Courts Must Decide Admissibility of Questionable Expert Testimony Before Certifying Class


A recent decision by the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will have important implications for our practice as Illinois class action attorneys. In American Honda Motor Company Inc. v. Allen et al., No. 09-8051 (7th Cir. April 7, 2010), the Seventh ruled that trial courts must conclusively rule on the admissibility of expert testimony before certifying a class — when the testimony is essential to the class certification decision. The case is a proposed class action filed in the Northern District of Illinois by people who bought Honda’s Gold Wing GL1800 motorcycle. The plaintiffs claim there is a defect creating unusual amounts of “wobble,” or oscillation of the front steering assembly.

To support a motion for class certification, the plaintiffs used a report prepared by motorcycle engineering expert Mark Ezra. Ezra used a standard of his own devising to support his opinion that the Gold Wings’ wobble was beyond what was reasonable to avoid overcorrections or fear by the rider. He tested one such motorcycle, found it insufficient and suggested that Honda could fix the problem by using a different shape of ball bearings. Honda moved to strike this report, claiming it was unreliable and that the testing based on one motorcycle was not reliably applied.

The district court agreed that Honda had raised some important concerns, and that class certification rested largely on Ezra’s report, but declined to exclude the report entirely so early in the case. It dismissed Honda’s motion without prejudice and certified two classes. Honda appealed the class certification decision, and the Seventh found the appeal appropriate, because the issue is “heavily contested” and has not been addressed at the appellate level.

The Seventh wrote that the district court started off correctly by starting an analysis of the expert testimony as provided by Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). Despite the detail in its analysis and the several troubling flaws it noted, however, the district court declined to exclude the report entirely “at this early stage of the proceedings.” By ruling in this way, the district court left an open question about which aspects of the report would be excluded, and ultimately, whether the plaintiffs met the standards for class certification. That was so insufficient that it was an abuse of discretion, the appeals court said.

Furthermore, the court wrote, the record shows “exclusion [of Ezra’s report] is the inescapable result when the Daubert analysis is carried to its conclusion.” The record shows Ezra’s report fails several tests laid out in Daubert and is “unreliable,” the Seventh wrote, which means it should not be admitted. And without admission of that testimony, the plaintiffs do not have enough evidence to show that their class meets standards of class certification. Thus, the Seventh vacated the lower court decision to grant class certification and remanded the case for further proceedings. In general, the court wrote, when the testimony is essential to the class certification decision, as it is here, a district court must conclusively rule on any challenge to the expert’s submissions or qualifications.

At Lubin Austermuehle, our Chicago consumer lawyers handle similar consumer class actions on behalf of multiple plaintiffs who suffered the same injuries or financial damage at the hands of a large company. Certifying a class is an important first step in these cases, because joining many plaintiffs together allows them to pursue claims that they might not otherwise be able to afford to pursue. This is exactly why defendants in these cases fight so hard against class certification — they understand that the balance of power is only in their favor if individuals can’t join forces. Our Barrington, Ill. consumer lawyers handle class actions in a variety of areas of the law, including privacy violations, unfair fees, workers’ rights and advertising or product fraud. If you believe you are the victim of an unfair, fraudulent or illegal business practice and you’d like to learn more, don’t wait to contact our Chicago consumer class action attorneys for help. For a free consultation, call us toll-free at 630-333-0333 or send us an email through our website.

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