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From Products Liability Law Daily, April 1, 2015

Time out called in college football players’ class action against Riddell

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

Product liability claims based on design and manufacturing defects and failure-to-warn filed on behalf of a purported nationwide class of college football players against a manufacturer of football helmets did not qualify for class action certification because the individual factual inquiries into medical causation were too numerous to satisfy the commonality requirement, a federal district court in Indiana ruled. The court also found that the inconsistency among the many state laws governing each class member’s claims defeated a finding of commonality. However, because the helmet maker could not definitively establish that a class action could not be maintained in any form, the named class representatives were given 20 days in which to narrow and more specifically define the class (DuRocher v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, March 31, 2015, Barker, S.).

Background. Former college football players filed a putative class action against Riddell, Inc., a manufacturer of football helmets, on behalf of themselves and all present or former members of a college football team who had participated in a college football game or practice while wearing a Riddell helmet. Riddell moved to strike the class allegations, arguing that (1) personal injury product liability claims are inherently individual and state-law specific, and (2) the plaintiffs had not defined a proper class because membership in the class could only be ascertained through individual inquiry based on subjective criteria. Because the court had dismissed the putative class’s claims for medical monitoring and negligence, preserving only the class’s product liability claims (See Design, warning defect pleadings okayed in college football players’ action against helmet manufacturers in today’s issue of Products Liability Law Daily for a summary of the court’s ruling on the manufacturer’s motion to dismissed), the issue before the court was whether a class action would be appropriate for resolving the putative class’s design and manufacturing defect claims and the failure-to-warn claims.

Prematurity of motion. Before turning to the merits of the helmet maker’s motion to strike, the court addressed the issue of whether the motion was premature at the pleading stage. Although class certification issues were generally deferred until the parties had had an opportunity to conduct class discovery and to fully brief the motion for certification, the court recognized that in rare cases, striking class allegations prior to discovery and prior to a motion for certification was justified to preserve time and legal resources. In this case, the putative class failed to explain how discovery would make a difference to the issue of certification and could not promise that at any future time the proposed class definition would be revised to satisfy the federal rules governing class certification. Thus, the manufacturer’s motion was not premature, the court concluded.

Common questions underlying product liability claims. The court rejected the manufacturer’s argument that the player-specific factual inquiries into the putative class’s strict liability claims militated against finding that the commonality requirement for certification had been satisfied. According to the court, it was possible that the answers to whether the manufacturer had provided adequate warnings to each player, whether it had a duty to warn about risks it did not create, and whether the helmets contained a design or manufacturing defect at the time they left the manufacturer’s control could be shared among the class members. In addition, it was also possible that a class definition could be crafted narrowly enough to eliminate a statute of limitations concerns. Because common questions of fact on these claims could be shared by the class, this factor weighed against granting the motion to strike.

Medical causation. The helmet manufacturer also contended that the medical causation questions necessary to prove each class members’ claims required individual rather than class treatment, and criticized the class definition because it did not limit a member’s claims to objectively diagnosable diseases but included largely subjective and commonly experienced symptoms. The court agreed that the individualized inquiries relating to medical causation weighed heavily in favor of striking the class actions allegations.

Differing state laws. The court also agreed with the manufacturer’s argument that the inconsistent state laws applicable to each of the putative class member’s claims weighed in favor of striking the class definition. Indiana follows the rule of lex loci delicti, meaning the court would apply the substantive law of the place of harm—or where the last event necessary to make the defendant potentially liable—took place. The manufacturer compared the products liability laws of the potentially 55 jurisdictions named in the class definition and contrasted the differences that could impede the common treatment of claims across the class. In so doing, the manufacturer clearly demonstrated that the laws at issue in the proposed class action were varied, inconsistent, and conflicting and militated against granting certification.

Class definition, identification of members. The differences among the laws governing the many jurisdictions involved, which in itself were a major impediment to class treatment as explained, also created an issue with regard to the proposed subclasses which were divided based on the location of the college football teams for which each of the class members had played. The class representatives failed to explain the purpose for the subclasses or the commonality among the locations contained in each subgroup. Thus, there were serious questions as to whether the putative class members’ claims could be adjudicated either in a class setting or through the use of subclasses.

However, the court found no difficulty in identifying whether a putative class member had experienced a “head impact” or had worn a Riddell helmet when the head impact occurred. The court opined that the term “head impact” was not impossible to define and that discovery would uncover facts pertaining to the sale and distribution of Riddell helmets to college football teams. Noting that these types of inquiries were common to most product liability-based class actions, the court refused to strike the class action on these grounds.

The case is No. 1:13-cv-01570-SEB-DML.

Attorneys: David B. Franco (The Dugan Law Firm, APLC) for John Durocher. Mark S. Mester (Latham & Watkins LLP) for National Collegiate Athletic Association. Cary A. Slobin (Bowman & Brooke, LLP) for Riddell, Inc., All American Sports Corp., Riddell Sports Group, Inc., and Easton-Bell Sports, Inc.

Companies: National Collegiate Athletic Association; Riddell, Inc.; All American Sports Corp.; Riddell Sports Group, Inc.; Easton-Bell Sports, Inc.

MainStory: TopStory ClassActLitigationNews WarningsNews DesignManufacturingNews SportsandRecEquipmentNews IndianaNews

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