By David Yucht, J.D.
Class certification hinged on whether there was a common design defect in Electrolux dishwashers possessed by all members of the putative class and whether this common defect proximately caused injuries to the class members.
A federal judge in Illinois found that an expert witness, proffered by consumers in a putative class action against Electrolux Home Products, Inc., did not identify a specific design defect or connect it to each of the proposed class members’ allegedly defective products in an empirical manner. Consequently, his opinion did not support the consumers’ arguments for class certification and was excluded. Without a showing that the common issues predominated, the court denied the consumers’ motion for class certification (Elward v. Electrolux Home Products, Inc., June 1, 2020, Pacold, M.).
Electrolux dishwasher owners from four different states alleged that their dishwashers were defective because the electrical systems overheated and caused fires. In general, home dishwashers employ a heating element to heat the wash solution and dry the dishes. The heating element is typically mounted with metal brackets above the bottom of the dishwasher tub, which can be made with plastic or stainless steel. The allegations here involved Electrolux’s plastic-tub home dishwashers. The consumers asserted that Electrolux’s plastic-tub dishwashers suffered from a "system" defect resulting from the combination of defective heating elements that tended to warp and bend, inadequate metal clips holding the heating elements in place, and plastic tubs that were too low-quality to resist melting when touched by the heating element. The consumers sued, asserting numerous claims arising from either the manifestation of the dishwasher defect and resulting property damage or the loss in value for dishwashers that contained the defect, even though it had not manifested. The consumers sought class certification for eight classes, two from each state. One class from each state comprised those whose dishwashers manifested the alleged defect, and another class from each state consisted of those whose machines had yet to manifest defects. The manufacturer sought to exclude the testimony of the consumers’ expert design witness.
Expert testimony. The court granted the manufacturer’s motion to exclude the consumers’ expert testimony. The consumers offered the testimony of a registered professional engineer with a graduate degree in material science and engineering. He opined as to the possible causes of the dishwasher failures. The consumers relied on the proposed expert testimony to show that the machine defects involved here all resulted from common issues. The expert examined five dishwashers, reviewed testing done following a joint inspection of the dishwashers, studied industry standards and documents obtained in discovery, and built and analyzed a test dishwasher. In his initial report, he opined that "poor design" of the heating elements gave them a tendency to warp and get too close to the machines’ plastic tubs. Also, the mounting clips that held the heating elements were defective because they were insufficient to keep the heating element away from the plastic tub surface. Additionally, the substance from which the tubs were manufactured was inappropriate for use with high heat. The expert opined that the design of the heating element when used with the poor-quality plastic tub and the inadequate clips all contributed "individually and collectively" to the defect. He also asserted that Electrolux knew "early on" that the structural integrity of the heating elements was "problematic," and that these deficiencies created a "significant safety defect" that was not discoverable by consumers. He indicated that it did not matter why the heating elements warped because the defect was a "system failure, not simply a component failure."
Electrolux moved to exclude these opinions, arguing that they would be unhelpful to a jury because they did not specify a common design defect. Moreover, according to Electrolux, the expert’s opinions and methodology were unreliable, and he was unqualified. Although the court found that the expert was qualified to opine as he did, it determined that the proposed testimony did not set forth a reliable, testable, or helpful theory showing how all the dishwashers used by the proposed classes were defective in a common way. Instead, it set forth various theories concerning multiple dishwasher components, which fell apart under scrutiny. The expert testimony did not identify a specific design defect or connect it to each of the proposed class members’ dishwashers in an empirical manner. Consequently, his opinion did not support the consumers’ arguments for class certification and was excluded.
Class action. The court denied the consumers’ motion to certify the proposed classes. A federal court may certify a class when, among other things, there are questions common to the class and the claims of the proposed representatives are typical of the claims of the entire class. Additionally, the court must find that the proposed class representatives "will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class." In this case, the proposed representatives also needed to show that "the questions of law or fact common to the members of the proposed class predominate[d] over questions affecting only individual class members" and that a class action would be a better mechanism for resolving these cases than other ways. Here, the consumers’ case hinged on whether there was a common design defect in their dishwashers and whether this common defect proximately caused injuries to the putative class members. The consumers relied on their engineering expert to show a common design defect. Since he was unable to show that there was a common design defect, the consumers could not demonstrate that class members suffered the same injury. Accordingly, the consumers were unable to meet the requirements of commonality, typicality, predominance, and superiority.
Additional issues concerning the breadth and scope of the consumers’ claims hurt their ability to demonstrate other class certification requirements such as ascertain ability of the class and adequacy of the class representatives. The court noted that their class definitions were too unwieldy. Even assuming the consumers could have pointed to evidence supporting a common design defect, the court had concerns about the differences among the class members with respect to how they acquired their dishwashers, the type of property damage suffered, and the types of dishwashers involved.
The case is No. 15-cv-09882.
Attorneys: Amanda Trask (Berger Montague PC) for Teresa Elward. Galen D. Bellamy (Wheeler Trigg O'Donnell LLP) and James W. Ozog (Goldberg Segalla LLP) for Electrolux Home Products, Inc.
Companies: Electrolux Home Products, Inc.
MainStory: TopStory ClassActLitigationNews DesignManufacturingNews ExpertEvidenceNews WarningsNews HouseholdProductsNews IllinoisNews IndianaNews OhioNews CaliforniaNews
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