(CN) - Unraveling a class action over front-loading Electrolux washing machines that stink up and stain clothes, the 11th Circuit called for a closer look at the common questions underpinning the case.
The 27-page ruling by the federal appeals court in Atlanta notes that class actions of this sort became all the rage as the eco-friendly nature of front-loading machines gave them a foothold in the marketplace.
"But the initial models have a problem: the rubber seal on the front door of the machine retains water, which allows mildew to grow," Judge William Pryor wrote for a three-member panel. "The mildew then stains clothes and creates a foul odor."
Consumers from California and Texas brought the class action at issue here against Electrolux Home Products, the manufacturer of Frigidaire front-loading washing machines.
Though a federal judge in Georgia certified two statewide classes, the 11th Circuit vacated that outcome Monday, saying the certification order was an abuse of discretion.
The California class, led by plaintiff Robert Brown, is alleging unfair business practices, on the basis of an advertisement in which Electrolux failed to disclose its product's mold problem. Problematic to the appeals court, however, is Brown's failure to show whether other consumers he represents relied on the same ad.
"The only advertisements that Brown has identified are on Frigidaire's website, but he has made no effort to prove that any member of the California Class visited the website before purchasing his washing machine," Pryor wrote. "Brown instead admitted that he never saw any advertisements from Frigidaire."
Similarly, the Texas class, led by Michael Vogler, would have to prove that its members relied upon Frigidaire's advertisements when deciding to purchase a front-loader washing machine, rather than proving that Frigidaire deliberately misled consumers, under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices-Consumer Protection Act.
"Here, by contrast, we cannot presume that the class members relied on any uniform misrepresentation," wrote Pryor. "As explained above, we have no inkling whether the class members saw any advertisements from Frigidaire, much less uniform advertisements, before they purchased their washing machines."
Both state laws also require each class member to prove that they gave the defendants pre-suit notice and gave them an opportunity to cure the defect, according to the ruling.
The court agreed with Electrolux that it is up to the trial court to "resolve" these questions relevant to predominance, not just identify them.
"Answering the questions whether California and Texas law require pre-suit notice, an opportunity to cure, and manifestation of the defect would not resolve issues that are 'central to the validity' of the plaintiffs' warranty claims," Pryor wrote. "Answering them would instead help the district court determine what the law is in California and Texas, which in turn would help it identify the overall mix of individual versus common questions for purposes of predominance. Because the district court punted these questions instead of answering them, it abused its discretion." (Emphasis in original.)
Pryor declined to speculate as to what the answers are and whether their resolution "will defeat predominance and prevent class certification."
Electrolux did fail, however, to argue that the plaintiffs must also show individual proof in support of damages.
It is only when calculating individual damages becomes too complex and fact-specific that the process would be too burdensome on the court system to allow predominance, the ruling states.
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