Class Action Claims Alleging DuPont knew but Failed to Disclose Health Risks Associated with use of Non-Stick Cookware Coatings (including Teflon) not Entitled to Class Action Treatment because Class Definition Failed and Membership in Proposed Class could not be Objectively Established Iowa Federal Court Holds
Thirteen class action lawsuits were filed against E.I. DuPont De Nemours concerning its production and marketing of Teflon non-stick cookware coatings; specifically, the class action complaints alleged that “DuPont made false, misleading and deceptive representations regarding the safety of its product.” In re Teflon Products Liab. Litig., ___ F.Supp.2d ___ (S.D. Iowa December 5, 2008) [Slip Opn., at 1]. In essence, the class action plaintiffs asserted that the non-stick coatings “can decompose at temperatures within the realm of ‘normal use,’ potentially releasing a synthetic chemical” that is harmful to humans and could even cause birth defects. Id., at 2. Ultimately, the Environmental Protection Agency brought claims against DuPont under the Federal Toxic Substances Control Act, which DuPont settled in 2005 by paying “‘the largest civil administrative penalty [the] EPA has ever obtained under any federal environmental statute.’” Id., at 2-3. The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation centralized the class actions in the Southern District of Iowa pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1407, see id., at 1 n.2. According to the allegations underlying the class action, DuPont knew of these dangers prior to 1960, but failed to disclose them to consumers, id., at 3. Plaintiffs’ attorneys moved the district court to certify the litigation as a class action. Id. Defense attorneys argued against class action treatment, id., at 1. The district court determined that class action treatment was warranted and therefore granted plaintiffs’ class action certification motion.
After outlining the rules governing class action certification under Rule 23, see In re Teflon, at 5-7, the district court observed that there are two additional “implicit” requirements: “1) that the class definition is drafted to ensure that membership is ‘capable of ascertainment under some objective standard;’ and 2) that all class representatives are in fact members of the proposed class,” id., at 7 (citations omitted). The federal court began its analysis, then, with the definition of the class, which it noted “is at the heart of any decision” on class action treatment, id., at 8. Because several putative class representatives testified in deposition that they were uncertain whether the products they purchased in fact had been manufactured by DuPont, or that they mistakenly believed that all non-stick cookware coatings were manufactured by DuPont, the district court concluded that the class definition failed. See id., at 8-14. Additionally, the court could not conclude “that each proposed representative is in fact a member of the proposed class, or…sub-class” because “the vast majority of plaintiffs must rely on memory to establish crucial facts [which] will prevent the parties and the Court from ever being able to establish membership with objective certainty.” Id., at 14. Accordingly, it held that it “cannot in good conscience grant certification.” Id.
We do not here discuss the district court’s analysis of the requirements of Rule 23 for class action certification. That discussion may be found at pages 14 through 30 of the court’s opinion. We note only that the court concluded that Rule 23(a)’s requirements of typicality and adequacy of representation had been met, but that the remaining requirements of Rule 23(a) and of Rule 23(b) had not been satisfied. See In re Teflon, at 31. Accordingly, the district court denied plaintiffs’ motion for class action treatment. Id.