Gold Kist, Inc., petitions this Court for a writ of mandamus directing the trial court to set aside its order designating a class and certifying the plaintiffs' action as a class action. The petition is granted in part and denied in part.
The record presented to us indicates the following: Gold Kist is an agricultural cooperative engaged in the business of selling different kinds of animal feed to its farmer members throughout the Southeast. Gold
The plaintiffs sued Gold Kist as individuals and also moved to certify their action as a class action on behalf of "all persons or entities who at any time purchased feed from Gold Kist's Guntersville [feed mill] and who paid for feed they did not receive by virtue of their feed being augured off by Gold Kist." The plaintiffs later filed an amended complaint in which they stated in the third paragraph that they were suing Gold Kist as individuals and "on behalf of a class of Alabama residents who, through transactions occurring at any time up to June 1, 1993, but not after, purchased and had bulk feed delivered to them from a Gold Kist plant in Alabama." (Emphasis added.) They sought an accounting and sought damages for breach of contract and fraudulent suppression and sought damages under the doctrine of unjust enrichment. However, the plaintiffs alleged in the fifth paragraph of their amended complaint that Gold Kist had for over 30 years engaged in a practice of loading its customers' trucks at Gold Kist mills in such a manner as to provide less bulk feed than they had purchased. This practice, the plaintiffs alleged, resulted in over charges to many of Gold Kist's customers over the years. Plaintiffs moved to have the trial court designate a class and to certify the action as a class action under Rule 23, Ala. R.Civ.P. Gold Kist opposed the motion, arguing that the plaintiffs' claims were actually based on allegations that Gold Kist had engaged in a pattern or practice of off-loading its own trucks in such a manner as to deliver less bulk feed to the customers' farms, and arguing that the plaintiffs had failed to establish the prerequisites to class action certification under Rule 23. After a hearing, the trial court entered an order specifically defining a class to include Gold Kist customers who had had feed delivered to their farms in Gold Kist trucks. That order provided, in pertinent part, as follows:
An order certifying an action as a class action is subject to review by way of a petition for a writ of mandamus. Ex parte Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Alabama, 582 So.2d 469 (Ala.1991). However, mandamus
Rule 23(a) provides four prerequisites to bringing a class action: 1) the class must be so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable; 2) there must be questions of law or fact common to the class; 3) the claims or defenses of the representative parties must be typical of the claims or defenses of the class; and 4) it must appear that the representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class.
Rule 23(b) provides as follows:
In order to obtain class certification, the plaintiff must establish all of the criteria set forth in Rule 23(a) and one of the criteria set forth in Rule 23(b). Marshall Durbin & Co. of Jasper, Inc. v. Jasper Utilities Board, 437 So.2d 1014 (Ala.1983); Rowan v. First Bank of Boaz, 476 So.2d 44 (Ala.1985); however, class certification is generally left to the sound discretion of the trial court. Ex parte Hayes, 579 So.2d 1343 (Ala.1991).
After carefully reviewing the petition, the record, and the briefs, we cannot say that Gold Kist has demonstrated a clear legal right to an order setting aside the trial court's order certifying this action as a class action. The record indicates that the trial court based its order, at least in part, on a number of depositions that had been taken in a previously dismissed federal action filed against Gold Kist by two of the plaintiffs, as well as on Gold Kist's answers to interrogatories that had been filed in that action. The depositions taken in the federal case, which were admitted into evidence in this case without objection by Gold Kist, are not included in the record presented to this Court;
We note Gold Kist's contention that it may have an affirmative defense (particularly, a statute of limitations defense) to the contract claim of one of the named plaintiffs and that it may also have certain other defenses unique to another (i.e., defenses not generally applicable to the class). However, contrary to Gold Kist's contention, the possible existence of a defense unique to the claims of one or more of the named plaintiffs, although certainly relevant to the certification decision (i.e., relevant with respect to questions of commonality and typicality of the named plaintiffs' claims, as well as to questions of the overall adequacy of the plaintiffs' representation), did not require the trial court to deny certification. See 1 Newberg On Class Actions § 3.16 (3d ed. 1992) ("The class representative need not show a probability of success on the merits to maintain a class action. Some courts have held that a plaintiff's claim cannot be typical if it has some flaw not present in some or all of the claims of the class members, but most have held that an alleged defect in the plaintiff's claim, such as might be raised in a personal defense, must be resolved in a trial on the merits and will not preclude the maintenance [of] a class action"). See, also, Ex parte Hayes, supra, at 1345, wherein this Court stated that if a class representative ultimately cannot protect the interests of the class members, the running of the statutory limitations period is tolled so that an unnamed member of the class may either intervene or be named individually.
However, we do agree with Gold Kist's contention that the class designated by the trial court was overly broad. Although, as previously noted, we are not privy to most of the evidence that was before the trial court, the transcript of the hearing nonetheless contains a concession by one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs that he had no evidence tending to show that any Alabama resident had been overcharged for feed purchased from the Jasper and Guntersville poultry feed mills. This concession was consistent with the motion for class action certification, which identified the class as "all persons or entities who at any time purchased feed from Gold Kist's Guntersville plant and who paid for feed that they did not receive by virtue of their feed being augured off by Gold Kist." Therefore, there was no evidentiary basis for designating the class so broadly as to include every Alabama resident who had, before June 1, 1993, purchased bulk feed from "a Gold Kist plant in Alabama."
Furthermore, Ala.Code 1975, § 7-2-725, provides that "[a]n action for breach of any contract for sale must be commenced within four years after the cause of action has accrued." This section applies to "transactions in goods," § 7-2-102, and animal feed appears to fall within the definition of "goods" set out in § 7-2-105. However, § 7-2-102 provides that Article 2 does not "impair or repeal any statute regulating sales to ... farmers." Therefore, although denial of class action certification was not required on the ground that Gold Kist may have a meritorious statute of limitations defense to the contract claim of at least one of the named
Finally, we note Gold Kist's contention that the allegedly improper off-loading practice could not have damaged those customers who had used their own trucks to pick up bulk feed at the Guntersville feed mill. However, the plaintiffs state on page five of their brief that "[e]ven when the class members used their own trucks to deliver the feed, they were still deceived and defrauded by [Gold Kist's] practice, pattern, and policy of charging the class members for feed they did not receive." We have not been presented with enough information concerning the loading procedure at the Guntersville feed mill to know which of the parties is correct. We can only say that if the evidence supports Gold Kist's contention in this respect, then the class needs to be further limited to those Alabama residents who purchased bulk feed from the Guntersville feed mill and had that feed delivered to their farms in Gold Kist trucks.
For the foregoing reasons, the writ is denied with respect to Gold Kist's request for an order directing the trial court to decertify the class action. However, the trial court is hereby directed to set aside its class designation and to limit the class to those Alabama residents who purchased bulk feed from the Guntersville feed mill, until such time as the plaintiffs broaden their request for class designation by amending their motion and make a sufficient evidentiary showing that other Gold Kist feed mills were involved in the allegedly improper off-loading practice. The trial court is further directed to determine the applicable statute of limitations with respect to the contract claim and to determine whether the alleged improper off-loading practice could have damaged those customers who have used their own trucks to pick up bulk feed at the Guntersville feed mill. After it has made these determinations, the trial court should further reconsider its class designation and define the class accordingly.
PETITION GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART.
SHORES, STEAGALL, KENNEDY and INGRAM, JJ., concur.
ALMON, J., concurs in the result.