Third Circuit dismisses drunk drivers' class action against breathalyzer maker

By Kyla Asbury | Dec 19, 2014

PHILADELPHIA (Legal Newsline) - An appeals court has ruled that the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against Draeger Safety Diagnostics Inc. failed to adequately plead a plausible claim.

The panel concluded that they affirmed the district court's decision to dismiss the class action complaint, though for reasons that differ in part from those of the district court, according to an opinion filed Dec. 9 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The appeal was argued on Nov. 20.

Circuit judges D. Brooks Smith, Thomas M. Hardiman and Maryanne Trump Barry voted in the majority, with Barry authoring the opinion.

"Plaintiffs contend that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not preclude their claims because they were not parties to the Chun case and are not seeking to overturn it or their DWI convictions," the opinion states. "We agree with the District Court that Rooker-Feldman precludes the exercise of jurisdiction over plaintiffs’ design defect claim, but conclude that their fraud claim does not fall within its scope."

The plaintiffs, Bobby Johnson and Edwin Aguaiza, filed their class action lawsuit in April 2013 in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.

The plaintiffs were arrested for suspected drunk driving, Johnson in February 2010 and Aguaiza in June 2011. Both submitted to breath tests administered using Draeger's Alcotest 7110 MKIII-C device, which reported a blood alcohol level about 0.08 percent.

The men pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated, resulting in suspension of their driving privileges and the imposition of fines.

Draeger moved to dismiss the class action based on Rooker-Feldman and argued as well that the plaintiffs had failed to please the requisite elements of both their product liability and fraud claims.

The district court granted the motion.

The source of the injury targeted by the plaintiffs’ New Jersey Product Liability Act claim is the state courts’ evidentiary rulings in their DWI cases, not Draeger, the court ruled.

"Plaintiffs have alleged that they were tested using a device that could not be fully calibrated, and that based on the (allegedly erroneous) Alcotest results, they faced 'certain conviction,' suffered physical and emotional injuries, and, in Johnson’s case, had to decide whether to resign or be terminated from his job," the opinion says.

These injuries can be traced directly to the state court’s decision in each plaintiff’s case that his Alcotest reading was admissible, the court ruled.

It was not Draeger’s design, then, that caused plaintiffs’ injuries; it was the state court’s acceptance of the Alcotest as scientifically reliable, and of its consequent admissibility determination, according to the opinion.

The fraud claim is different.

"In essence, the claim was that the plaintiff was 'forced to litigate in a rigged system,'" the opinion states.

"Applying the four-part Rooker-Feldman test, the court concluded that it was undisputed that the first and third requirements were met – plaintiffs had lost in state court and their DWI convictions were rendered before they filed their federal suit," the opinion states. "With respect to the remaining requirements – that plaintiffs were complaining of injuries caused by the state-court judgments and that they invited review and rejection of those judgments – the court concluded that it was the legal framework established in Chun, not the purportedly erroneous test results or Ryser’s statements, that caused plaintiffs’ alleged injuries."

The district court held that the plaintiffs were seeking rulings that would prevent the enforcement of or render ineffectual the state court orders underlying plaintiffs' convictions.

"Plaintiffs come close to adequately alleging the falsity of the scientific-reliability statements when they aver that it is 'impossible' to conclude that the Alcotest is scientifically reliable because that would require it to yield the same results upon multiple tests and no tests are available for the 'volume, blowing time, and flow rate,'" the opinion states.

But, the panel concluded, even taking as true that Hansueli Ryser, the vice president of Draeger, is a "highly trained scientist" who grasps the concept of scientific reliability, plaintiffs' allegations are simply not enough to permit an inference that Ryser’s statement that he believed the overall instrument to be scientifically reliable was false because certain sub-parameters could not be routinely tested, or to infer further that he believed his statements to be false.

The plaintiffs were represented by Ashton E. Thomas of Ashton E. Thomas Attorney at Law in Elizabeth, N.J.

Draeger was represented by Rachel J. Gallagher, Stephen M. Orlofsky and Terry M. Henry of Blank Rome in Princeton, N.J.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit case number: 13-4541

From Legal Newsline: Kyla Asbury can be reached at

More News

The Record Network