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Class Action Countermeasures Discussions of the Strategic Considerations Involved In Class Action Defense

Classic Cases – Amchem Prods., Inc. v. Windsor

Posted in Certification, Settlement

 There is no question that Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes will be the most-cited case in class-action practice for years to come. But before Dukes, Amchem Products, Inc. v. Windsor was the Supreme Court’s definitive announcement of its interpretation of Rule 23 standards.

What’s interesting about the case is that it involved a class-action settlement. The Windsor (before, Georgine) case was never supposed to be litigated. Instead, it was a settlement class. The proposed settlement class was a response to the asbestos litigation crisis (courts in the 1990s had been swamped by personal injury claims related to asbestosis), and was supposed to "achieve global settlement of current and future asbestos-related claims."

So, after a series of asbestos cases were consolidated, attorneys for both sides began negotiating a global settlement. As the Court described the proposed settlement document:

[I]t proposed to settle, and to preclude nearly all class members from litigating against CCR companies, all claims not filed before January 15, 1993, involving compensation for present and future asbestos-related personal injury or death.An exhaustive document exceeding 100 pages, the stipulation presents in detail an administrative mechanism and a schedule of payments to compensate class members who meet defined asbestos-exposure and medical requirements.

As one might expect, the proposed settlement drew a lot of objections from multiple sources. The objectors challenged the lack of an inflation adjustment (which meant that older claimants would be compensated less), the low compensation levels to many class members, and the inclusion of claims for medical monitoring. They also objected "strenuously" to the adequacy of the class representatives (not surprising, given the vastness of the class and the willingness to throw in just about every claim possible).

Despite the objections, the trial court approved the settlement. The Third Circuit reversed, based solely on the issue of certification. The settling parties appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted certiorari.

Given the number of issues at stake (the parties had sought certification under several provisions of Rule 23), the Court began with a number of definitive statements of class certification requirements. Among them, for Rule 23(b)(1)(A):

Rule 23(b)(1)(A) "takes in cases where the party is obliged by law to treat the members of the class alike (a utility acting toward customers; a government imposing a tax), or where the party must treat all alike as a matter of practical necessity (a riparian owner using water as against downriver owners).

And, for Rule 23(b)(3):

In the 1966 class-action amendments, Rule 23(b)(3), the category at issue here, was "the most adventuresome" innovation. Rule 23(b)(3) added to the complex-litigation arsenal class actions for damages designed to secure judgments binding all class members save those who affirmatively elected to be excluded.

(Internal citations omitted.) The Court noted that plaintiffs (and sometimes defendants) had become more inventive in their uses of the class action device over the years.

"In the decades since the 1966 revision of Rule 23, class-action practice has become ever more "adventuresome" as a means of coping with claims too numerous to secure their "just, speedy, and inexpensive determination" one by one. See Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 1. The development reflects concerns about the efficient use of court resources and the conservation of funds to compensate claimants who do not line up early in a litigation queue."

The Court also held that settlement status was relevant to certification, but the fact that a case was settling did not mean that a court could ignore all of the Rule 23 requirements. Instead:

Confronted with a request for settlement-only class certification, a district court need not inquire whether the case, if tried, would present intractable management problems, see Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 23(b)(3)(D), for the proposal is that there be no trial. But other specifications of the Rule–those designed to protect absentees by blocking unwarranted or overbroad class definitions–demand undiluted, even heightened, attention in the settlement context. Such attention is of vital importance, for a court asked to certify a settlement class will lack the opportunity, present when a case is litigated, to adjust the class, informed by the proceedings as they unfold.

The Court then held that, in this case, the parties had been too adventuresome. On their own, the personal-injury asbestos claims required inquiries into causation for each injury that would predominate over any common issues. And, given the kitchen-sink nature of the claims the parties had included, the individual issues had only compounded. The court also found that the parties could not demonstrate adequacy. As it put it:

The adequacy inquiry under Rule 23(a)(4) serves to uncover conflicts of interest between named parties and the class they seek to represent.

In this case, ether was a clear, irreconcilable conflict between injured and exposure-only plaintiffs:

In significant respects, the interests of those within the single class are not aligned. Most saliently, for the currently injured, the critical goal is generous immediate payments. That goal tugs against the interest of exposure-only plaintiffs in ensuring an ample, inflation-protected fund for the future.

And, finally, the Court offered a suggestion that has yet to get any real traction:

The argument is sensibly made that a nationwide administrative claims processing regime would provide the most secure, fair, and efficient means of compensating victims of asbestos exposure. Congress, however, has not adopted such a solution. And Rule 23, which must be interpreted with fidelity to the Rules Enabling Act and applied with the interests of absent class members in close view, cannot carry the large load CCR, class counsel, and the District Court heaped upon it.

The proposal for an administrative solution to mass-tort claims like asbestos is an interesting one that deserves more discussion. And, in this Thursday’s post, we’ll look at one academic’s efforts to address just that issue.