Tuesday, December 19, 2006
C.A. Reverses Class Certification in Suit Alleging Sony Vaio Defects
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Membership in a class action based on ownership of a product with an alleged specified manufacturing defect is invalid for lack of ascertainability, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Div. One issued a writ directing San Diego Superior Court Judge Luis R. Vargas to vacate his order granting class certification to plaintiffs who alleged Sony notebook computers they purchased had a common manufacturing defect, and to conduct further proceedings on whether class certification of a different class is appropriate.
Vargas had certified the following class:
“All persons . . . in the United States who are original purchasers of Sony Vaio GRX Notebook computers from Sony or from an authorized reseller, and in which the memory connector pins for either of the two memory slots were inadequately soldered[,] impeding the recognition of installed memory causing boot failures, and other problems . . . .”
In 2002 Martin Hapner filed suit against Sony Electronics, Inc. alleging he had repeated problems with the Vaio GRX550 Notebook computer he purchased. Sony marketed and distributed GRX Series Notebook computers knowing they had defective memory chip sockets, but without disclosing such defects to consumers, he alleged.
In 2005 Hapner filed a motion for class certification wherein he contended that Sony Vaio GRX series notebook computers suffered from inadequate soldering of connector pins located on their memory slots, preventing “many” of them from properly “booting” —starting the operating system when turned on—or utilizing computer memory.
Hapner presented evidence that the GRX500 Series Notebooks manufactured in the spring of 2002 had an annual failure rate of 10.1 percent from all causes, well above Sony’s accepted failure rate of less than 1 percent. Evidence also showed that 60 to 70 percent of the 500 series models sent to Sony for repair from January to July of 2003 suffered from “no boot” or memory problems.
Sony ultimately characterized the memory slot problem as a “design defect” and had its Tokyo-based design engineering team analyze the problem, evidence showed. Hapner also presented evidence that Sony refused to offer repairs to owners of GRX Series Notebooks that were still under warranty even after it issued an internal service bulletin in the summer of 2003 directing that any GRX500, 510, 550, 570 or 590 Notebook returned for in-warranty work be resoldered, regardless of why the computer was sent in for repair.
Sony opposed Hapner’s motion, contending that there was no common soldering defect in all of the GRX Series Notebook computers and that the symptoms of the alleged manufacturing defect could result from numerous causes other than inadequate soldering, thus making individual issues predominant over class-wide issues.
It submitted evidence describing possible causes for start-up and memory-related errors like those Hapner experienced, but which resulted from circumstances other than inadequate soldering and argued that there was no evidence the GRX600 and 700 Series Notebook computers suffered from the alleged manufacturing defect.
Although Vargas partially granted Hapner’s motion, he said he recognized the class definition was “an imperfect solution” because membership in the class depended on the existence of a defect. But he concluded that, if Hapner’s allegations were true, consumers were entitled to a remedy and the class action provided a superior mechanism for providing such a remedy over the institution of individual lawsuits.
Sony filed a writ petition contending that class certified by Vargas was invalid for lack of sufficient ascertainability because the definition is not based on objective criteria, but instead on the issue of ultimate liability, i.e., whether a particular person’s Notebook has a soldering defect.
Justice James A. McIntyre, writing for the Court of Appeal, agreed.
“[T]he class consists of purchasers of GRX Series Notebook computers that have inadequate soldering of the memory slot connector pins,” McIntyre noted. “Unfortunately, because there is no evidence showing that this alleged manufacturing defect is universal to all GRX Series Notebook computers, the class definition requires a merits-based determination in order to establish whether a particular GRX Series Notebook owner is a member of the class.”
The Justice concluded:
“The members of such a class are thus not readily identifiable so as to permit appropriate notice to be given and the definition would not permit persons who receive notice of this action to determine whether they are part of the class.”
Although the court held that the class certified by Vargas was invalid, it did not order him to deny Hapner’s motion outright, but directed him to conduct further proceedings on the issue of whether an alternative class is properly certifiable. McIntyre offered the following guidance:
“There is evidence in the record suggesting that the alleged manufacturing defect affected primarily GRX Series 500 Notebook computers that (1) were manufactured in the spring and summer of 2002 and (2) had motherboards that were manufactured in Japan. Further, the court has not yet considered whether a class might properly be certified for those United States purchasers of GRX Series Notebook computers who have experienced memory or “no boot” problems.”
Justices Richard D. Huffman and Judith L. Haller concurrd in the opinion.
The case is Sony Electronics Inc. v. Superior Court (Hapman), D048468.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company