PHOENIX — A federal appeals court has rejected a bid by Attorney General Mark Brnovich to undo a class-action settlement of a lawsuit over allegedly defective pressure cookers.
In a unanimous decision Thursday, a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals did not address Brnovich’s contention that the nationwide settlement is unfair to the vast majority of consumers who had purchased the product, including Arizona residents.
That deal reserves the lion’s share of the money for the attorneys who sued. And the best that most consumers will get is a coupon for a future purchase from the company and a one-year extension on their existing warranties — and only if they watch a company-produced video on pressure cooker safety.
But appellate Judge John Bush, writing for the court, concluded all those arguments about fairness from Brnovich are legally irrelevant. He said the attorney general has no legal standing to come in, after a deal was cut, and argue to have it nullified as unfair.
Assistant Attorney General O.H. Skinner, who presented the legal arguments, told Capitol Media Services that an appeal is being weighed — and not just in a bid to get a better settlement for those who bought the device.
He said the ruling, if left undisturbed, could undermine the practices of the attorney general’s office in interceding in other class-action lawsuits, particularly in consumer fraud cases, where it appears that the main beneficiaries are the attorneys who brought the claim and not the people who were actually harmed financially.
“We think that what we did here is the same as in innumerable consumer protection cases every day out of our office,” Skinner said. “We think that protecting consumers from class-action settlements where they don’t get any money is a core part of protecting consumers.”
The 2016 lawsuit filed in Ohio charges that certain pressure cookers manufactured by Tristar Products had defective lids that could open while the cookers were in use, exposing the user to possible injury from the hot, pressurized contents spilling out.
Bush said that after the first day of trial it appeared things were not going well for the plaintiffs. Even the trial judge said it was not obvious that a defect existed or that, even if it did, it made the company’s pressure cookers worthless.
That resulted in a settlement that covered not just those in the states where the original plaintiffs were from but also anyone in the country who had bought the items.
That settlement, according to the court, was worth about $1 million to consumers, primarily in the coupons and warranty extensions, and nearly $2 million in legal fees.
In fact, the vast majority of the 3.2 million people who purchased the pressure cooker nationwide — the number that wound up in Arizona is unknown — won’t even get the $73 coupons because they didn’t file a claim, either because they were unaware of the settlement or concluded the offer was not worth their time.
Only when the trial judge held a hearing to review the fairness did Brnovich file legal papers, along with the U.S. Department of Justice, arguing the settlement was unfair and should put more aside for those who bought the items. Rejected by the trial judge, Skinner filed an appeal, telling the judges that Arizona has a legitimate interest — and legitimate right — to intercede.
He said the state is acting to protect the interests of its residents who had purchased the pressure cookers but, under the terms approved by the trial court, are being denied compensation. Skinner also said the deal was worded in a way to deny not just financial compensation for an allegedly defective product but also to preclude lawsuits over actual injuries.
Bush, however, said the state had not shown any indirect effects on Arizona as a whole.
The judges were no more persuaded by arguments that the attorney general’s office regularly participates in class-action lawsuits to protect the interests of its residents, working for “improved settlement terms.”