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Posts Tagged ‘israeli class action’

NOTE: The following is a copy of a post that I did for the recently-released Baker Hostetler Class Action Lawsuit Defense Blog. Be sure to check out the new blog for other fantastic class-action-related content!

Globalization has brought with it the growing problem of how to deal with mass disputes that transcend jurisdictional boundaries, as well as ever-increasing creativity among the members of the plaintiffs’ bar in bringing ever-larger class and mass actions. There is no single global court or other forum for bringing international or cross-border civil disputes, let alone disputes that involve allegations of mass harm. One of the key challenges for lawyers, policymakers, consumers, and businesses in the 21st century is how to efficiently resolve international mass disputes given the realities of globalization and the lack of any clear forum.

From the late 1990s through the first decade of this century, there were several trends favoring the U.S. courts as a global forum for litigating international disputes. However, recently, that trend has reversed, and the U.S. courts are becoming increasingly reluctant to entertain international class action litigation.

One of the hottest trends in securities litigation in the latter part of the last decade was what became known as foreign-cubed (or “f-cubed”) class actions, securities fraud class actions filed on behalf of foreign investors against foreign companies involving securities traded on a foreign exchange. The trend came to an abrupt halt, however, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Morrison v. National Australia Bank Ltd., 130 S. Ct. 2869 (2010), holding that section 10(b) of the Securities and Exchange Act does not have an extraterritorial reach and only applies to securities traded on a U.S. exchange or other transactions that occurs within a U.S. state or territory. Although lower court decisions following Morrison, including a recent Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision, may breathe some life back into the idea of litigating a small subset of primarily foreign securities disputes in the U.S. federal courts, Morrison has generally closed the U.S. courts to foreign-cubed class actions.

Another promising avenue for litigating global mass disputes was international arbitration. A developing strategy was for plaintiffs who had signed form arbitration agreements to seek to compel arbitration on behalf of both themselves and others who had signed the same form of agreement. (Several arbitration associations have implemented specific rules for how class arbitrations should be conducted. Here is a link to the AAA Supplemental Rules for Class Arbitration). The Supreme Court put an end to this strategy when it decided the international price-fixing case, Stolt-Nielsen, S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 130 S. Ct. 1758 (2010). In Stolt-Nielsen, the Court held that a party to an arbitration agreement could not compel class-wide arbitration unless the parties had expressly agreed to allow class, rather than individual, arbitration.

In the human rights area, the U.S. Alien Tort Claims Act has increasingly been used as a tool to litigate international disputes involving alleged violations of international law over the past two decades. Several circuit courts of Appeals have even allowed actions under the ATCA to be brought against private corporations, under the theory that those corporations aided and abetted a foreign government or foreign official in committing human rights abuses. However, the Circuits split on the issue, and the Supreme Court accepted certiorari to resolve the split in the case of Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, No. 10-1491. Following an oral argument held last month, the Supreme Court issued an order directing the parties to submit supplemental briefing to address the extent to which the ATCA should permit the exercise of extraterritorial jurisdiction at all over acts that took place within a sovereign jurisdiction other than the United States. Questions posed during oral argument, especially by the conservative wing of the Court, suggest skepticism about the allowing U.S. Courts to adjudicate human rights disputes that have nothing to do with the United States.

At the same time that avenues for global mass redress in the U.S. Courts have been closing, doors have been opening in other parts of the world. Class action law continues to develop in Canada and Australia. Israel has a class action procedure that closely mirrors U.S. law. Dozens of other countries in all corners of the world now have procedures allowing at least some form of mass redress. A very recent example is a class action law enacted in Mexico that permits a form of collective litigation that, while quite different from class actions in the United States, provides express mechanisms for seeking collective redress. In 2006, the Netherlands passed a law that allows mass settlements of claims (although it does not provide a procedure for litigating contested class claims), and arguably allows residents of other EU countries to be included. In other countries, the lack of a specific class or collective action procedure has not kept courts from fashioning remedies for mass redress.

The continuing lack of a single global forum for litigating mass disputes and the proliferation of new procedures permitting collective litigation abroad, are likely to have at least one near term practical impact. That is, the development of areas of law dealing with the enforcement of foreign class or collective action judgments. This has already become a reality in a huge environmental contamination case involving the drilling operations of a formal Chevron subsidiary in Ecuador. In 2010, a court in Ecuador entered an $18 million judgment in the case, and proceedings are ongoing in both the U.S. courts and in international arbitration proceedings relating to the enforceability of the judgment.

In a related vein, U.S. courts increasingly find themselves adjudicating disputes under 28 U.S.C. § 1782, which allows litigants discovery in the United States for use in connection with foreign proceedings (see this recent Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision interpreting the statute).

What does this all mean for potential litigants in global disputes? For any company or even small business that does business internationally, these developments highlight the necessity of keeping up with the constant changes in local laws as well as international trends. The procedures that might have been applicable, and arguments that might have been persuasive a year before, may no longer be viable, but new avenues and theories will have almost certainly taken their place.

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The Jerusalem Times published an interesting op-ed article today praising a Tel Aviv court’s decision in a consumer class action.  The case arose out of allegations that the defendant had knowingly used a carcinogenic silicon compound to line its milk cartons. 

The class action was brought not on behalf of a class of persons alleged to have been physically harmed by the milk consumption, but rather on behalf of a class of consumers who would not have purchased the defendants’ product had they known about the potential dangers.   The article describes this consumer fraud theory as a “legal innovation” that was pivotal to the outcome in the face of the defendant’s argument that it should not be held liable because the plaintiff could not prove physical harm resulting from exposure to the silicon.  The article goes on to express the hope that the case will be a “watershed which will encourage further class action suits,” arguing that while there is a perceived abuse of class actions in the U.S., Israel suffers “from the opposite problem: not enough class action suits.”

Of course, the “legal innovation” described by the article is nothing new in the U.S.  Faced with the problem of being unable to prove injury or damages for a products liability claim on a class-wide basis, class action lawyers have often turned to consumer fraud theories, especially in recent cases brought against the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries.  My criticism of this tactic is that it is not well-suited to provide redress for those who truly suffered harm.  It seeks to compel the defendant to pay for its infraction, not for the benefit of those harmed by the dangerous product, but for an entirely different class of individuals who can claim at best that they were exposed to the danger (a fact which they would have remained blissfully ignorant but for the lawsuit).

In the Israeli case, the judge apparently found that consumers would not have purchased the defendants’ milk had they been apprised of all the facts.  If there truly were facts to support the conclusion that no reasonable consumer would have bought the product if the true facts had been disclosed, then maybe this is the right outcome.  But there are very few situations where this absolute conclusion is warranted.  Consumers buy products for any number of reasons, even products known to be dangerous or that have known negative health effects.  Tobacco is a clear example.  

Certainly, there is no justification for the kind of conduct as described in the article, and one could argue that the end justifies the means, but relying on a “the public wouldn’t have bought it if they had known it was dangerous” argument in what really should be products liability cases has always struck me as intellectually dishonest.  In these cases, the consumer fraud claim is little more than a pretext for imposing punishment for a bad act that lacks a clear harm or that has only individualized harms that don’t really meet the standards for class action treatment.  If a company is selling a dangerous product that causes physical harm, then tort law provides a civil remedy.  The fact that there may not be a collective remedy for those physical harms does not justify reliance on a legal fiction to create a means for collective redress on behalf of an over-inclusive class of people who weren’t truly harmed by defendant’s bad acts.  Perhaps better government enforcement, not more class action suits, is the answer.

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