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Two Philadelphia lawyers hired to defend Kia Motors America in a proposed class action products liability suit in New Jersey Superior Court have won a significant victory in the first round of the litigation with a court order that strikes the plaintiffs’ request for certification of a nationwide class. In a decision announced from the bench in Little v. Kia Motors America Inc., Union County Judge Alfred Beglin Jr. found there were too many conflicts among the 50 states in the rights and defenses provided in their consumer protection and warranty laws. “In certain class action cases, you can pretty much find uniformity from state to state. You can’t here,” Beglin said in his oral opinion. “Each state has sought to protect … its car-leasing and purchasing populace. There is no question that you can, with a very broad brush, begin to say how uniform those brush strokes appear to be. But every brush has its own inherent strands. The minute you get beyond that broad sweep, it just leaps out at you how varied these approaches have been, and how different they are in very, I think, fundamental ways,” Beglin said. The effect of Beglin’s ruling is that the case is now limited to nothing more than a proposed class of New Jersey purchasers and lessors of the Sephia-model Kia cars manufactured from 1996 through 2000. The ruling is a victory for attorneys Joseph Kernen and Neal Walters of Piper Rudnick, who took the rare step of seeking trifurcated discovery to focus on choice-of-law issues. Kernen said the defense strategy was to move early on for a ruling that rejected a nationwide class. In the suit, plaintiffs’ attorneys Donna Siegel Moffa of Trujillo Rodriguez & Richards and Michael D. Donovan of Donovan Searles allege that Sephia models 1996-2000 suffer from widespread problems in the brake systems that cause premature wear, vibration and increased stopping distance. The suit asserted causes of action for consumer fraud, breach of express and implied warranty, and violation of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act. Moffa and Donovan argued that the court could certify a nationwide class and apply either the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act or the corresponding consumer protection law of California, the location of Kia’s principal place of business and the place from which its marketing and advertising originated. But Kernen and Walters argued that a nationwide class wouldn’t work since there are too many individual issues of law. The defense team said that the court would be forced to apply the laws of each state within which a class member resided and that consumer protection statutes and the common law of fraud and breach of warranty vary considerably from state to state. As a result, they said, it would be impossible to manage a case in which the laws of each of the 50 states is applied because of the confusion and unfairness that would result from attempting to reconcile the varying laws. Beglin agreed, saying he rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that California law could apply to the entire class. “This is consumer protection, and the vital interests of each state in protecting its consumers has been defined by each state, through our federal system, as each is expected to do in its own unique way,” Beglin said. “I’m persuaded that the very nature of the allegations … are such that they do not speak to national class certification, that the interests expressed by the various states are so real and dominant that to respect the constitutional requirements … they could not be ignored or all bundled together in one state, be that California or New Jersey.”

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