A Chicago federal judge has sunk a bid by a group of
plaintiffs to float a nationwide class action under California consumer
protection law against plumbing products maker Fluidmaster over supposed
defects in toilet and sink water supply lines, which allegedly cause the lines
to fail, rupture and leak, causing damage to homes in which they were
On March 31, U.S. District Judge Robert M. Dow denied the
request by the plaintiffs in the massive class action to certify a class of all
potentially harmed by the allegedly faulty water supply lines under California
law, regardless of where they may live or may have bought or installed the
Laura Ritchie / Flickr
In his 133-page ruling addressing several motions, Judge Dow
further flushed several other attempts to certify plaintiffs classes in the
legal action, chiding plaintiffs’ attorneys for trying a variety of angles to
turn the case into a nationwide class action on at least some point, claim or
“To say that Plaintiff’s class certification arguments have
been a moving target would be an understatement,” the judge wrote. “… Whether
refinement of Plaintiffs’ opaque liability theories and indefinite class
contours will ultimately show that a class is in here somewhere, the Court
The legal action first landed in federal courts in 2014,
when plaintiffs filed suit in Chicago, as well as in federal courts in California,
Arizona, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. The cases were later consolidated by a
federal judicial panel into a Multi-District Litigation (MDL) and transferred
to Dow in Chicago.
Named plaintiffs in the action included Karen Rhyne, whose
suit was transferred to the MDL from the U.S. District Court of the Northern District
of Illinois, and Steve Rensel, whose case originated in the Central District of
California in Los Angeles.
Plaintiffs are represented in the action by attorneys with
the firms of Wexler Wallace LLP, of Chicago; Greg Coleman Law P.C., of
Knoxville, Tenn.; and Berger & Montague P.C., of Philadelphia.
As part of their action, plaintiffs asked the court to expand
the litigation to include potentially thousands of others – or more – who purchased
and installed Fluidmaster’s so-called “No Burst” water supply lines since 2011 and
may have suffered damage in their homes when the supply lines allegedly failed.
The plaintiffs argued the supply lines were manufactured by
Fluidmaster in California, and were then sold to wholesalers and retailers,
like Home Depot and Lowes, who then distributed the products to consumers
nationally. Thus, the plaintiffs argued, California’s Legal Remedies Act – that
state’s “Lemon Law” consumer protection statute – should apply to all
plaintiffs, no matter in which state they may have purchased or installed the
Judge Dow, however, torpedoed those arguments, saying he
believed legal precedent, as well as the California law itself, dictated claims
against Fluidmaster must be brought under each state’s consumer protection
laws, which can differ “significantly” on a number of questions, including when
lawsuits can be brought against manufacturers, who can bring those lawsuits and
how liable a manufacturer may be for products that fail, in part, because the
products were misused or installed incorrectly.
Dow said allowing California law to apply nationwide,
regardless of the laws of the other states, would impair others states’ “compelling
interest” in enforcing its laws, and subordinate their laws to California’s.
And he noted the California law itself places weight on “the place of the wrong”
– meaning where the product failure and damage allegedly occurred.
“Here, no wrong implicated by a consumer protection law
could have occurred until the consumer purchased Defendant’s product in their
home state,” the judge wrote.
With this determination in hand, the judge also dismantled
the plaintiffs’ other attempts to certify class actions, saying none of their
attempts meet the legal standards needed to convert the case to a nationwide
He noted the claims even within states would likely prove
too dissimilar to allow such class actions to move forward. Some claims could
involve failure of the water supply line hoses, while others involve failures
involve failure of the supply lines’ coupling nuts
Further, the judge noted, Fluidmaster would argue most of
the purported claims would involve failure attributable to consumer misuse or
“And here is where individualized issues overwhelm the common
ones,” Dow wrote. “Defendant’s claims rate shows that 99.9 percent of
Defendant’s sold products do not result in a claim of failure being reported
(and the potential number of unreported failures does not appear to
meaningfully change this percentage).
“Once the parties wade through the class members to find the
roughly 0.1 percent of claims that experienced a failure, individualized
inquiries into each consumer’s installation, maintenance, misuse, causation,
and the damages attributable to the failure would be required.
“Because customer misuse will be directly relevant to Plaintiffs’
efforts to recover property damages under their CLRA claim, these issues
present predominance problems. And
because these varied individualized issues will swamp any common questions of
law or fact, Plaintiffs have failed to show predominance for their nationwide
Fluidmaster is defended in the action by attorneys with the
firms of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, with offices in Los Angeles and
New York, and Lowis & Gellen, of Chicago.