Following a common issues trial solely on questions of liability, Justice Viens of the Quebec Superior Court found that there was no liability with respect to the allegedly defective locking mechanism in Mazda 3 vehicles’ driver’s doors. While Quebec has the reputation of being one of, if not the most liberal, jurisdiction in Canada for its consumer protection legislation and class actions, this decision throws that reputation into question.
The class action was “authorized” (the equivalent of being “certified” in the common law provinces) against Mazda Canada Inc. (“Mazda”) in 2010. The claim sought damages for an alleged design defect of the locking mechanism, for Mazda’s wrongful behaviour following the discovery of the design defect, and for prohibited commercial practices in connection with the locking mechanism of Mazda 3 vehicles. In January 2013, the action was bifurcated to permit the hearing on liability to proceed before the hearing on the collective damages.
The claim alleged that a design defect permitted the driver’s side door in Mazda 3’s, for specific model years, to be unlocked by simple pressure or a blow above the front driver’s side door handle. It was also alleged that this safety design defect rendered the Mazda 3’s highly vulnerable to theft. Mazda first became aware that the doors could be opened in this unorthodox manner in 2006. A device to reinforce the doors was developed and integrated into the 2007 assembly lines.
As reports about the ease with which a Mazda 3 door could be opened were broadcast in various communities across Canada, there was an increase in the number of reported break-ins in those communities. Mazda then launched a program aimed at strengthening the locking systems of those vehicles already on the road in the affected communities. Mazda treated the issue as a customer satisfaction issue and advised its dealers that it would be counter to the public interest to publicize the situation as that might educate criminals and lead to more illegal activity. Nonetheless, the information spread and there were increased break-ins reported and complaints about the adequacy of the locking mechanism. Ultimately, the strengthening program was extended to the whole country.
At trial, the plaintiffs presented evidence of class members who claimed to have relied on Mazda’s promotional materials which included statements about the vehicle’s performance and safety features, and its structural integrity. Some class members testified that they were not aware of the door issue and had they been aware, they would not have purchased the vehicle. Some members testified how their cars were the subject of break-ins or attempted break-ins leaving dents in their vehicles and in some cases resulted in items having been stolen. For some, this left them uncomfortable and fearful. Evidence was also led about the inconveniences associated with installing the strengthening device.
Performance Issue Does Not Equal Design Defect
The plaintiffs advanced their claims under the provisions of the Quebec Consumer Protection Act governing warranty as to fitness as to the quality of goods, conformity to advertising, representations, and obligation not to conceal an important fact. Both parties led expert evidence on the issue of the lock’s performance and applicable standards.
The court found that in order to engage the warranty as to the quality of goods, the deficiency must be found to be serious such that it renders “the good unfit for its intended purpose or so reduces its utility that the buyer would not have purchased it at that price”. The court determined that the lock did work in ordinary use and that the real issue was one of quality. Accepting that the lock complied with applicable regulatory standards, the court concluded that the lock, while not the best performer, did not deviate from any norm or industry standard. It also held that the imputed representations were too general to constitute prohibited advertising and were not untrue, citing cautionary words in a prior Quebec Court of Appeal decision: “it is not untruthful except for those who let themselves be taken in”. Finally, the court rejected the allegation that Mazda had concealed the alleged defect.
Regarding the claims of the two different plaintiff classes, the court found that the claims of class members who had not suffered a break-in were “simply part of the ordinary annoyances of life” and were not actionable. The claims of those class members who had suffered a break-in were rejected on the basis that Mazda could not be held liable for an intervening criminal act.
Ultimately, this case turned on the definition of what a car door lock is meant to accomplish. As set out by Justice Viens:
The locking mechanism of a motor vehicle’s door is a mechanism the essential purpose of which is to lock the door and not to prevent an ill-intentioned individual from finding an illegal means of breaking into the car by the use of force.
As Justice Perell found in Arora v. Whirlpool Canada LP, the law draws a distinction between dangerous goods and those that are merely shoddy. While claims for economic loss for “shoddy” goods have been left theoretically open, this case is another example of a tort claim for economic loss failing.