By Kathleen Bianco, J.D.
Clothing maker alleges that proposed class is overbroad and that individual issues predominate over class claims.
In a class action product liability suit by airline employees who allegedly were injured by chemicals and dyes in their work uniforms made by a Wisconsin-based clothing manufacturer, a federal district court in Wisconsin denied the manufacturer’s motion to strike the class allegations as overbroad and not susceptible to class-wide resolution. The court opined that without having conducted any discovery, it could not be determined whether the plaintiffs could identify sufficient common issues to support class-wide resolution (Gilbert v. Lands’ End, Inc., April 20, 2020, Peterson, J.).
A group of Delta Airlines employees, including flight attendants, customer service representatives, ramp and gate agents, and others, filed a class action suit in Wisconsin federal district court against the manufacturer of new work uniforms required by the airlines. The suit alleges that the uniforms, manufactured by Lands’ End, Inc. and Lands’ End Business Outfitters, have caused a wide variety of health problems for wearers. In 2016, Delta Airlines selected Lands’ End to provide new employee uniforms. The new uniforms are described as high-stretch, wrinkle- and stain-resistant, waterproof, anti-static, and deodorizing. To ensure these characteristics, the uniforms are treated with various chemical additives and finishes. Shortly after the new uniforms were introduced, employees began to experience respiratory distress, skin rashes, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, ear, nose and throat issues, headaches, fatigue, and swollen lymph nodes.
The complaint, filed on behalf of all Delta Airlines employees required to wear the Passport Plum and red-colored uniform manufactured by Lands’ End, alleges negligence, design defect, manufacturing defect, and failure to warn, among other claims. Specifically, the complaint asserts that the manufacturer was negligent because it had breached its duty to use reasonable care in designing, manufacturing, marketing, labeling, and selling the uniforms. The complaint further contends that the uniforms are defective in their design and manufacture because they pose an unreasonable risk of physical harm, including current and future health problems, and are not suited for their intended purpose. Finally, the complaint asserts that the manufacturer had breached its duty to warn wearers of the risks related to the uniforms.
The manufacturer responded to the complaint by filing a motion to strike the class allegations, asking the court to preemptively reject the proposed class as impossible to certify because it is overbroad and individual issues predominate over common claims.
Standing. The manufacturer asserted that the proposed class was overbroad because it included individuals who did not have standing to sue, as they had not suffered any injuries. In the context of a proposed class action, only the named class members are required to show standing. Furthermore, without discovery, the true nature and extent of the injuries suffered by potential class members is not known. In assessing whether the class definition was overbroad, the court drew a distinction between members who were not harmed and those who could not have been harmed. In this case, the proposed class did not include anyone who could not have been injured by the manufacturer’s uniforms; therefore, the proposed membership group was not overbroad. Thus, the court declined to strike the class allegation based on its purported overbreadth.
Predominance of individual issues. Next, the manufacturer contended that individual issues of fact and law predominated over common claims, making class treatment impossible. The manufacturer pointed to three sources of variation among the proposed class members: (1) type of uniform pieces worn by individual employees; (2) differing conduct and work environments; and (3) personal characteristics and varying nature and extent of alleged injuries. While recognizing that these variations may hinder the ability to make determinations of liability on a class basis, the court opined that such a ruling would be premature at this stage of the proceeding because discovery may show that there is more commonality among the plaintiffs’ claims. Thus, the manufacturer’s motion to strike the class allegations was denied.
The case is No. 19-cv-823-jdp.
Attorneys: Bruce Nagel (Nagel Rice, LLP) for Gwyneth Gilbert and Michael Marte. Gwyn Williams (Latham & Watkins LLP) for Lands' End, Inc.
Companies: Lands' End, Inc.
MainStory: TopStory ClassActLitigationNews ClothingAccessoriesNews GCNNews WisconsinNews
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