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Ford Owners Certified in Touch Screen Defect Suit

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A federal judge has certified classes of consumers from nine states in a lawsuit accusing Ford of selling cars with touch screen systems that regularly crashed, rendering many of the cars' features inoperable.

In a sealed order from Sept. 14 made public Wednesday afternoon, U.S. District Judge Edward Chen certified classes of consumers in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, Virginia and Washington state who bought a Ford or Lincoln equipped with the touch screens before Aug. 9, 2013.

Chen denied certification to proposed classes in Arizona, Iowa and New York, and tossed fraud claims entirely.

The 2013 lawsuit claims Ford sold cars with faulty MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch systems even though it knew they didn't work. And the systems still crash even though Ford has released software updates to fix the bug, the plaintiffs say.

The technology, which Ford rolled out in 2010, allows drivers to control a car's defroster, rearview camera, navigation and audio systems from two or three LCD screens. But the 19 named plaintiffs in 12 states say the system regularly crashes and freezes while the car is running, cutting off access to the features because they can't be controlled manually.

When the system goes on the fritz, the GPS can also provide inaccurate directions. The car's ability to call 911 when it detects an accident is also disabled, according to the plaintiffs.

"At best, what consumers paid for amounted to a pricy inconvenience, failing to live up to even the most basic of Ford's gilded promises," plaintiffs' counsel Steve Berman said in a statement Wednesday. "But in the worst scenarios, the failed MyFord Touch system's defects can be a hazardous distraction to drivers."

Because the plaintiffs withdrew their only nationwide claim for certification under the federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, Chen certified nine separate classes by state.

However, he refused to certify many of the plaintiffs' express warranty claims, calling them "overreaching." The plaintiffs hadn't shown why they were entitled to reimbursement for the entire car when they had only complained of the cars' faulty touch screens, Chen said.

He also refused to certify the plaintiffs' fraud claims, citing Ford's argument in a March opposition that the plaintiffs had to show they relied on Ford's promises to prevail on those claims, and that doing so would require too much individual evidence to permit class certification.

In tossing the fraud claims, Chen noted that the plaintiffs had relied on a limited amount of advertising of the MyFord Touch technology in the company's brochures and on its website to make their purchase decisions. That meant the plaintiffs hadn't been exposed to an "'extensive and long-term fraudulent advertising campaign' sufficient to warrant an inference of reliance on the part of the entire class," he said.

Further complicating the reliance issue, Chen said, was the fact that the named plaintiffs acknowledged they had seen statements by Ford and in the news as early as May 2011 discussing problems with the touch screens, and one plaintiff said he bought his car even after seeing "mixed reviews" of the technology.

"It appears negative information about [MyFord Touch] was widely available before most named plaintiffs even purchased their vehicles," Chen said.

"Presuming classwide reliance would thus require the court to infer that all class members were exposed to positive statements regarding [MyFord Touch], that all class members relied on them and no class members saw the negative statements which would have warned them about the defects, thus potentially rendering any reliance unreasonable," he said.

In the order, Chen certified and denied the following claims in each state:

In California, Chen certified claims for violations of state consumer protection laws and breaches of implied and express warranty. He also certified claims for violations of state unfair competition laws not based on fraud.

For plaintiffs in Colorado, Chen certified a claim for strict product liability. He refused to certify a claim for violation of the state's consumer protection laws.

In Massachusetts, Chen certified a claim for violating state consumer protection laws for breach of implied warranty, and denied certification of a claim for breach of express warranty.

Chen certified New Jersey plaintiffs' claim for breach of implied warranty, and denied certification for breach of express warranty.

He certified North Carolina plaintiffs' claim for breach of implied warranty but not a claim for breach of express warranty.

In Ohio, Chen certified claims for negligence, breach of implied warranty and violations of state consumer sales protection laws. He denied certification of claims for breach of express warranty.

Texas plaintiffs' claim for violation of state deceptive trade practice laws was also certified.

Chen certified Virginians' claims for violation of state consumer protection laws and for breach of implied warranty, but denied certification for breach of express warranty.

In Washington state, Chen certified a claim for breach of express warranty, and denied certifying a claim for violating state consumer protection laws.

Berman said in a statement that plaintiffs' counsel is working on certifying classes in additional states. "While we are appreciative of the court's careful consideration of the class in this case against Ford, we will continue to fight for the rights of all consumers who paid a heavy premium for dangerous, defective in-car touch screen systems," Berman said.

Ford is represented by Randall Edwards of O'Melveny & Myers in San Francisco. He did not return a request for comment Thursday.

Berman is with Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro in Seattle.

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