Whirlpool Corp. had major reason to celebrate last week; a federal jury rejected class-action claims that “Duet” front-load washing machines sold in Ohio between 2001 and 2009 were defective because of their alleged tendency to develop a moldy smell. This “smelly washer” case has drawn significant media attention in recent years after it twice reached the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue of whether the case should be certified as a class action. The High Court in 2013 vacated a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit decision certifying a class of more than 100,000 Ohio consumers; but after the Sixth Circuit reaffirmed its decision on remand, the Supreme Court denied review this past February—thus setting the stage for the three-week trial that just ended last Thursday. But if history is any guide, plaintiffs’ lawyers will not willingly accept that the verdict binds all the absent class members (only two class members actually participated in the trial).
Indeed, the ongoing challenge Whirlpool faces underscores why plaintiff classes should rarely, if ever, be certified in consumer product defect cases. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 states that suits seeking monetary damages are not appropriate for class action treatment unless common issues of fact and law “predominate” over individual issues of fact and law. As the Washington Legal Foundation explained in the brief it filed when this case was before the Supreme Court, individual issues (e.g., whether an individual plaintiff’s product was defective and whether that defect caused injury) will almost always overwhelm common issues of fact in the typical consumer product suit. Moreover, Rule 23 requires that the named plaintiffs demonstrate that they can adequately represent the interests of absent class members; if representation is inadequate (e.g., if their interests diverge from those of absent class members), due process case law dictates that absent class members are not bound by any judgment adverse to the class. Thus, the defendant in a certified consumer-product class action often faces a heads-you-win-tails-I lose dilemma: if a company goes to trial and loses to the class, it faces a massive liability award, but if it prevails at trial, absent class members are likely to resist any res judicata claim. Continue reading