TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – A lawyer for Kia Motors argued Tuesday before the New Jersey Supreme Court that thousands of plaintiffs in a case dating back nearly 20 years should not be treated as a class for the purpose of dividing up a $6.3 million award for faulty brakes.
Lead plaintiff Regina Little filed the class action back in 2001 alleging that the brake system in Kia Sephias purchased between 1997 and 2000 did not adequately distribute heat, causing brake pads and rotors to wear down after only about 10,000 miles.
Because Kia’s warranty did not cover brake repairs, the vehicle owners had to pay out of pocket each time they needed new pads and rotors.
In 2008, a jury found that Kia breached its express and implied warranty to the car owners, and violated the terms of the 1975 Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which regulates warranties on consumer products.
After it was vacated by a judge, a New Jersey appeals court last year reinstated the jury award of about $750 for each of the over 8,400 plaintiffs, for a total of $6.3 million.
At oral arguments before the state high court Tuesday afternoon, Justice Barry Albin pressed Kia’s attorney on the point that a defect resulting in faulty brakes is an issue that has no end.
“There could never be a cure. Regardless of a new brake, you'd need another brake after that and another brake after that,” the judge said. “There was a defect in the car and it went beyond the period covered by the warranty, the manufacturer is still responsible.”
Rivera-Soto pushed back, reminding the seven-judge panel that Kia gladly fixed the brakes so long as they were under the warranty.
Justice Jaynee LaVecchia seemed skeptical as to why Kia would not fix the cars out of warranty, given how often the defect caused a need for new brakes.
“But isn't there a question still about whether or not a buyer would have expected to get a brake system that caused so much heat that you would have repairs as frequently as these cars seemed to have demonstrated,” she said.
Rivera-Soto agreed, but reminded the judges that his client helped these customers by providing coupons and replacing the brake pads for free until Kia changed the brake system in 2001.
“There were at least $1.4 million of repairs that were done totally graciously on Kia’s part, so it's not like we left these people out there in the rain,” the attorney said.
Defending the class, attorney Michael Donovan of Donovan Axler stressed that his clients were entitled to the $750 because they all received a defective car.
Albin asked Donovan why it would be fair if some of the class members did not pay any money out of pocket for repairs but still received a cut of the damages award.
“Because they all received a car that would not be restored to non-defective condition,” Donovan said. “There is no dispute that Kia could ever fix this car.”
On rebuttal, Rivera-Soto emphasized that any damages should be awarded on an individual basis.
“To try to come up with some scheme whereby a windfall is provided to people who never reasonably incurred one penny is contrary to our basic notions of justice and cannot be allowed here,” he said.
The panel was rounded out by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and Justices Anne Patterson, Lee Solomon, Walter Timpone and Faustino Fernandez-Vina.
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