The Middle District of Louisiana denied certification of a putative class bringing claims for redhibition and unjust enrichment against Exxon Mobil Corporation (“Exxon”).  Plaintiffs allegedly purchased gasoline refined at Exxon’s Baton Rouge terminal that Exxon conceded contained a resin accidentally introduced during the refining process. The parties disputed whether the resin fully combusted during normal engine operations or remained in the engine causing damage and decreased operating efficiency. Plaintiffs sought to certify a class of all purchasers of defective fuel sold or distributed by Exxon and all owners of property damaged by the use of the defective fuel.

The court began its certification analysis by itemizing the elements of Rule 23(a) and Rule 23(b)(3) that plaintiffs must prove. The court cited Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes for the proposition that class actions are an exception to the rule that litigation must be conducted on behalf of the individual named parties only, and as such, the court’s analysis of the Rule 23 requirements must be “rigorous.”  The court then found that the plaintiffs’ claims failed the predominance and superiority requirements of Rule 23(b)(3) and that the class was not ascertainable.

The court explained that the predominance inquiry requires identification of the substantive law issues that will control the outcome of the litigation in order to determine whether questions of law or fact common to the class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members. The court noted that redhibition is a cause of action that can be brought only by actual purchasers of an allegedly defective product. In this case, not all owners of property allegedly damaged by the subject gasoline actually purchased the product. Moreover, to state a claim for redhibition, a purchaser of a defective product must show that the defective nature of the product was so great that it rendered the product “useless” or its use “so inconvenient that it must be presumed that a buyer would not have bought the thing had he known of the defect.” In the alternative, the purchaser must show that the value of the defective product is diminished to the extent that it must be presumed that the buyer would have bought the product for a reduced price.

The court explained that the determination of whether a claimant would not have purchased the subject gasoline at all or would have purchased the product for a reduced price was a matter that could only be determined by specific individualized proof of facts.  As such, the court would be required to hear individualized evidence to determine whether the defective gasoline was redhibitory. Individualized proof would also be necessary to determine the remedy, whether it be rescission or reduction in price. Accordingly, the court found that individual issues predominated over issues common to the class, thereby rendering class certification inappropriate.

The court made similar findings with respect to the unjust enrichment claim. The court explained that unjust enrichment principles are only applicable to fill a gap in the law where no express remedy is provided. Therefore, the court explained that evaluation of the unjust enrichment claim would require a legal determination as to which individual class members have no viable claim under the law. For those class members who were able to assert a claim for unjust enrichment, the degree of enrichment and damages would also be made on an individualized basis. Therefore, the court found that the individualized inquires would predominate over the class issues with respect to the unjust enrichment claim.

Finally, the court found also that the class was not clearly ascertainable because the determination of class membership was entangled with the underlying merits of the claim. The court explained that the task of ascertaining class members would not be a matter of simply identifying purchasers of the subject gasoline during a particular time period. Rather, only a person who experienced uselessness to a degree that gives rise to the presumption that he would not have purchased the fuel would have a claim. Therefore, the court found that the individual inquiries to determine class membership undermined the administrative benefits of Rule 23.

Roger Jean LeBlanc v. Exxon Mobil Corporation (M.D. La. March 17, 2015).