a claim brought against DuPont for the alleged release of perfluoroctanoic acid, a substance also known as PFOA or C-8, from its Washington Works plant in Wood County, West Virginia, into drinking water. See Rhodes v. E.I. DuPont De Nemours and Co., 2008 WL 4414720 (S.D. W.Va., September 30, 2008). Plaintiffs are appealing that.

Now, the federal district court in New Jersey has similarly rejected class certification in two consolidated suits in which state residents argued that DuPont should pay for a medical monitoring program because their drinking water was allegedly contaminated with a Teflon-related chemical. See Rowe v. E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., D.N.J., No. 06-1810; Scott v. E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., D.N.J., No. 06-3080.

PFOA, also known as C-8, is made by DuPont for use in a variety of consumer products, including in non-stick cookware. Plaintiff sought medical monitoring to detect disease in the future they were allegedly put at risk for based on exposure to the chemical. But to recover medical monitoring costs, plaintiffs must show “significant exposure” to a chemical. Plaintiffs argued they had sufficient common proof of “significant exposure” to PFOA because tests revealed that the water supply around DuPont's Chambers Works Plant in New Jersey allegedly exceeded .04 parts per billion (ppb) for the substance, and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection recommended .04 ppb as the “safe” level of exposure. The plaintiffs also offered Dr. David Gray, a toxicologist, to testify that .02 ppb was actually the level at which negative health affects may start showing up in individuals.

The court first rejected any use of the settlement by DuPont of previous PFOA claims to show the existence of common issues. The other case was ultimately resolved through “voluntary settlement,” the court said. DuPont's statements cannot be considered admissions of liability, causation, or appropriate damages.

The court also rejected plaintiffs use of regulatory-based risk assessments. While they may be an appropriate way to determine for the public what health and environmental officials believe are “safe” levels of a chemical in drinking water, they are not themselves an adequate means of showing the kind of significant exposure to a substance that is required to support medical monitoring claims. There is a difference between a “safe” level for public policy and regulatory purposes and the “significant exposure” that creates the sufficiently excessive risk needed to trigger medical monitoring. “Such methodology does not work in the tort litigation context, where a plaintiff must prove that he has suffered an actual increased risk of disease in order to merit recovery in the form of medical monitoring.”

Also affecting their utility in the class context, the risk assessments are based on assumptions about the general population, and are thus not applicable to show class-wide significant exposure. Plaintiffs’ expert merely assumed that class members all weighed a certain amount and consumed a certain amount of allegedly contaminated water. Those assumptions are not necessarily true for all class members—indeed, they are undoubtedly false, as the class contained thousands of individuals who are different sizes and have different water consumption habits.

Importantly, given plaintiff’ counsel refrain about the cost of pre-complaint, pre-certification homework, and the frequent "we'll deal with that later" mentality, the court noted while it would take significant investigative efforts to obtain information specific to each individual in the proposed class, the difficulty of this task does not excuse plaintiffs from doing it. A class action is not intended to be an easy way around research problems. Plaintiffs have the burden of proving that each class member has suffered significant exposure to PFOA—they cannot circumvent this requirement by simply relying on assumptions about the general population.

Federal Court Denies Class Certification In Teflon Litigation

The MDL court in the Teflon products litigation has refused to certify 23 proposed statewide consumer fraud class actions. In re Teflon Products Liability Litigation, 2008 WL 5148713 (S.D. Iowa, 2008).

Plaintiffs alleged that in producing and marketing Teflon® and unbranded, non-stick cookware coatings (“NSCC”), defendant DuPont allegedly made misleading representations regarding safety. None of the proposed class representatives alleged that he or she had been injured by the use of DuPont NSCC. Rather, in each of the purported class actions, plaintiffs sought recovery solely for economic damage and injunctive relief. In particular, plaintiffs demanded creation of a fund for scientific researchers to further investigate the potential for adverse health effects from the use of products containing DuPont's non-stick coating; that DuPont discontinue selling cookware containing the non-stick coating; that DuPont stop making alleged misstatements regarding the safety of its product; that DuPont replace and/or exchange all existing cookware containing DuPont non-stick coating possessed by class members with non-hazardous cookware; rescission and restitution; and/or that DuPont provide a new warning label or other disclosure on cookware made with or containing DuPont non-stick coating.

DuPont has steadfastly denied that PFOA's or any other chemicals are released at harmful levels when cookware coated with Teflon is used as intended.

The Class
The court first identified key deficiencies in plaintiffs’ attempt to define an ascertainable class. As they typically do, plaintiffs argued that at this stage, they do not need to show that each class member ultimately will be able to prove his or her membership; rather, the court need only ensure that the appropriate criteria exists to evaluate membership when the time comes. The court felt this argument necessarily depended upon the availability of evidence to establish membership at a later stage of the proceeding. No such evidence existed to be produced in the case. Deposition testimony showed that it is virtually impossible to identify a brand of non-stick coating based on a visual examination of the item of cookware. Testimony from the class members was thus a key component of the product identification and thus class membership issue. But, even after a lengthy discovery period, during which each proposed representative was thoroughly deposed, many class reps were unable to ascertain whether they belonged in the class or a particular sub-class. An “abundance” of proposed representatives had no memory whatsoever of the circumstances surrounding their purchase of the cookware—let alone records to document their purchase. Bottom line, too many infirmities existed in the class definitions to ensure that the court could determine objectively who was in the class, without resort to speculation. For example, many class representatives mistakenly believed their product contained Teflon coating-even when they were informed the particular brand of cookware at issue never used Teflon.

Lastly, membership in this class necessarily required a plaintiff to pinpoint the date on which he or she purchased the item of cookware; the proposed class representatives were unable to recall this information one-fourth of the time.

Typicality, Coherence, Predominance
An analysis of the claims made clear that common issues did not predominate; class reps’ claims were not typical. Plaintiffs built the majority of their claims around statements made and/or marketing practices employed by DuPont regarding its NSCC products. According to plaintiffs, the fact that each cause of action derived from an alleged  “common practice or course of conduct” on the part of DuPont rendered the claims made by a representative plaintiff typical of the claims of all class members. However, the alleged misstatements cited by plaintiffs span a forty-plus-year period, across a wide variety of advertising and promotional media. Each plaintiff was exposed to different representations, at different time periods. Because reliance is a key element of plaintiffs' claim for negligent misrepresentation, and is necessary for recovery under the consumer fraud statutes in many jurisdictions, an individualized inquiry must be conducted not only to pinpoint the representations at issue, but also to determine the extent to which each plaintiff relied upon the particular representations. Due to the widespread nature of DuPont's advertising over the years, however, determining the precise statements each plaintiff heard could only be accomplished through individualized inquiry.

The court also pointed out the varying degrees to which each plaintiff became educated about NSCC prior to purchase.  Even if class members were exposed to the same representation, advertisement, or omission, the court could not presume that each member responded to the representation or omission in an identical fashion. Here, some proposed class representatives who were informed of potential health risks from NSCC stopped using the cookware, but others exposed to similar information continued to use their existing cookware, and others purchased new non-stick cookware.

Finally the court worried that plaintiffs were splitting their cause of action and thus harming absent class members. Under any one of their alternative bases for relief, plaintiffs necessarily must establish first that DuPont's non-stick cookware coating is dangerous to the health of its users. But the class disclaimed personal injury and had abandoned their original claims for medical monitoring. The representative plaintiffs risked a future waiver not only of their own personal injury and medical monitoring claims, but also those of the absent class members.