Law360: Chrysler Owners Win Cert. Of 6M Class In Takata Airbag MDL

Posted on June 21, 2023

Law360, Dorothy Atkins (June 20, 2023, 9:53 PM EDT) — A Florida federal judge has certified a class of roughly 6 million Fiat Chrysler vehicle owners in 11 states and the District of Columbia who assert fraud claims against FCA US in sprawling multidistrict litigation accusing automakers of hiding the risks associated with allegedly explosive Takata airbags in their vehicles.

In a 27-page June 15 order, which was filed publicly on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Federico A. Moreno appointed Michelle Gibson, Debra Johnson and Laquintha O’Neal as class representatives to represent vehicle owners who assert common law fraud claims against FCA US LLC in multiple states and who purchased their FCA vehicles after June 10, 2009.

The class includes car owners in the states of Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia.

Additionally, O’Neal represents a class of purchasers in North Carolina who assert claims under the state’s Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

In his order, the judge ruled that common issues predominate, rejecting FCA’s argument that individualized issues overcome class certification based on the purported defense that what the automaker knew about the airbags changed during the class period.

“FCA’s argument regarding the non-uniformity of its knowledge is unavailing because plaintiffs have sufficiently shown that FCA knew about the dangers of using ammonium nitrate in airbags since the early 1990s, and that FCA’s engineers voiced concerns about the integrity of Takata ammonium nitrate-based airbags prior to the sale of any of the class vehicles,” the order says.

The certification ruling is the latest chapter in a sprawling MDL, which consolidated both consumers’ economic loss and personal injury allegations, that landed on Judge Moreno’s docket in 2015. The MDL claims that the cheap, but volatile, ammonium nitrate that inflated Takata Corp. airbags could cause them to misfire, shooting chemicals and metal fragments at drivers and passengers once deployed.

The airbags were the subject of worldwide recalls, including the largest auto recall in the nation’s history, and to date the airbags have been linked to at least 25 deaths and 400 injuries in the U.S., according to the latest data available on the U.S. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s website.

In 2017, Takata pled guilty to wire fraud for falsifying testing data and reports about its inflators, and the company agreed to pay $1 billion, including restitution, shortly before the Japanese corporation filed for bankruptcy the same year.

The consumers in the civil litigation generally claim that automakers including Ford, Nissan, Honda, Toyota, BMW and FCA US LLC — which is the North American unit of Stellantis NV, the auto giant created by the 2021 merger of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Peugeot parent company Groupe PSA — knew that the airbag inflators weren’t safe for years but still kept equipping their cars with the “ticking time bombs” because they were cheaper than alternatives.

In 2021, some of the defendant automakers asked the judge to throw out the claims due to lack of jurisdiction, but in September, the judge denied the request, finding that the complaints stem directly from conduct that occurred in the state of Florida.

Meanwhile, some automakers, including Honda, Ford and Volkswagen, have reached multimillion-dollar settlements with certain plaintiffs in the MDL.

In November, Judge Moreno granted FCA and other automakers partial summary judgment, finding that consumers in 12 of 14 states at issue lack damages under the relevant state laws, because the airbags were replaced for free.

In April, the remaining lead plaintiff FCA car owners asked the court to certify classes of FCA car owners in multiple states, and in his decision, judge granted the request.

In his order, the judge noted that the fraud claims all stem from the same allegedly defective airbag, and the consumers have produced enough evidence, including from consumer surveys, to argue at trial that the class relied on FCA’s representations about airbag safety in purchasing their vehicles.

Peter Prieto of Podhurst Orseck PA, who serves as chair lead counsel for the FCA class, said Tuesday that he and his clients are pleased with the court’s order certifying the classes. He said the court’s ruling is consistent with the law, because the defect is in all automobiles that have Takata airbags, which is “common and uniform to all members of the class.”

Representatives and counsel for Stellantis didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

The class is represented by Peter Prieto, Aaron S. Podhurst, Stephen F. Rosenthal, John Gravante III and Matthew P. Weinshall of Podhurst Orseck PA, with parts of the suit being handled by Boies Schiller Flexner LLP, Colson Hicks Eidson, Smith LaCien LLP, Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP, Carella Byrne Cecchi Olstein Brody & Agnello PC and Baron & Budd PC.

FCA US LLC is represented by Rumberger Kirk and Caldwell PA and Clark Hill PLC.

The case is In re: Takata Airbag Products Liability Litigation, case number 1:15-md-02599, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

–Additional reporting by David Minsky, Emily Field and Linda Chiem. Editing by Rich Mills.