Avery decision raises the bar for class action suits

The Madison County Record Nov. 26, 2011, 6:25am

Imagine a class action suit claiming damages on behalf of millions of plaintiffs who had suffered no injury.

Imagine a class action suit applying the consumer protection laws of one state to residents of 47 others.

Imagine a class action suit claiming breach of contract on the part of an insurer who consistently complied with the letter and spirit of the terms outlined in its policies.

Surely a case that shoddy would never be certified as a class action, much less be adjudicated – much less languish in legal limbo for more than a decade.

But it was certified, and it was adjudicated, and it did clog our courts for 15 years.

"It" was Avery v. State Farm.

The case was certified as a class action in Williamson County Circuit Court in 1997. Policyholders from 48 states charged that State Farm's practice of specifying the use of non-original equipment – i.e., generic aftermarket parts – in the repair of collision-damaged vehicles violated the terms of its contracts.

Two years later, a jury decided in favor of the plaintiffs. Two years after that, the Fifth District Court of Appeals upheld the decision.

Then, in 2005, eight years after certification, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously reversed the lower court's $1.2 billion award, finding that the case had no merit.

The justices concluded plaintiffs had suffered no harm, the class was too diverse to warrant certification, consumer protection laws of one state cannot be applied to residents of others, and State Farm had met the obligations of its contracts.

But Avery dragged on for another six years, until this month when the State Supreme Court denied a motion from plaintiffs lawyers to reconsider its 2005 decision.

It's hard to imagine a case this shoddy going so far. Thanks to the precedent set by the High Court's decision in Avery v. State Farm, it is now near impossible.

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