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From Products Liability Law Daily, October 9, 2015

Florida class certified in action arising out of defective Ford Explorer exhaust systems

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

Class action certification was granted on behalf of all persons who purchased or leased a 2011-2015 Ford Explorer in Florida during the class period in an action alleging that the exhaust and/or HVAC systems in these vehicles were defective. A federal district court in Florida determined that the proposed class met the four requirements for certification set forth in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, as well as those requirements relating to adequacy of representation and superiority (Sanchez-Knutson v. Ford Motor Co., October 7, 2015, Dimitrouleas, W.).

Background. The putative class representative, Angela Sanchez-Knutson, alleged that her 2013 Ford Explorer, which she purchased new, was dangerous and defective at the time of purchase because its “design and exhaust and/or HVAC systems permitted an exhaust odor, exhaust and other gases, including carbon monoxide (“CO”), to enter the passenger compartment of the vehicle.” Sanchez-Knutson further alleged that the defect was not obvious or ascertainable upon reasonable examination or inspection. However, according to the complaint, Ford knew about this latent defect but failed to disclose it to her and the other members of the putative class. The complaint further alleged that Ford failed to fix the defects effectively, and has failed to cover expenses associated with correcting the defect. Following several rounds of amended complaints, the following claims against Ford remained at issue: (1) violation of Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act (DUTPA); (2) breach of express warranty; and (3) breach of implied warranty.

Ascertainability. In its first objection to the proposed class definition, Ford argued that by tying the class to those persons having owned or leased a 2011-2015 Ford Explorer, the class could incorporate members who did not have standing because they had not experienced the alleged exhaust odor, did not have a valid warranty, had not presented the vehicle for repair under the warranty, or that Ford was not able to correct the alleged defect. Ford also objected to the lack of any requirements that each putative class member must have been deceived or misled by Ford or that the putative class member had suffered damages. The court concluded that subject to the stipulated modification that the class was to be limited to those persons who bought or leased their 2011-2015 Ford Explorers during the class period, the proposed definition aligned with the proffered evidence that the class representatives vehicle shared the same defect as all others in the product line and created an identifiable class that would not require administratively difficult individualized determinations. Thus, the ascertainability factor was satisfied, the court concluded.

Numerosity. The court next determined that the proposed class easily met the numerosity requirement because even though the exact number of class members was unknown, Ford had admitted that there were at least 40 persons who purchased the affected vehicles in Florida. In addition, Ford produced a chart showing that 31,165 Ford Explorers, model years 2011-2015 had been sold in Florida.

Commonality and predominance. The question of whether Ford sold Ford Explorers with an allegedly dangerous and defective condition that allowed the exhaust and other gases to enter the passenger compartment of the vehicle during normal use was common to all putative class members, thus this factor was met to the court’s satisfaction.

Turning to the question of predominance, Ford argued that differences in information possessed by putative class members precluded proof of a deceptive act under FDUTPA. In addition, Ford pointed out that because there were numerous potential causes for odors in motor vehicles, individual inquiry by direct examination of each putative class member’s vehicle would be necessary in order to determine whether it possessed the alleged defect, thereby satisfying the elements of each FDUTPA claim. According to the court, however, for class certification purposes, the class representative had submitted sufficient evidence that the exhaust contamination in her vehicle was the result of a systemic problem caused by a combination of design and manufacturing defects. If the jury were to believe the evidence that all the vehicles in the product line shared the same defect, an examination of each vehicle would be unnecessary.

The court did agree with Ford’s objection to the class representative’s proposed straight arithmetic damages model, finding that it was contrary to law as an attempt to recover vehicle repair costs, which are not recoverable under FDUTPA. However, the court found that the proposed conjoint analysis damages model was a generally permissible method for calculating damages, thus satisfying this element of the commonality test.

Typicality. The court found that the class representative’s claims were typical in that proof that (1) the exhaust contamination in her vehicle was the result of a systemic problem caused by a combination of design and manufacturing defects and (2) her vehicle shared the same defect as all other vehicles in the product line would prove the claims of all proposed class members. The court rejected Ford’s argument that the class representative’s claims were not typical because there was no evidence that the entire putative class had suffered personal injuries from exhaust and/or carbon monoxide exposure, as alleged in the complaint for two reasons. First, plaintiff’s counsel had made it clear that the class did not intend to pursue any personal injury claims and that there was no intention to file any separate or subsequent lawsuits claiming personal injuries against Ford from exhaust and/or carbon monoxide exposure. Second, federal court rules provide procedural provisions for notice and the right to opt out which will allow putative class members with potentially different or greater claims from the class, such as personal injury claims, to decide for themselves to “go it alone” rather than tying their “fates: to that of the class representatives. Thus, the typicality requirement was also satisfied.

The case is No. 14-61344-CIV-DIMITROULEAS.

Attorneys: Jordan Matthew Lewis (Kelley Uustal, PLC) for Angela Sanchez-Knutson. Janet Conigliaro (Dykema) and Jeffrey Yeatman (DLA Piper LLP) for Ford Motor Co.

Companies: Ford Motor Co.

MainStory: TopStory ClassActLitigationNews DesignManufacturingNews MotorVehiclesNews FloridaNews

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