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Williamson v. S.A. Gear Co., Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

June 7, 2018

STEVE WILLIAMSON and RHONDA CHRISTINE LEMASTER, On Behalf of Themselves and All Others Similarly Situated, Plaintiffs,
v.
S.A. GEAR COMPANY, INC., AUTOZONE, INC., AUTOZONE PARTS, INC., and AUTOZONE STORES, INC., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          STACI M. YANDLE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiffs Steve Williamson and Rhonda Christine LeMaster, individually and on behalf of all similarly situated persons, filed a 15-Count Amended Class Action Complaint against Defendants S.A. Gear Company, Inc. ("S.A. Gear"), Autozone, Inc., Autozone Parts, Inc., and Autozone Stores, Inc. (the "Autozone Defendants"), alleging Defendants manufactured, distributed, advertised, and/or sold defective timing chain tensioners.

         Now pending before the Court is Plaintiffs' Motion for Class Certification (Doc. 122). Defendants filed Responses in opposition (Docs. 132, 134). For the following reasons, Plaintiffs' Motion for Class Certification is DENIED.

         BACKGROUND

         This case involves an aftermarket timing chain tensioner ("the Part" or "Part 9422") for Chrysler/Dodge 2.7 L V-6 engines that S.A. Gear supplied to Autozone. Autozone has sold over 40, 000 units of the Part since 2009. Plaintiffs allege that the placement of an O-ring groove and the O-ring itself are too high on the tensioner and well outside of Chrysler/Dodge/OEM specifications. Plaintiffs further allege that the Part does not fit properly in the Chrysler engine.

         Part 9422 has been manufactured by three different manufactures (Doc. 135-5, at p. 29). Top Line has manufactured the Part since August 2013 (Doc. 135-6, at p. 73). Autozone does not design or manufacture the Part (Doc. 135-4, ¶ 3). Rather, S.A. Gear supplies the Part to Autozone under a vendor agreement. Id. Only Zan-Power Co., Ltd. (“Zan-Power”), manufactured the Part with the external O-ring in the location that Plaintiffs claim makes the Part defective (Doc. 133-8, at ¶ 5). S.A. Gear purchased the part from Zan-Power from December 2010 to August 2013, and sold approximately 15, 550 of the units manufactured by Zan-Power to various customers, including AutoZone (Doc. 133-8, at ¶ 6). Autozone sells the Part under its Duralast brand to do-it-yourself ("DIY") customers at Autozone's retail locations and to commercial accounts (Doc. 135-4, at ¶¶ 7-10).

         S.A. Gear can differentiate between Part 9422 as supplied by the three manufacturers based on characteristics such as the “coloration of the metal, ” (Doc. 135-6, at pp. 96, 102-04), and when the Part was shipped (Doc. 135-10). The individual packaging does not identify the original manufacturer (Doc. 133-8, at ¶ 7). It is not possible to identify a particular Part as having been manufactured by Zan-Power without physically inspecting and measuring the Part, which cannot be done while it is installed in an engine. Id. at ¶ 8.

         In 2010, Plaintiff Rhonda LeMaster purchased a 2002 Chrysler Sebring on Craigslist for $3, 000 (Doc. 132-1, at pp. 12, 17). Plaintiff Steve Williamson performed maintenance and repairs to the vehicle, including routine oil changes. Williamson's first substantial work on the Sebring was replacing the water pump and the Part in October 2012 (Doc. 133-4, at p. 54). He decided to replace the Part while replacing the water pump because that was the recommended procedure. Id. at p. 71. Williamson purchased the Part from his local Autozone store. Id. at pp. 81-81.

         At the time Williamson replaced the Part, the 10-year old Sebring had 156, 000 miles on it. Id. at p. 55. Williamson replaced the timing chain tensioner without assessing the wear on the other timing components. Id. at pp. 70-71. After installing the Part, he drove the Sebring for approximately 170 miles. Id. at pp. 93-94.

         During his deposition, Williamson testified that the car sounded okay at first, but he began noticing a tapping sound at idle. Id. He concluded the Part was not “holding pressure” because he was getting “chain chatter” when the car was at idle. Id. Williamson removed the Part, returned it to Autozone, and purchased the same replacement Part. Id. at pp. 93-94, 96. After installing the second tensioner, Williamson was able to drive approximately 400 miles before he began noticing issues.

         In a letter to Autozone, Williamson stated that the two Parts he purchased and installed “failed in different manners.” Id. at p. 68; Doc. 133-4, Ex. 3. He explained that he was able to drive for “two days and 170 miles” with the first Part and “5 days and over 400 miles” with the second Part. Id. He also reported that he was driving with the second Part when he heard a tapping sound that “gradually became more serious” before he pulled off the highway and the engine stalled. Id.

         Williamson is unable to say whether the existing tensioner he removed from the Sebring's engine was the original tensioner that was sold with the car. Id. at p. 210. LeMaster has no knowledge about the repair or maintenance history of the vehicle prior to her purchasing it in 2010 (Doc. 133-1, at pp. 36-37). Neither Plaintiff researched the Part or visited Defendants' respective websites before purchasing and installing it in the Sebring (Doc. 133-4, at p. 222, Doc. 133-1, at pp. 41-42).

         LeMaster has no personal or independent knowledge about the alleged defect in the Part (Doc. 133-1, at p. 35). She was not involved in selecting the various auto parts or installing them in the Sebring in the fall of 2012. Id. at p. 51. She has never paid any money out of pocket for the repairs Plaintiffs claim are the result of the allegedly defective part. Id. at p. 62.

         Autozone provides a 90 day warranty on the Part, under which it will refund the purchase price or replace the Part, “no questions asked” (Doc. 135-4, at ¶¶ 5-6). It does not track the reasons for returns made under its warranty. Id. at ¶¶ 11-13. Customers can also submit money damage claims to the vendor. Id. at ¶ 14.

         Between 2009 and 2015, approximately 15 DIY customers, including Williamson, submitted money damage claims to S.A. Gear for the Part via the Autozone claim process (Doc. 135-3, at ¶ 7). During that same period, Autozone received 146 claims for the Part, of which 15 were from DIY unit sales (Doc. 135-3, at ¶ 16). The reasons for the claims varied from failure to activate the tensioner properly, to the tensioner being full of oil sludge or debris, to improper installation. Id. at ¶ 17. A search of the claim notes for Part 9422 received between 2009 and 2016 reveals no claims alleging a defect based on the O-ring placement. Id. at ¶ 20.

         Along with their motion, Plaintiffs submitted two consumer complaints that were publicly posted on the portion of Advanced Auto Parts' website selling Part 9422:

Defective batch cost me over $2, 000.00
PROS: None use OE
CONS: Poor Quality
BEST USES: Paper weight Comments about S.A. Gear Tensioner Crank to Cam: Many of these seemed to have been manufactured with the pressure o-ring groove in the wrong location causing o-ring to shear off. Timing chain guide failed from excess slack as well as eventual failure of water pump and entire chain. After three of these were ...

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