A Maryland District Court has denied a class action on behalf of Maryland residents who own certain model years of Ford Explorers, Mercury Mountaineers and Ford Windstars.
This is not a personal injury lawsuit; plaintiffs’ lawyers claimed front seats in the class vehicles are defective because they are prone to collapse rearward in moderate speed rear-impact collisions. In fact, the proposed class action would exclude everyone who has actually suffered an injury.
Plaintiffs’ suggested class is individuals who own vehicles that cannot withstand 20,000 inch-pounds of torque without deforming backwards. (Admittedly, I don’t fully understand this but let’s proceed on pretending that I do.) Judge Benson Everett Legg denied Plaintiffs’ request for a class, disagreeing with Plaintiffs’ lawyers’ assertion that the complexities of twenty-three different seating system configurations can be resolved through a standard as simple as one safety benchmark. The opinion acknowledges that design changes that make a car safer in one accident might make the car less safe in another. In other words, the court’s message to the Plaintiffs’ lawyers was “it is a little more complicated than that.”
Judge Legg also made an interesting point on a collateral estoppel issue that personal injury victims might face in bringing a product liability claim after an accident caused by this alleged defect:
Additionally, around the country, consumers have brought personal injury suits involving the seatback rigidity issue, winning some and losing others. If the instant case were to proceed as a class action and the jury returned a verdict for Ford, a class member who was subsequently injured in a class vehicle would be collaterally estopped from claiming that the vehicle’s seats were defective because they lacked sufficient rigidity. Such a class member, who has relatively relatively little to gain from the instant class action, might be precluded thereafter from prosecuting a substantial personal injury claim.
In other words, if you are in the class and Ford wins the consumer class action lawsuit, you might later be estopped from bringing a product liability claim for your injuries because the issue of whether the product was defective was already litigated between the parties. Very interesting point. This is also a very nuanced legal issue that both courts and litigants will have to deal with down the line. Judge Legg leaves open the issue of certifying a more narrowly defined class. But this problem will still exist no matter how narrowly the class is defined.
I get the idea of these types of claim, I really do. Ford is required to make safer vehicles because someone is minding the store when they make a defective product. This improves public safety. Still, I am uneasy with the idea of a class action to fix a defect for everyone but the people that actually get hurt. It sounds like the only ones who really profit in that case are the lawyers. Is this necessarily a bad thing in the big picture? No. But it does not exactly give you a warm and fuzzy feeling either.
You can find the full opinion here.