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Johnson v. Ford Motor Co.

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Huntington Division

February 27, 2018

CHARLES JOHNSON, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
FORD MOTOR COMPANY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ROBERT C. CHAMBERS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pending before the Court is Defendant Ford Motor Company's Motion for Summary Judgment. ECF No. 1055. In its motion, Ford argues the Court should grant summary judgment in its favor for a number of reasons. Given the complexity of this litigation, the Court limits this Memorandum Opinion and Order to Plaintiffs' warranty and unjust enrichment claims.

         For the following reasons, the Court GRANTS summary judgment in favor of Ford on these claims.

         I.

         FACTUAL AND

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         In 2013, Plaintiffs filed three related putative Class Action Complaints in this Court.[1] As the three cases involved common issues of fact, the Court consolidated the cases in August 2013 for discovery and pretrial purposes. The lead case became Belville v. Ford Motor Co., 3:13-6529.

         In their original Complaints, Plaintiffs assert they purchased or leased certain models of Ford vehicles between the years 2002 and 2010. Plaintiffs claim all their vehicles are equipped with a defectively-designed electronic throttle control (ETC) system.[2] Although the parties' analysis of the ETC system is highly technical, on a basic level Plaintiffs allege that the ETC's design is unable to identify and mitigate faults (errors) that may cause the throttles in their vehicles to open and provide greater power than demanded by the drivers, resulting in an unintended acceleration (UA). It is undisputed that faults can occur for various reasons and be sent to the system from a variety of sources. Regardless of the precipitating cause of the fault, however, Plaintiffs argue the problem is that the ETC's design is not fault tolerant and it should have included a failsafe system, such as a Brake Over Accelerator (BOA) system. Plaintiffs insist a properly designed system will stop or mitigate the occurrence of an unintended acceleration.[3] As Plaintiffs assert a design defect, rather than manufacturing defect, Plaintiffs claim their vehicles were dangerous and defective at the time of purchase and, as a result, they paid more to purchase or lease their vehicles than their actual worth.[4] Plaintiffs do not seek any damages for personal injury, wrongful death, or property damage as a result of any unattended acceleration event.

         After Plaintiffs filed their original Class Action Complaints, Ford filed motions to dismiss all three cases. Following a hearing on the matter, the Court entered a Memorandum Opinion and Order on March 31, 2014, granting, in part, and denying, in part, Ford's motion. Belville v. Ford Motor Co., 13 F.Supp.3d 528 (S.D. W.Va. 2014).[5] Of all the Plaintiffs in Belville, only two actually had experienced an unintended acceleration event. Id. at 535. With respect to those who had not experienced an unintended acceleration, Ford argued, inter alia, they could not pursue breach of warranty and related claims because the alleged defect had not manifested in their own vehicles. Plaintiffs insisted, however, that it was unnecessary for them to have experienced an unintended acceleration because the manifestation is the defective design itself. Although these Plaintiffs never experienced any problems with their actual vehicles, they claimed they did not receive the benefit of their bargain and overpaid for their vehicles because their vehicles are defective. Id. at 537.

         Upon consideration, the Court rejected Plaintiffs' argument with respect to their claims for breach of express and implied warranty and unjust enrichment. In its analysis, the Court agreed with those courts that held “‘[w]here . . . a product performs satisfactory and never exhibits an alleged defect, no cause of action lies.'” Id. at 535 (quoting Briehl v. General Motors Corp., 172 F.3d 623, 628 (8th Cir. 1999) (finding no cause of action for breach of express and implied warranties and fraudulent concealment where plaintiffs never claimed failure in brake performance and only sought damages for lost resale value and overpayment)); Carlson v. General Motors Corp., 883 F.2d 287, 298 (4th Cir. 1989) (affirming lower court's dismissal of claims of lost resale value by plaintiffs who had not alleged that they experienced engine difficulties in their own vehicles); Weaver v. Chrysler Corp., 172 F.R.D. 96, 99-100 (S.D.N.Y. 1997) (finding no cause of action for breach of warranty, fraud, or negligent misrepresentations for allegedly defective integrated child seat in vehicle where the putative plaintiff's child seat never malfunctioned); Yost v. General Motors Corp., 651 F.Supp. 656, 657-58 (D. N.J. 1986) (stating breach of warranty and common law fraud require damage and the plaintiff had not suffered actual damage where he alleged his engine was “likely” to leak); Wilson v. Style Crest Products, Inc., 627 S.E.2d 733, 736-37 (S.C. 2006) (affirming summary judgment in favor of the defendant where the allegedly defective anchor tie down systems for the plaintiffs' manufactured homes had not failed and the plaintiffs got the benefit of their bargain). As the court stated in Weaver, “[i]t is well established that purchasers of an allegedly defective product have no legally recognizable claim where the alleged defect has not manifested itself in the product they own.” 172 F.R.D. at 99 (citations and quotation marks omitted). Stated differently, if “a product performs satisfactory and never exhibits the alleged defect, no cause of action lies.” Id. at 100 (citation omitted).

         Following the Court's analysis, the Court concluded that, for those Plaintiffs who had not experienced a manifestation of a sudden unintended acceleration, their warranty and unjust enrichment claims must be dismissed. The Court found “Plaintiffs simply have failed to demonstrate a plausible claim that they paid more for their vehicles than their actual worth when they have used their vehicles without incident for many years.” 13 F.Supp.3d at 542. Since that determination nearly three years ago, the Court has not wavered from its decision that a manifestation of the alleged defect is an unintended acceleration.[6]

         Following the decision, Plaintiffs sought to file a 497-page First Amended Master Consolidated Class Action Complaint, consolidating all three actions and identifying new parties, new claims, and new defect theories. Ford opposed the motion, arguing Plaintiffs were attempting a do-over, which would precipitate a new round of 12(b)(6) motions on many of the same claims the Court already resolved. Additionally, Ford noted the parties had not even completed the briefing over the impact the Court's March 31 Memorandum Opinion and Order had on 89 of the individual claims made in the original three Complaints. Upon consideration, the Court agreed with Ford, and it entered an Order on July 25, 2014, denying Plaintiffs' motion without prejudice so that the Court could resolve the parties' disputes about the original claims and provide the parties additional guidance. Belville v. Ford Motor Co., Civ. Act. No. 3:13-6529, 2014 WL 3732132 (S.D. W.Va. July 25, 2014). Following briefing on the disputed claims, the Court entered a Memorandum Opinion and Order on November 14, 2014, further delineating what claims survived and what claims were dismissed. Belville v. Ford Motor Co., 60 F.Supp.3d 690 (S.D. W.Va. 2014).

         Thereafter, Plaintiffs again sought to file a Consolidated Complaint.[7] On September 15, 2015, the Court granted Plaintiffs' motions to consolidate the three actions into a single action (now styled as Johnson v. Ford Motor Co.) and to include new factual allegations and revise and add claims for existing Plaintiffs. Johnson v. Ford Motor Co., Civ. Act. No. 3:13-6529, 2015 WL 5443550 (S.D. W.Va. Sept. 15, 2015). However, the Court denied Plaintiffs' attempt to add sixteen new Plaintiffs or add any new facts or new claims related solely to those proposed Plaintiffs.[8] Id. at *2. The Court also held in abeyance Ford's challenges to certain specific claims. Id. at *3. On November 24, 2015, the Court entered another Memorandum Opinion and Order ruling on the remaining matters and directing Plaintiffs to file a revised Consolidated Complaint consistent with the Court's decisions. Johnson v. Ford Motor Co., Civ. Act. No. 3:13-6529, 2015 WL 7571841 (S.D. W.Va. Nov. 24, 2015). On December 8, 2015, Plaintiffs filed their Second Amended Master Consolidated Class Action Complaint. ECF No. 686. Now, following over three years of voluminous fact and expert discovery, Ford moves for summary judgment.

         II.

         STANDARD ...


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