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 installed.
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 product.
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 issue.
“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 cannot say.”
A leaking toilet can be a major waste of water. Laura Ritchie / Flickr
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 Fluidmaster products.
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 class action.
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 improper installation.
“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 CLRA claim.”
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.