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From Products Liability Law Daily, June 26, 2014

Limited issue class certification remanded to trial court for failure to find predominance, adequate representatives in fire truck siren matter

By Leah S. Poniatowski, J.D.

A limited issue class certification ruling was reversed and remanded because the lower court did not make the required finding that common issues of law predominated the individual issues or that the certain named plaintiffs would adequately represent the class, an Illinois appellate panel concluded, reversing the lower court. Additionally, the appellate court held that it had jurisdiction to review the matter (Lamb v. Federal Signal Corp., June 25, 2014, Pucinski, A.).

Background. Beginning in 1999, approximately 500 Chicago firefighters filed lawsuits against Federal Signal Corporation over a two-year period which asserted that sirens manufactured by Federal were defective and produced excessive sound in the fire truck cabs, causing hearing loss. Ten lawsuits brought by the Chicago firefighters were consolidated and put into groups (tracks) of up to 39 plaintiffs for jury trials. Track 1, 4, and 5 have had juries render verdicts in favor of Federal; Track 2 was voluntarily dismissed; and Track 3’s jury found in favor of the firefighters, which was affirmed on appeal and a petition for leave to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court was pending.

After the jury entered a verdict on the Track 4 trial in January 2012, the state circuit court entered a sua sponte order directing Federal and the firefighters to brief the class certification of all 550 Chicago firefighters on the issue of whether the sirens were unreasonably dangerous because of the alleged design defect. A partial class action on that issue was certified. Federal petitioned for leave to appeal the certification order pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 306(a)(8), which was granted. The firefighters conceded in a motion that the class certification order raised potential issues of procedural errors, and the certification order was reversed.

However, the firefighters filed an amended complaint in January 2013, seeking class action certification for alleged strict products liability of a nearly identical class of firefighters. The firefighters requested “limited issue” class certification, severance, and trial on the unreasonably dangerous issue. The firefighters’ motion was granted and the court incorporated, by reference, its amended memorandum from the 2012 certification. Federal filed the present appeal.

Analysis. As an initial matter, the Illinois Appellate Court held that it had jurisdiction under Rule 306(a)(8) because the amended complaint was filed in 2013, which was 10 years after the effective date of the rule. Federal argued that the class certification was in error because: individual issues of proximate cause and damages predominated over any questions of fact or law common to the class; there was no showing that the representative plaintiffs could adequately and fairly protect the interest of the class; and a class action was inappropriate in this case.

The appellate court determined that Federal’s contention—that Illinois case law does not permit class certification for a “single issue” and, thus, class certification in this case was improper—was incorrect. The appellate court pointed out that the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure Section 802(b) expressly allows class actions on limited issues and sub-classes, and that the case law Federal referenced permitted class certification of particular issues.

Nevertheless, the appellate court concluded that the lower court erred when it failed to make the required finding that the common issues of law predominated the individual issues. The lower court concluded that there were three common questions of law: whether Federal manufactured the sirens used by the firefighters; whether these sirens were unreasonably dangerous; and whether the product had inadequate design and/or warnings. The first common question was an easily provable fact that could not be said to predominate over individual issues in this litigation. The second common question was also insufficient for class certification because the firefighters did not show that a successful class representative’s individual claim for defective design of one if the nine siren designs could establish a right to recovery in the other class members. Similarly, whether each of the nine siren types were inadequately designed or carried inadequate warnings would need to be determined for each type of design. The appellate court also noted that the commonality requirement is not met when there are nine different designs at issue.

Moreover, the lower court erred when it failed to find that the certain named plaintiffs would adequately represent the class. The lower court concluded that the attorneys could fairy and adequately protect the interests of the consolidated plaintiffs, but Illinois law requires that there be a finding that the representative “parties” will fairly and adequately protect the class’ interest—not the parties’ attorneys. Because two of the four requirements for class certification were not met, the class certification was reversed and remanded.

The case number is 1-13-1016.

Attorneys: Albert Lamb (The Margolis Firm PC), and (Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott LLP) for Federal Signal Corp.

Companies: Federal Signal Corp.

MainStory: TopStory ClassActLitigationNews JurisdictionNews IndustrialCommercialEquipNews IllinoisNews

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