Beyond Certifiable: Ford Defeats Two Class Certifications in Product Defect Litigation

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Ford Motor Co. recently successfully defeated efforts to certify two classes alleging injuries resulting from product defects.  On June 18, 2013, a California federal district court declined to certify a class involving an alleged suspension defect in certain Ford Focus models.  Then, on July 2, 2013, a Pennsylvania federal judge denied class certification in an action involving alleged rear axle defects on certain Ford Windstar models. 

Rule 23(a) requires that a party seeking class certification demonstrate that the proposed class is so large that individual claims would be impractical, that there are questions of law or fact common to the class, commonality, that the class representatives’ claims are typical of the class as a whole, and the class is adequately represented by counsel.  In addition, a party seeking to certify a class must demonstrate that the class action is maintainable under Rule 23(b).   Plaintiffs may comply with Rule 23(b) by demonstrating that common questions of law or fact predominate over questions affecting the individual class members.  In Comcast Corp. v. Behrend (No. 11-864), the U.S. Supreme Court recently reaffirmed that the trial court must conduct a “rigorous analysis” and determine that the requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 are met before certifying any class.  After conducting the rigorous analysis necessary to both assess the efficacy of certification, federal courts on both coasts found that common issues of law or fact did not predominate over the issues facing individual class members. 

 

In the California case (Daniel, et al. v. Ford Motor Co. (No. 11-2890, E.D. Ca. June 18, 2013))  the representative plaintiffs alleged that 2005 to 2011 Ford Focus vehicles had a rear suspension defect that caused decreased control of handling and steering and the threat of catastrophic tire failure.  The court found that the alleged defects were sufficiently different to prevent class certification because the class members’ tires wore at different rates and did not occur uniformly.  Moreover, the alleged defects could be affected by the type of tires used on the various vehicles, each potential class member’s unique driving habits and variances in vehicle maintenance.  As such, the court held that the issue of whether the alleged suspension defect caused the proposed class members’ injuries was not a common question.

 

In the Pennsylvania case (Martin v. Ford Motor Co. (No. 10-2203, E.D. Pa. July 2, 2013)), the named plaintiff alleged that the Ford Windstar minivan real axle was defectively designed, causing premature metal fatigue.  The plaintiff sought to certify a nationwide class of Windstar owners because Ford used a uniform warranty for all potential class members and the plaintiff alleged that all potential class members were harmed by the defective axle.  But the District Court found that the potential class was composed of individuals from various states, each with material differences in their state breach of warranty laws.  Accordingly, common issues did not predominate. 

 

The two recent Ford cases typify courts’ reluctance to grant class certification motions following the Supreme Court decision in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. ---, ---, 131 S.Ct. 2541, 180 L.Ed.2d 374 (2011) and Comcast.  Product manufacturers should be heartened that the lower courts will conduct a rigorous analysis to ensure that all of the requirements of Rule 23 are satisfied before being forced to defend themselves against a deluge of class actions.