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In re General Motors Corp. Pick-Up Truck Fuel Tank Products Liability Litigation

January 14, 1998


On Appeal From the United States District Court For the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (MDL 961) Argued: July 25, 1997

Before: Becker, Mansmann, Circuit Judges, and Hoeveler, District Judge.*fn1

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Becker, Circuit Judge.


This is a sequel to our opinion in In re General Motors Corp. Pick-Up Truck Fuel Tank Prod. Liab. Litig., 55 F.3d 768 (3d Cir.), cert. denied sub nom. General Motors Corp. v. French, ___ U.S. ___, 116 S.Ct. 88 (1995) [hereinafter GM I], in which we held that the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania had erred in certifying a nationwide settlement class of General Motors ("GM") truck owners who sought damages and injunctive relief as the result of the allegedly defective design of the fuel system in certain GM Trucks, which is said to have created a high risk of fire following side collisions. The Eastern District of Pennsylvania litigation was made up of a large number of cases transferred to that court by the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation ("JPML") pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1407 for consolidated pretrial proceedings (the "MDL cases"). In GM I, we vacated the class certification order and set aside the settlement but left open the possibility that the defect in the certification procedure might be cured, the class certified, and a revised settlement approved on remand. However, instead of proceeding further in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the parties to the settlement repaired to the 18th Judicial District for the Parish of Iberville, Louisiana, where a similar suit had been pending, restructured their deal, and submitted it to the Louisiana court, which ultimately approved it.

The action before us is an appeal from an order of the district court denying emergency applications by a number of GM truck owners who were members of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania class for an injunction against further class action proceedings in the Louisiana case, White v. General Motors Corp., No. 42,865 Division "D" (18th Judicial District, Louisiana). At the time of the district court's order, the Louisiana state court was considering whether to approve a settlement between GM and a certified settlement class of GM pickup truck owners, though it stayed entry of its final order until the district court could rule on the request for injunction.

The Louisiana settlement class is composed of persons who purchased over a fifteen-year period certain mid- and full-size GM pickup trucks with model C, K, R, or V chassis with fuel tanks located outside the frame rails. Like the federal plaintiffs, the Louisiana plaintiffs allege that the fuel system design leads to an increased risk of fire following side collisions. Appellants are members of that settlement class, and none of them has chosen to opt out of that class.

Following the conditional certification of the settlement class by the Louisiana court, the present appellants, truck owners who were never parties but were successful objectors to the proposed Eastern District of Pennsylvania settlement, moved to intervene in the on-going proceedings in the MDL cases and requested the court to enjoin the Louisiana state court from considering the settlement agreement before it. The district court, which at that time had 277 plaintiffs with cases pending before it, denied appellants' motion for intervention as untimely, and also denied the motion for injunctive relief. Appellants then filed Emergency Motions with this Court requesting injunctions against the Louisiana court proceedings. We denied those motions and ordered full briefing. Thereafter, the Louisiana state court entered final judgment approving the settlement. The present appellants also filed notices of appeal from that judgment in the Louisiana appellate system, so that they were proceeding simultaneously with their appeal from the district court's denial of their motion for injunction and their Louisiana appeal.

Appellants' claim centers on their argument that the Louisiana settlement is little changed from the one previously rejected by us in GM I. Accordingly, they view the settlement as an "end run" around, and aflagrant violation of, the jurisdiction of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania MDL court to which we had remanded the case for further proceedings. Although the procedure followed by appellees gives us pause, the precedent of this Court and the Supreme Court compels us to disagree with appellants and to affirm the district court's decision on several grounds.

Because the attempt to enjoin the Louisiana court proceedings is functionally an attempt to enjoin the individual plaintiffs and class members from proceeding there, we analyze it in those terms. Viewed from that perspective, neither the district court nor this Court has personal jurisdiction over the almost 5.7 million absentee plaintiffs who are (1) not before the district court, (2) have no minimum contacts with Pennsylvania, and (3) have not consented to personal jurisdiction. Second, now that the Louisiana court has entered a final judgment on the settlement, our review is barred by both the Full Faith and Credit Act and the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which prevents intermediate federal appellate review of state court decisions. Finally, appellants' requested injunction does not fall under any of the three exceptions to the Anti-Injunction Act, which authorize a federal court to stay state court proceedings only when "expressly authorized by an Act of Congress, or where necessary in aid of its jurisdiction, or to protect or effectuate its judgments." 28 U.S.C.§ 2283.


A. The MDL Proceedings

Although the background facts have been set forth in greater detail in our first opinion in this case, see GM I, 55 F.3d at 779-83, we rescribe those facts necessary to our present decision. Between 1973 and 1991, GM sold over 6.3 million pickup trucks with fuel tanks mounted outside of the frame rails. These trucks are allegedly defective because they are subject to an increased risk offire in the event of a side collision. In late October 1992, counsel filed claims on behalf of plaintiffs in 26 federal courts and 11 state courts, including Louisiana. On February 26, 1993, the JPML transferred all related federal actions to the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania for coordinated discovery and pre-trial proceedings pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1407.

On March 5, 1993, pursuant to an order of the transferee Judge, plaintiffs filed a Consolidated Amended Class Action Complaint with 277 named plaintiffs seeking equitable relief and damages. Specifically, the complaint alleged violations of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 2301 et seq., the Lanham Trademark Act, 15 U.S.C.

§ 1125(a), as well as a variety of state common law claims including negligence, strict liability, fraud, unfair practices, and breach of written and implied warranty.

Also on March 5, 1993, plaintiffs filed a consolidated motion for nationwide class certification. The district court set July 19, 1993, as the date for the hearing on this motion. Discovery proceeded, focusing on the certification issue, while the parties began exploring the possibility of settlement. By the date of the hearing, the parties had reached a settlement in principle and petitioned the court for approval. Without prejudice to GM's opposition to class certification, the parties agreed to certification of a settlement class of GM pickup truck owners.

While the provisional settlement included many detailed terms, the most important term provided for a coupon with limited transferability and redeemability provisions. Basically, class members would receive a $1,000 coupon, redeemable toward the purchase of any new GMC truck or Chevrolet light duty truck for a fifteen month period. Under its terms, the approved settlement would have had no effect on any accrued or future claims for personal injury or death, and would not have affected the rights of class members to participate in any future remedial action that might be required by the National Traffic and Motor Safety Act of 1966, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1381 et seq.

The district court reviewed the substantive terms of the settlement, and on July 20, 1993, preliminarily determined that the settlement was reasonable. The court also provisionally certified the class of GM truck owners as a settlement class pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(3). The class included all persons and entities (except for residents of the State of Texas) who had purchased in the United States and were owners as of July 19, 1993, of (1) a 1973-1986 model year GM full-size pickup truck or chassis cab of the "C" or "K" series; or (2) a 1987-1991 model year GM full-size or chassis cab of the "R" or "V" series.

In response to the notices mailed to almost 5.7 million registered truck owners and published nationally, over 5,200 truck owners elected to opt out of the class, and approximately 6,500 truck owners objected to the proceeded with discovery pursuant to our opinion. Prior to the order giving rise to this appeal, the litigation in the district court had been proceeding in accordance with Pretrial Order No. 12, issued on April 4, 1996, allowing for supplemental discovery relating to class certification, liability, and damages. There are approximately 277 named plaintiffs left in the MDL case, none of whom are appellants here. Moreover, according to the district court, no settlement is pending, and ...

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