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A statewide class made up of persons who purchased DaimlerChrysler automobiles with defective air bags has been decertified by a unanimous Pennsylvania Superior Court panel, effectively overturning a multimillion-dollar Philadelphia verdict in the case. The 12-year litigation, Debbs v. Chrysler Corp., presided over by three different Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judges, resulted in a 1999 jury award of $730 per class member and $3.75 million in punitive damages. Class members had been defined as persons who owned Chrysler automobiles made and sold with defective air bags between 1988 and 1991 and registered in Pennsylvania. The ruling represents a major win for defense counsel in the case, led by William H. Lamb of Lamb, Windle & McErlane in West Chester, Pa., and Richard A. Sprague of Philadelphia’s Sprague & Sprague. With 80,000 persons estimated to be members of the class, DaimlerChrysler could have been liable for more than $58 million in compensatory damages. The fatal flaw in the case was that class allegations were added to an individual negligence complaint two years after the original complaint had been filed. Writing for the unanimous three-judge panel, Judge Maureen Lally-Green said that a class action cannot be started by amending an individual’s complaint to include new class action allegations. Class actions may only be commenced by filing a complaint that complies with Rule 1703 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure. “If the class action complaint does not comply with Rule 1703, ‘it will not commence a class action,’” Lally-Green wrote. “Thus, the Rules of Civil Procedure do not contemplate that class actions can be initiated by amendments to individual complaints.” Lally-Green concluded that the late Bernard Avellino, then a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge, was wrong to allow the class action allegations to be grafted onto the individual negligence action. Avellino was the first of three Philadelphia trial judges to have been at the helm in the matter. After a trial before Judge Mark I. Bernstein, the third judge to preside over the litigation, a Philadelphia jury held DaimlerChrysler — the corporate successor of Chrysler Corp. — liable on charges of common-law fraud, breach of warranty and violations of state unfair trade practices law. The class plaintiffs alleged that Chrysler knew that its air bags emitted hot air at positions where a motorist’s hands were likely to be placed while driving and did not warn of the risk of serious hand burns. The carmaker eventually changed the design of its airbags to emit heated air from the top, where hands would not normally be placed while driving. The complaint was originally brought in 1990 by a motorist who purchased a 1988 Chrysler automobile whose airbag, when deployed, emitted hot air that burned his hands. The original plaintiff proceeded against the manufacturer on negligence and strict liability theories. Later, the plaintiff amended the complaint to allege that there was a design defect since the air bag would vent at the positions where drivers would tend to place their hands while operating an automobile. In 1992, adding allegations to buttress a claim based on strict liability and four other legal theories, the plaintiff said that a class action should be certified covering all persons who bought air bag-equipped cars manufactured and sold by Chrysler or its subsidiaries. The plaintiff said that between 100 and 200 persons had been burned by the allegedly defective air bags, and that nationally, 570,000 cars were sold with the defective air bags. While the class of alleged burn sufferers was not certified by the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court for lack of sufficient numbers, the class of Chrysler auto buyers was certified for the state. The owners of as many as 80,000 Pennsylvania-registered cars could have been included as part of the class action. Lally-Green rejected class plaintiffs’ argument that a 2000 Commonwealth Court decision, Foust v. SEPTA, stands for the principle that amendment of class actions is acceptable procedure in Pennsylvania. “We read Foust as permitting an amendment adding class allegations to a case that has been commenced properly as a class action,” she said. “Here, unlike Foust, the present case did not commence as a class action because the requirements of [Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure] 1703 or 1704 were not met.” After rejecting the class action allegations on procedural grounds, Lally-Green went on to hold that the substantive requirements for class certification were not present. The common-law fraud claims, as well as the alleged violations of Pennsylvania’s Unfair Trade Practice and Consumer Protection Law, could not be brought as part of the class action because of a lack of commonality of factual issues among the potential 80,000 class members, she wrote. Part of the fraud claim, Lally-Green pointed out, was the reliance of each claimant on the faulty warnings allegedly provided by Chrysler. That issue could only be litigated on a plaintiff-by-plaintiff basis, thus destroying commonality of the class members’ claims. The UTCPL likewise includes an element of detrimental reliance on a representation of the seller. Finally, the class representative in the case (not the original individual party) did not present claims that were typical of the entire class. The representative party failed to sustain her burden of showing typicality, with even Avellino admitting on the record that the criteria for class certification, in his view, had been satisfied except for typicality. Joining Lally-Green on the panel were Judges Stephen McEwen and John T. Bender. Class counsel in the litigation included Martin J. D’Urso and Joseph C. Kohn of Kohn, Swift & Graf.

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