A Florida appeals court recently decertified a class action with an unusual theory: a car maker who allegedly used headlights that can be too easily stolen in its luxury vehicles. See Porsche Cars v. Peter Diamond, et al., No. 3D12-2829 3d DCA Fla. 6/12/14). One wonders why and how theft of auto parts is not the responsibility of the thief, but perhaps we digress.
This case focuses on Porsche’s High Intensity Discharge Headlights. The Headlights are an upscale amenity in the luxury car market. The intense blue-white light given by the Headlights is closer to natural daylight than the yellowish light of regular headlights. The Headlights provide better nighttime visibility than older types of headlights. Since model year 2000, the Headlights have been offered as standard or optional equipment across the Porsche vehicle line. The Headlights were mounted on modules that were slid into a plastic tray in the fender and clamped in place. This mounting made the Headlights less expensive to install and repair. Plaintiffs alleged it made them “easier” to steal.
In this proposed class action, the class representatives asserted unfair trade practices and unjust enrichment claims. They alleged the defendant distributed a product highly susceptible to theft without taking any remedial steps. Specifically, the defendant allegedly failed to “notify owners of the flaw and potential risk of theft so they could take their own precautions,” to “offer replacement lights at reduced costs,” and to “work with law enforcement agencies to assist in the prevention of the theft of their headlights.” This, the representatives members allege, violated the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act (“FDUTPA”). There was an unjust enrichment claim, and the plaintiffs also alleged that the defendant distributor could have redesigned the vehicles in
various ways, even though a car distributor does not design or manufacture vehicles.
The opinion did not reach the issue of whether such a factual theory of damages is viable (it would have been nice to see a blow struck for common sense). But the decision focused on the legal issues raised by the class action. The trial court certified the case as a rule 1.220(b)(3) class action. In a (b)(3) class action, common issues must predominate over individual issues. Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.220(b)(3). Common issues predominate when, considering both the rights and duties of the class members, the proof offered by the class representatives will necessarily prove or disprove the cases of the absent class members. The class representative’s case must not merely raise a common question, but that proof of the class representative’s case must also answer the question.
FDUTPA declares unlawful unfair methods of competition, unconscionable acts or practices, and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce. The term “unfair” is
not defined in FDUTPA. Here, the trial judge defined unfair trade practice as one that “offends established policy” and “is immoral, unethical, oppressive, unscrupulous or substantially injurious to customers.” This definition derives from a 1964 Federal Trade Commission policy statement. In 1980, however, the Federal Trade Commission updated its definition of unfair trade practice. The new definition established a three-pronged test for “unfairness,” which requires that the injury to the consumer:
(1) must be substantial;
(2) must not be outweighed by any countervailing benefits to consumers or competition that the practice produces; and
(3) must be an injury that consumers themselves could not reasonably have avoided.
The court held that Florida law adopted the definition of unfairness contained in the 1980 Policy Statement. The state legislature provided that violations of FDUTPA include violations of the standards of unfairness and deception set forth and interpreted by the Federal Trade Commission or the federal courts. The Florida Legislature amended FDUTPA in 1983, 2001, 2006, and 2013, for the specific purpose of adding to Florida Law the latest interpretations by the Federal Trade Commission or federal courts that occurred since the last statutory amendment. In light of this history, the 1980 Policy Statement is clearly one of the “standards of unfairness” interpreted by the Federal Trade Commission and federal courts.
The trial court erroneously adopted the premise that the distributor’s actions could be found to be an unfair trade practice regardless of whether class members knew and could have avoided the risk of the Headlight thefts. From this premise, it reasoned “an individual class member’s pre-purchase knowledge of the potential risk of theft was not relevant to the Plaintiff’s FDUTPA claim.” Since the premise was wrong, so was the conclusion. The individual class member’s knowledge of the risk of Headlight theft bears on whether the practice was unfair because it impacts whether the consumer could reasonably avoid the risk. Given the nature of the claim in this case—that the Headlights functioned great as headlights but were too susceptible to theft—an individual class members knowledge of the risk of theft goes to the heart of his or her claim.
To prove an unfair trade practice, the class must prove that the injury caused by the allegedly unfair trade practice could not have been reasonably avoided by the consumers. The idea behind the reasonably avoidable inquiry is that free and informed consumer choice is the first and best
regulator of the marketplace: consumers may act to avoid injury before it occurs if they have reason to anticipate the impending harm and the means to avoid it, or they may seek to mitigate the damage afterward if they are aware of potential avenues toward that end. A jury might well find that a consumer who knew the Headlights were targeted by thieves had avenues available to reasonably avoid the risk. This is particularly true where, as here, the alleged problem of theft was greater in some geographic locations than others. How about consumers park in only safe areas, install alarm systems extending to the mounting module, or, if these options were not acceptable, decline to purchase or lease a Porsche with the Headlights? Given the theory of this case, the knowledge of some class members that the Headlights were prone to theft could not be ignored.
Similarly, the determination of unjust enrichment would turn on individual facts. A court would be hard pressed to conclude that a distributor was unjustly enriched when class members with the sophistication and knowledge of the product continued to seek out the Headlights even when they knew of the thefts.
The court concluded that when the individual knowledge and experience of the consumer is an
important element of the cause of action and its defense, there can be no class-wide proof that injury was not reasonably avoidable.
Class certification reversed and remanded.