Court Refuses to Certify Class in Product Defect Case

In February 2014, the Panel on Multidistrict Litigation transferred a series of cases against Pella Corporation, a window manufacturer, to the District of South Carolina. Judge Norton dismissed most of the claims, but preserved claims alleging breach of express warranty with respect to Pella’s failure to repair or replace windows under its limited warranty. The windows, so plaintiffs alleged, leaked, and the plaintiffs sought certification of a class consisting of owners of structures in New York from 1997 through 2007 who had made a claim under Pella’s Limited Warranty. The “common issue” upon which Plaintiffs founded their class certification contentions was whether the windows were defective.

The court first grappled with whether changes in the design of the windows during the class period destroyed commonality under Rule 23(a). The issue there, as Judge Norton saw it, was whether “the design variations had any impact on the windows’ vulnerability to water intrusion.” Without deciding this issue, the court assumed that the design changes did not, and focused on another problem created for class certification – New York law requires that a warranty “actually be breached,” not simply that a product exhibit a defect. Pella, the court reasoned, could not be said to have breached the terms of its own warranty unless it received notice of a defect. And the multiple defects asserted compounded this issue, leading the trial judge to observe that “[w]hatever the outcome of plaintiffs’ proposed class trial, the court will need to make individual determinations as to the underlying cause of each class member’s warranty claim.” Without definitively resolving the commonality issue, the Court determined that plaintiffs had problems showing predominance under Rule 23(b)(3). The court acknowledged that it was not uncommon to certify product liability claims, but distinguished the case before it – which principally involved a challenge to the failure to repair and replace the windows, rather than the plaintiffs’ initial purchase of a defective window. Relying on Fourth Circuit precedent, the court observed that “[t]here is no question that individual inquiries into causation and affirmative defenses may preclude class certification.” (citing to Lienhart v. Dryvit Sys. Inc., and Broussard v. Meineke Discount Muffler Shops, Inc.).

This case is one of several where plaintiffs – recognizing potential commonality problems – have moved for issue certification under Rule 23(c)(4), a subject we have addressed in earlier posts here. Judge Norton noted that “the emerging majority,” including two district court decisions in the Fourth Circuit, have “found that a court ‘may use Rule 23(c)(4) to certify a class as to an issue regardless of whether the claim as a whole satisfies the predominance test in Rule 23(b)(3).’” Although Judge Norton seemed amenable to avoiding the predominance problem through issue certification, he articulated – like many courts – that issue certification would not make a Rule 23 proceeding “superior,” citing Farrar (which we previously covered here). In the end, the court’s decision was founded on this point, concluding that “class certification – even on the limited issue of whether the windows contained a defect – is not superior to other methods of adjudication.”