The Seventh Circuit Federal Court of appeals in a succinct and simply worded opinion by Judge Posner blew much needed fresh air into class action litigation by approving certification of class actions against Sears for front loading washing machines which are allegedly prone to mold or which had an allegedly defective controller. Judge Posner correctly concluded that machines with these type of uniform alleged defects are worth less than machines in correct working order and that consumers are therefore entitled to pursue refunds or other compensation for their alleged damages. Judge Posner correctly noted that class actions make sense to rectify consumer rights involving mass product defects which are essentially uniform but the damage recoveries to individual consumers would be too small to justify litigation. He made short shrift of the parade of claimed individual issues that defendants always claim exist to defeat class certification.
The class action suits which Posner considered involved alleged defects in Kenmore-brand Sears’ washing machines sold in periods beginning in 2001 and 2004. One asserted a defect that causes mold; the other asserted a defect that stops the machine inopportunely. The district court denied certification of the class complaining of mold and granted certification of the class complaining of sudden stoppage. The Seventh Circuit affirmed certification of the stoppage claims and reversed denial of certification for the mold claims. Rule 23(b)(3) conditions maintenance of a class action on a finding “that the questions of fact or law common to class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members.” The basic question in the litigation is: were the machines defective in permitting mold to accumulate and generate noxious odors? The question is common to the entire mold class, although the answer may vary with the differences in design. The individual questions are the amount of damages owed particular class members. It is more efficient for the question whether the washing machines were defective to be resolved in a single proceeding than for it to be litigated separately in hundreds of different trials.
You can read the full opinion here.
This opinion should swing the pendulum towards the middle again and end trial courts from reflexively finding hypothetical individual issues to destroy the chances of cases that truly justify class action treatment from proceeding which has been occurring all too frequently in recent years. It should breathe new life into class actions which can help protect consumers from mass wrongdoing where the damages are too small to justify individual consumer lawsuits. Without the threat of class actions, business entities have far less incentive to correct mass product defects if a cost benefit analysis would make it easier for them to ignore resolving the issues in a fair manner. However, the Supreme Court’s recent decision to allow businesses, including disreputable ones, to force consumer to sign arbitration agreements eliminating consumer rights to bring class actions allows for an escape hatch from this decision which will continue to harm consumer rights unless Congress acts to prevent forced arbitration of consumer claims. Such congressional action is very unlikely.
Forced arbitration precludes class actions and also forces consumers to arbitrate their individual cases outside of court sometimes in front of rigged or biased arbitration outfits that retain unqualified arbitrators and favor their repeat business customers. While JAMS and American Arbitration Association (“AAA”) are extremely reputable arbitration organizations that provide forums, which in our opinion can be equal or superior to courts, our firm is now seeing sleazy businesses such as used car dealers forcing consumers to arbitrate claims in front of unfair business oriented arbitration organizations that provide kangaroo courts where consumers rights are trampled on and the business firms that pay these organizations are rewarded with unfair and favorable verdicts in cases where the evidence of misconduct is clear cut. Lawyers will avoid taking cases when these incompetent and pro-business arbitration organizations are selected in adhesion contracts created by used car dealers and other disreputable businesses. Without lawyers to represent them, consumers will not only have lost the protection of the court system but they will not be able to retain counsel to even bring their cases. Legislatures need to act to police these private court systems run by disreputable and biased organizations and to ensure that arbitration organizations that hear consumer claims are all legitimate outfits like the AAA and JAMS.
Since so many businesses are forcing consumers to opt out of class actions and to arbitrate claims on an individual basis, the full benefit of Judge Posner’s efficiency analysis for allowing class actions to proceed will unfortunately be lost. Our state and federal legislative bodies need to act to reopen the courthouse doors for vindicating consumer rights by ending mandatory arbitration in consumer contracts or at least to create government oversight bodies to drive out disreputable arbitration outfits that businesses are using to deny consumer rights. The government regulates lawyers and judges, but these disreputable and incompetent arbitration organizations lack the same regulation, which oftentimes means unjust results for consumers.
Our firm has brought class action cases involving mass consumer product defects similar to the allegedly defect Sears washing machine case discussed in this post. We are looking for new class actions to pursue involving defective products. Contact us if you feel you have a claim at our toll free number 630-333-0333 or filling out an online contact form.
Our Chicago consumer rights private law firm handles individual and class action unfair debt collection and other consumer fraud cases that government agencies and public interest law firms such as the Illinois Attorney General may not pursue. Class action lawsuits our law firm has been involved in or spear-headed have led to substantial awards totalling over a million dollars to organizations including the National Association of Consumer Advocates, the National Consumer Law Center, and local law school consumer programs. Lubin Austermuehle is proud of our achievements in assisting national and local consumer rights organizations obtain the funds needed to ensure that consumers are protected and informed of their rights. By standing up to consumer fraud and consumer rip-offs, and in the right case filing consumer protection lawsuits and class-actions you too can help ensure that other consumers’ rights are protected from consumer rip-offs and unscrupulous or dishonest practices.
Our Evanston, Waukegan and Chicago consumer lawyers provide assistance in fair debt collection, consumer fraud and consumer rights cases including in Illinois and throughout the country. You can click here to see a description of the some of the many individual and class-action consumer cases we have handled. A video of our lawsuit which helped ensure more fan friendly security at Wrigley Field can be found here. You can contact one of our Chicago consumer protection lawyers who can assist in lemon law, unfair debt collection, wage claims, unpaid overtime and other consumer, consumer fraud or consumer class action cases by filling out the contact form at the side of this blog or by clicking here.