City Passes Ban on Happy Meals

We haven't weighed in yet on the latest crazy development in the food world, that attack by some of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on "Happy Meals."  And no, this is not sour grapes for the Giants having beaten the Phillies. The Board of Supervisors recently voted to ban meals packaged with toys unless the meal contains fruits and vegetables, is less than 600 calories and is very low in fat and sodium, and, presumably, doesn't taste good and won't make your kid happy. 

So much is wrong with that, it's hard to know where to start. 

It undercuts the rights of consumers to choose. If more people wanted these kinds of meals, more fast food restaurants would sell them. (You can get carrots and milk with a Happy Meal by the way.) That's the way a free economy is supposed to work. San Francisco (or at least a majority of the Board) is simply taking choice away from consumers, the right to eat or drink what he or she chooses.  Apparently, these Board members are part of that new government mindset in which individuals are incapable of making decisions for themselves.  Only the government can make those choices.
 

But, it's about obesity in children, argues the Board.  We say parents, not politicians, should decide what their children eat. So the impact on kids is actually another reason this bill is a bad idea, an unwise and unprecedented governmental intrusion into parental responsibilities and family choices.  It is a parents' right and responsibility — not the government's — to make their own decisions and to choose what’s right for their children.

On this basis, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom wisely vetoed the ban on Happy Meals, but the Board of Supervisors voted 8-3 just this week to override Newsom’s veto.

Put aside the policy debate, one of the most troubling aspects is the quote from a sponsor that this bill was part of "an agenda of food justice.”  Seen in this light, the bill is part of a broader legal campaign that will include litigation against food companies.  Indeed, as we have posted on before, the so-called Center for Science in the Public Interest has threatened to  file a lawsuit against McDonald’s, attacking the company's marketing of Happy Meals. In our view, the CSPI needs to worry more about junk science than junk food.

 

Update on Deepwater Horizon MDL

Judge Carl Barbier recently presided over the November status conference in the MDL involving the Gulf oil spill litigation.  In re: Oil Spill by the Oil Rig “Deepwater Horizon” in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, MDL No. 2179 (E.D. La.).

Liaison counsel reported on the number of cases, now up to roughly 300, and on the status of the related 17 or so cases in state courts. 

A major topic was the entry of an order regarding preservation of evidence recovered from the seabed or otherwise. The order also noted the equipment related to the Deepwater Horizon explosion that must be turned over to the government's Joint Investigation Team as it is recovered. The government reported that forensic testing had begun on the Blow Out Preventer, with a report estimated to be available in March, 2011. Counsel for the Justice Department also reported to the Court that a sample of cement from the site had been turned over to the Marine Board and was being held in a climate-controlled area while the parties discuss protocols for physical testing of the cement. (The Marine Board is the joint investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, & Enforcement.)

Defense counsel reported that the Gulf Coast Claims Facility  (GCCF) has paid out nearly $1.9 billion in claims so far, to 395,000 claimants, with about 150,000 other claims awaiting additional documentation.

The deadline for submission of Plaintiff Profile Forms is this month, and it is expected that the Forms will be used to help identify appropriate test cases.  The first trial slot is for February, 2012.

The parties reported that written discovery and depositions will begin in January, 2011.

The next status conference was set for December 17th.

 

  

Food Safety Bill Advances in Senate

The U.S. Senate last week voted to move forward to the final debate on legislation aimed at amending regulatory controls on both domestic and foreign food supplies.  The Senate voted 74-25 to invoke cloture on S. 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act.  The bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and a bipartisan group of 20 other Senators.

The procedural vote was designed to open the final round of the Senate's food safety debate, although it is unclear wither the Senate Democratic leaders will allow additional amendments to the bill on the Senate floor.  Some Senate Republicans have urged that they be allowed unlimited amendments during floor debate leading up to the vote on final passage.  While some amendments may be designed to strengthen the FDA inspection process of both domestic and foreign food production facilities, one highly controversial step would be if Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. again offers an amendment to the bill that would impose a federal ban on the
use of bisphenol A in children's food packaging. 

That position does not hold substantial support in the Senate, and her shrill insistence on the ban delayed Senate action on a much larger and more comprehensive legislative package.  Indeed, a member of her own party, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), criticized her in a public letter for holding up this bill.  Other key remaining issues include treatment of small farmers, and the role, if any, of local and state food inspections.

The bill would give the FDA new authority to track and halt contaminated food coming from domestic and foreign suppliers. Food facilities would be required to provide additional information to the FDA, submit to more frequent inspections and to develop their own tracking systems. The agency would also get new mandatory recall authority over tainted food, and additional authority to deal with misbranded or adulterated products.

The House passed a companion bill, H.R. 2749, the Food Safety Enhancement Act, by a vote of 283-142, in July 2009.  The typical conference committee to iron out differences may be an issue given the lateness in the lame-duck session in Congress. It is possible the House could vote to accept the Senate version, if it indeed passes.

There are about 76 million cases of food-borne illnesses every year in the U.S., leading to 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, according to the CDC.

 

Update on Jurisdiction Cases Pending in Supreme Court

We alerted readers recently that the Supreme Court had granted review in two product liability cases that raise cutting edge personal jurisdiction issues that may not only impact foreign manufacturers but and may also alter due process/personal jurisdiction jurisprudence generally. See J. McIntyre Machinery Ltd. v. Nicastro, U.S., No. 09-1343 (certiorari petition granted 9/28/10); Goodyear Luxembourg Tires SA v. Brown, U.S., No. 10-76 (certiorari petition granted 9/28/10).

Personal jurisdiction, of course, addresses the reach of the court’s power over a party, and without such jurisdiction, any ruling by the court is not binding on the party. Plaintiff lawyers focus on personal jurisdiction as part of the equation where they can sue; defendants as part of where they can be sued properly. As a very general matter, a defendant can only be sued where it has sufficient minimum contacts with the state such that a suit there does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.

The issue framed in Nicastro is: Whether, consistent with the Due Process Clause and pursuant to the stream-of-commerce theory, a state may exercise in personam jurisdiction over a foreign manufacturer when the manufacturer targets the general, overall U.S. market for the sale of its product and that product is purchased by a forum state consumer. The corresponding issue in Brown is: Whether a foreign corporation is subject to general personal jurisdiction, on causes of action not arising out of or related to any contacts between it and the forum state, merely because other entities distribute in the forum state products placed in the stream of commerce by the defendant.

"Stream of commerce" personal jurisdiction, debated frequently in the lower courts, if recognized by the Supreme Court, might allow any state to assume jurisdiction over any product manufacturer whose product found its way into the state, no matter how many independent, separate distributors the product had passed through in separate legal transactions. The original stream of commerce idea had included the element of a manufacturer's expectation that its products will be purchased in the specific forum state. Many foreign and out-of-state manufacturers reasonably should know that their products are distributed through a system that might result in sales in any given state. Should that be enough? Readers may recall that the Supreme Court took a look at "stream of commerce" jurisdiction over 20 years ago, and split with no majority decision. But a plurality rejected the "stream of commerce" concept in Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court of California, 480 U.S. 102 (1987).

The foreign companies appealing the two state court rulings in two product liability cases recently filed merits briefs. See J.  McIntyre Machinery Ltd. v. Nicastro, No. 09-1343 (U.S. brief submitted 11/12/10); Goodyear Luxembourg Tires SA v. Brown,  No. 10-76 (U.S. brief submitted 11/12/10). There's a link to the Goodyear brief from the ABA Supreme Court Preview, and the McIntyre brief. Also, amici curiae filed briefs, including PLAC, Dow Chemical Canada ULC, the former ATLA now know as American Association for Justice, the Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America, and  the Organization for International Investment and Association of International Automobile Manufacturers Inc. 

In the NJ case, the defendant asks how a “new reality” of “a contemporary international economy” permits a state to exercise in personam jurisdiction over a foreign manufacturer pursuant to the stream of commerce theory solely because the manufacturer targets the US market for the sale of its product and the product is purchased by a forum state consumer?  The petitioner argues that the analysis in Justice O’Connor’s concurring opinion in Asahi is the better view; first, it embodies the requirement of active engagement, of personal agency, that the Supreme Court has made the centerpiece of its formulations of personal jurisdiction limits under the Constitution. Second, it avoids the subjectivity that inheres in the test of mere awareness advanced by
Justice Brennan on the other side of the Asahi split. A concrete formulation is especially valuable in giving out-of-state actors the fair notice that the Court  has  deemed essential in allowing persons to conform their behavior to avoid, if they choose, the possibility of being haled into the courts of a state.  A defendant must intentionally act and direct that action at, and sufficiently in, the very state that seeks to exercise power over that person. Only through purposeful availment a producer will have a fair opportunity to conform its conduct so as to avoid state power if the producer chooses. To predicate jurisdiction on anything less leads to a rule where every seller of chattels would in effect appoint the chattel his agent for service of process and his amenability to suit would travel with the chattel.

 
The Goodyear brief notes that, unlike specific jurisdiction—which inherently must adapt to the permutations raised by varying claims—general jurisdiction, which does not vary from claim to claim, is more susceptible to precise rules. Indeed, one of its primary functions is to provide a certain and predictable place where a person can be reached by those having claims against him. No Supreme Court decisions have held that a manufacturer’s mere participation in the stream of
commerce could create general jurisdiction wherever the manufacturer’s products were distributed. To the contrary, most courts have repeatedly indicated that injecting a product, even in substantial volume, into a forum’s stream of commerce, without more, does not support general jurisdiction. General jurisdiction based on the stream of commerce theory violates traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice because essentially universal jurisdiction would exist in every state’s courts over every significant seller of goods, foreign or domestic. Because general jurisdiction must be justified solely by reference to the relationship between the state and the defendant, that relationship must be so significant — sufficiently substantial and of such a nature — as to give the state a basis for global judicial authority over all of the defendant’s conduct, wherever it occurs.
 

The Supreme Court has set argument in the two cases for Jan. 11, 2011. They will be argued separately.

 

Lone Pine Order Adopted in Avandia MDL

In the right case, we are big fans of the "Lone Pine" order as a tool of case management.  Named for Lore v. Lone Pine Corp., No. L-33606-85, 1986 WL 637507 (N.J.Super. Ct. Law Div. Nov. 18, 1986), Lone Pine orders are designed to handle the complex issues and potential burdens on the parties and the court in mass tort and toxic tort litigation. Acuna v. Brown & Root Inc., 200 F.3d 335, 340 (5th Cir.2000).   The term refers to case management orders that require the plaintiffs to make a showing regarding causation, injury, and/or damages to demonstrate, typically at an early stage, some minimal level of evidentiary support for the key components of their claims which will be in dispute.

While the 1986 New Jersey Superior Court case involved traditional toxic tort claims, the device has gotten good use in drug cases as well.  E.g., In re Vioxx Products Liab. Litig., 2010 WL 2802352 (5th Cir. July 16, 2010). After a tentative settlement was reached in the Vioxx litigation, the MDL court entered several pre-trial orders with respect to the claims of those plaintiffs who could not or chose not to participate in the Master Settlement Agreement.  The order required non-settling plaintiffs to notify their health-care providers that they must preserve evidence pertaining to the plaintiffs' use of Vioxx. Plaintiffs were also required to produce pharmacy records and medical authorizations, answers to interrogatories, and a Rule 26(a)(2) report from a medical expert attesting that the plaintiff sustained an injury caused by Vioxx and that the injury occurred within a specified time period. Failure to comply eventually resulted in dismissal of several of the plaintiffs' claims with prejudice.

And the federal judge overseeing the MDL for Celebrex and Bextra found that a “Lone Pine” order was appropriate for managing the claims of the remaining, non-settling plaintiffs. In re: Bextra and Celebrex Marketing Sales Practices and Product Liability Litigation, No. M:05-cv-01699 (N.D. Cal.) (Pretrial Order No. 29, Aug. 1, 2008).

In the drug context, a Lone Pine order might require plaintiffs to submit a case-specific expert report on the issue of medical causation; or to turn over medical records that documented an injury, prescription records that showed medication history and dosages prescribed, and/or proof of dosage in relation to the injury. The benefit to the court of requiring plaintiffs to supply this information is that the parties will not have to engage in protracted discovery in hundreds or thousands of cases just to see whether each one has some threshold evidence of medical causation. The production of such basic and threshold evidence is simply a part of a good-faith investigation that should precede the filing of a lawsuit.

Requiring plaintiffs to identify basic information about injuries and causation is not unreasonable given the costs that mass tort claims have on the legal system, and on defendants in particular. Lone Pine orders allow courts to weed out the frivolous suits where there is insufficient exposure, or no sufficient scientific connection between injury and exposure. Accordingly, Lone Pine orders can be effective when entered early in the game. Early disposal of frivolous claims allows the parties to focus their attention on the serious cases. Ideally, the order will actually phase discovery, and motions practice as well, with the Lone Pine issues pushed up front.

But the device also has a role later in mature mass torts when, as seen above, a chunk of the litigation has settled and there still remain numerous claims of questionable strength.

In the MDL involving the the diabetes medication Avandia, In re Avandia Marketing, Sales Practices, and Products Liab. Litig., MDL No. 1871 (Pretrial Order No. 121)(E.D. Pa. Nov. 15, 2010), the federal court has recently adopted a Lone Pine order.  The court found that many of the remaining claims lacked sufficient support or detail even after submission of the Plaintiff Fact Sheets.  Thus, additional detail about the plaintiffs' claims was necessary in furtherance of settlement agreements, for the selection of cases for bellwether trials, and for the timely remand of cases to the transferor courts for resolution.

The court's overriding concern was having sufficient information to objectively identify which of the many thousands of remaining plaintiffs have injuries that could credibly be linked to the drug usage.  The order calls for information that the court said the plaintiffs should have had before filing their claims.

Specifically, plaintiffs have to have a licensed physician identify the plaintiff's Avandia usage, the alleged injury, the time lag between drug usage and injury, and a certification that the drug usage caused the injury.

Failure of a plaintiff to submit these required expert certification (and supporting documents) in a timely fashion may result in the dismissal of that plaintiff's claims with prejudice.

A defendant in such litigation should not bear the burden of winnowing cases that never should have been filed, nor should the court be saddled with consideration of claims that would not have survived reasonable pre-complaint investigation.

 

Court of Appeals Enjoins Copycat Class Actions

The Seventh Circuit has held that a "copycat" class action suit cannot go forward in federal court in California after a similar class action had already been denied certification in federal court in Illinois.  Thorogood v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., No. 10-2407 (7th Cir., 11/02/10).

The first class action in the package of related cases was filed in state court in Illinois but removed to federal court under the Class Action Fairness Act.  Thorogood, a Tennessean, bought a Kenmore-brand clothes dryer from Sears (Kenmore is a Sears brand name). The words “stainless steel” were imprinted on the dryer, and point-of-sale advertising explained that this meant that the drum in which the clothes are dried was made of stainless steel. Thorogood claimed to have thought that this meant that the drum was made entirely of stainless steel, whereas part of the front of the drum—a part the user would see only if he craned his head inside the drum—is made of a ceramic-coated steel. 

The district court certified a multi-state class of Kenmore-brand clothes dryer purchasers. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit called the case “a notably weak candidate for class treatment.” Not only did common issues of law or fact not predominate over the issues particular to each purchaser of a stainless steel Kenmore dryer, as Rule 23(b)(3) requires, there were, the court said, “no common issues of law or fact.” 547 F.3d at 746-47.  It was well-nigh inconceivable, said the court,  that the other members of the class had the same understanding of Sears’s advertising as Thorogood claimed to have. Sears hadn’t advertised the dryers as preventing rust stains on clothes; and it’s not as if such stains are a common concern of owners of dryers—there was no suggestion of that either.

Stainless steel appliances are popular even among consumers, undoubtedly the vast majority, who do not expect a dryer to cause rust stains. Stainless steel does not rust, and that is certainly a plus, clothing stains to one side. But ceramic doesn’t rust either.  Advertisements for clothes dryers mention a host of features that might matter to consumers, such as price, size, electrical usage, appearance, speed, and controls, but not the prevention of clothing stains attributable to rust. The litigation of the class members’ claims would thus have devolved into a series of individual hearings in which each class member who wanted to pursue relief against Sears would testify to what he understood to be the meaning of a label or an  advertisement that identified a clothes dryer as containing a stainless steel drum. Few if any of them would have shared Thorogood’s alleged concerns, which, were a confabulation, said the court.

After the court of appeals thus ordered the first class decertified, thus shrinking the suit to Thorogood’s individual claim, Sears made Thorogood an offer of judgment under Rule 68 of $20,000 inclusive of attorneys’ fees. The district judge, believing that Thorogood should receive no attorneys’ fees, dismissed the suit. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of attorneys’ fees and dismissal of the suit. 595 F.3d 759 (7th Cir. 2010).

The same plaintiffs' lawyer then brought Murray v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., No. 4:09-cv-
5744-CW (N.D. Cal.). Murray was a member of Thorogood’s class, and he brought essentially the identical claim in California.  Sears Roebuck sought an injunction halting the new class action in front of Judge Leinenweber, who had presided over and eventually dismissed Thorogood’s original class suit, but he ruled that Sears could obtain adequate relief against being harassed by repetitive litigation by pleading collateral estoppel in Murray’s suit in California. Sears appealed, asking the court to to reverse the district court's denial of  Sears’s motion to enjoin the virtually identical class action suit.

The Seventh Circuit (Judge Posner writing) noted that the class in Murray’s case was smaller than
Thorogood’s because it was limited to California purchasers, but it was still very large. The claims in Murray’s original complaint, when Sears pleaded the defense of collateral estoppel, were identical to Thorogood’s; they challenged the same advertising for the same models of clothes dryer. Murray acknowledged that he was alleging “a similar general set of operative facts as alleged in the Thorogood case.”  That caused the California court to find for Sears on collateral estoppel grounds.  So re judicata saves the day, just like the Illinois district court predicted in denying the requested injunction.

But (wouldn't be a blog-worthy case without the but) Murray then amended his complaint to allege additional facts in an effort to show that he had a different case, perhaps one more amenable to class action treatment. On the basis of the amendment, the district judge in California reversed his earlier ruling, and having thus rejected the defense of collateral estoppel allowed discovery to begin.

Ordinarily the ability to plead res judicata or collateral estoppel gives a litigant adequate protection against being harassed by repetitive litigation by the loser in a previous suit against him. But this case was unusual, said Judge Posner, both because it involved class action litigation and because of the specific tactics employed by class counsel. Class members are interested in relief for the class but the lawyers are primarily interested in their fees, and the class members’ stakes in the litigation are ordinarily too small to motivate them to supervise the lawyers in an effort to align the lawyers’ incentives with their own.  The defendant wants to minimize outflow of expenditures
and the class counsel wants to increase inflow of attorneys’ fees. "Both can achieve their goals if they collude to sacrifice the interests of the class.” Leslie, “The Significance of Silence: Collective Action Problems and Class Action Settlements,” 59 Fla. L. Rev. 71, 79-81 (2007). And when the
central issue in a case is given class treatment and so will be resolved once and for all, a trial becomes a roll of the dice. Depending on the size of the class, a single throw may determine the outcome of an immense number of separate claims (hundreds of thousands, in the dryer
litigation)—there is no averaging of decisions over a number of triers of fact having different abilities, priors, and biases. The risk of error becomes asymmetric when the number of claims aggregated in the class action is so great that an adverse verdict would push the defendant into bankruptcy; in such a case the defendant will be under great pressure to settle even if the merits
of the case are slight.

Moreover, in most class action suits, there is far more evidence that plaintiffs may be able to discover in defendants’ records (including emails, the vast and ever-expanding volume of
which has made the cost of discovery soar) than vice versa. Usually the defendants’ conduct is the focus of the litigation and it is in their records, generally much more extensive than the plaintiffs’ (especially when as in a consumer class action the plaintiffs are individuals
rather than corporations or other institutions), that the plaintiffs will want to go in search of a smoking gun.

There is no way in which Sears could recoup the expense of responding to Murray’s discovery requests and of filing preclusion defenses against even more soon-to-be-filed duplicative class actions in other states. The harm it faces from the denial of the injunction was irreparable and its remedy at law against settlement extortion nonexistent, found the Seventh Circuit.  Sears’s action under the All Writs Act was its only means, other than submitting to plaintiffs' lawyer’s  demands, of avoiding being drowned in the discovery bog.

Here, despite the artful pleading in the amneded complaint in California, there was nothing materially new in Murray’s complaint that should have allowed allow an escape from the bar of collateral estoppel. The critical issue was and is what consumers would understand by representations that the Kenmore dryer has a stainless steel drum. The finding in the first court was that common issues did not predominate in Thorogood’s suit; neither did they in Murray’s; the differences between the suits did not bear on that particulat finding.  Yet, the California court did not agree.

Sears’s motion had been filed under the “All Writs Act,” which authorizes a federal court to issue “all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of [its] jurisdiction and agreeable to the usages and
principles of law,” 28 U.S.C. § 1651(a), and which has been interpreted to empower a federal court “to issue such commands . . . as may be necessary or appropriate to effectuate and prevent the frustration of orders it has previously issued in its exercise of jurisdiction otherwise obtained.” United States v. N.Y. Tel. Co., 434 U.S. 159, 172 (1977). Abuse of litigation is a conventional ground for the issuance of an injunction under the All Writs Act, because without an injunction a defendant might have to plead the defense of res judicata or collateral estoppel in a myriad of jurisdictions in order to ward off a judgment, not without risks, and would be helpless against settlement extortion pressures.

The court of appeals left the details of the injunction to be worked out by the district judge, but noted that it had ordered the class decertified inthe first case because of the absence of issues common to all the class members. That ruling—as the injunction must make clear—does not preclude any of the class members from filing individual suits, should they choose. For it was not a ruling on the merits of any class member’s claim (including Thorogood’s). All that would be precluded is the filing (by members of Thorogood’s class, which includes the members of Murray’s class, or by the lawyers for those classes) of class action suits that are indistinguishable, so far as lack of commonality among class members’ claims is concerned, from Thorogood’s.  The plaintiff lawyers should be included in the injunction, as has been done in other cases. See In re Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., Tires Products Liability Litigation, 333 F.3d at 769; Newby v. Enron Corp., 302 F.3d 295, 300-03 (5th Cir. 2002).


 

Class Action Claims Against Labeling of Snack Food Preempted

Last week, a federal district court held that federal food labeling law does preempt state law claims attacking the use of phrases such as “0 Grams of Trans Fat” on snack food packaging. See Peviani v. Hostess Brands Inc., No. 2:10-cv-02303 (C.D. Cal., 11/3/10).

 In this putative class action, plaintiffs alleged that the defendant used misleading and deceptive statements to market the "Hostess 100 Calorie Packs" baked goods. In particular, plaintiffs alleged that the label noting "0 Grams of Trans Fat" was inconsistent with the products containing partially hydrogenated oils (PVHO).  Plaintiffs alleged that PVHO is linked to various health problems, and therefore is supposedly a "dangerous trans fat."

Plaintiffs alleged they purchased the 100 Calorie Pack foods relying on the no trans fat claim.  They asserted false advertising under the Lanham Act, violations of the California Unfair Competition Law, the California False Advertising Law, and the Consumer Legal Remedies Act. The two classes proposed were a restitution and damages nationwide class of those that purchased the foods, and an injunctive relief class of those who commonly purchase such foods.

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the claims were preempted by federal law.  The  court noted that the FDCA sets forth a comprehensive federal scheme for the regulation of food. In 1990, Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, 21 U.S.C. 341, which clarified FDA's authority to require and regulate nutrition labeling on food.  Two provisions directly apply to use of phrases like "0 Grams of Trans Fat."  One provision requires the labeling in the Nutrition Facts Panel to include the amount of saturated fat and total fat in each serving; and this regulation requires that if a serving contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat, the amount "shall be expressed as zero."  Second, a regulation permits certain nutrient claims outside the Facts Panel about the level or range of a nutrient in the food, such as sodium, or calories or fat.  The NLEA permits such a statement as long as it is not false or misleading. 21 U.S.C. §§ 343(q) and (r).

The court noted that laws regulating the proper marketing of food are within the states' historic police powers, and thus subject to a presumption against preemption.  Nevertheless, consumer protection laws, such as those invoked here, are nonetheless preempted if they seek to impose requirements (through their use in litigation) that contravene the provisions of the federal law.  The NLEA contains an express preemption clause relating to any requirement  in state law that is not identical to the federal provisions.  But the court noted that implied preemption can accompany express preemption, as the essential inquiry always remains the substance and scope of Congress' intent to displace state law.

Plaintiffs alleged that the trans fat label outside of the Nutrition Facts Panel was an express nutrient content claim, and was false and misleading.  But the court noted that the FDA has declined to promulgate any regulation as to whether actual values must be used in labeling or rounded values may be used. In fact, the FDA has said that the difference between actual and rounded values are nutritionally insignificant, and thus either value relays the same basic information.  Here, since the phrase "0 grams of Trans Fat" is not false or misleading when used in the Nutrition Facts Panel, defendant's use of the exact same phrase elsewhere on the product label cannot be found false or misleading. If 0 and less than 0.5 grams mean, nutritionally, the same thing in the important Panel section, use of the exact same claim could not be misleading elsewhere on the label.

In essence, plaintiffs were trying, under state law, to enjoin on the label the use of the very phrase that federal law permits on another part of the label.  Plaintiffs' claims failed because they would impose a state law obligation for trans-fat disclosure that is not required by federal law.  (The plaintiffs' federal claim, for false advertising under the Lanham Act, failed for lack of standing,.)

The decision echoed Chacanaca v. Quaker Oats Co.,  No. 5:10-cv-00502 (N.D. Cal., Oct. 14, 2010), which dismissed similar claims over the phrase “0 Grams Trans Fat” on preemption grounds.

These types of claims illustrate the lengths to which plaintiffs are going to attack the food and beverage industries.  No one was sick from the snacks, which were labeled in exact accordance with explicit federal requirements.  Yet, a multi-count claim is brought in state court, with the legal theory that, in essence, federally approved language in one part of a food label is false and misleading under state law when it appears in another part of the same label. This is not about helping consumers.  How could it benefit consumers and clarify the information they have to make their own free and individual purchase decisions (with all the factors that go into what we decide to buy and eat) if the FDA-approved language in the Nutrient Facts Panel is allowed to be called false and misleading by a state court jury in California?


 

Update on Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reporting

The White House Office of Management and Budget has reportedly completed its review of the draft final rule to set greenhouse gas emissions reporting requirements for oil and natural gas wells and related equipment, as well as locations that produce fluorinated greenhouse gases. Completion of OMB review is typically the final step before a proposed rule is released by the Environmental Protection Agency for publication.

Readers may recall these rules were proposed in Spring, 2010, and would require oil and natural gas wells and related equipment that emit more than the equivalent of 25,000 metric tons per year of carbon dioxide to report their greenhouse gas emissions. EPA estimates that the proposal would apply to about 3,000 facilities, which would be required to begin collecting data on Jan. 1, 2011.  According to EPA, fluorinated gases account for about 2 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

The proposed rule for oil and natural gas systems, like many related rules, seem to impose burdensome testing requirements on natural gas systems rather than calling for use of arguably more cost-effective estimating techniques.  Also controversial is EPA's effort to include smaller facilities by aggregating multiple facilities of a company in a region.

The Nov. 2 elections put Republicans in charge of the House and reduced the Democratic margin in the Senate; this may impact greenhouse gas regulation, and climate change legislation (such as cap and tax) is probably off the table for the next two years. Industry groups may seek to lobby for delay in EPA's greenhouse emissions rules through a variety of techniques, including via the EPA spending bill. Several top House Republicans have been quoted as saying such rules are a priority target.  On the Senate side, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and a few other Democrats have favored a delay in implementing the EPA regulations for two years, so the new math there may also create road blocks.

Another aspect of this is seen in statements, such as those by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who may be in line to chair the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee; he has stated that he will call for oversight hearings on EPA activities, including in this area. Organizations such as the National Association of Manufacturers have argued that if the EPA is allowed to continue forward with an "overreaching agenda" on greenhouse gasses that puts additional and unnecessary burdens on manufacturers and drives up energy costs, it will cause economic harm and instill even more uncertainty into our already fragile economy, and will destroy jobs.

 

Webinar on Twombly and Iqbal Worth a Listen

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings in Twombly and Iqbal —which updated the outdated  Conley “any set of facts” standard for motions to dismiss, and confirmed that the new plausibility standard applies to all civil cases— federal courts and some state courts have wrestled with how to apply the clarified pleading standards to all sorts of complaints.

BNA is holding a webinar on Wednesday, November 17, and my partner Stephen J. McConnell and I will be on a panel to discuss the impact of the rulings on plaintiffs and the courts.

The seminar will be November 17, 2010; 1:00 PM – 2:30 PM EST.

Topics to be discussed will include:

■ Have courts granted significantly more motions to dismiss in the wake of these cases?


■ Have plaintiffs’ attorneys risen to the challenge of meeting the plausibility standard laid out in the cases?


■ What types of claims have been most affected since the rulings came down?


■ Will Congress respond to these decisions?

 

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Teen Riding Oil Pump Like a Toy An Anticipated Use?

A Louisiana appeals court last week reversed the grant of summary judgment against a plaintiff injured during his attempt to "ride" a oil well pump like it was an amusement park attraction. Payne v. Gardner, No. 10-0021 (La. Ct. App., 10/27/10).

Thirteen-year-old Henry Goudeau, Jr. sustained injuries when he climbed onto the moving pendulum of an oil well pump and attempted to “ride” the pendulum. When he climbed on the moving pendulum, his pants became entangled in other parts of the pump and, as the pendulum continued to move upward, he alleged he sustained severe personal injuries.

Defendants moved for summary judgment, pointing to the undisputed facts that they manufactured the pump for the sole purpose of extracting oil from the ground; they never intended for anyone to ride the pump; and the plaintiff would not have gone near the pump had his mother been with him.

Plaintiff argued in opposition to the motion that there existed a foreseeable risk that children would attempt to play on the oil well pump. Under Louisiana law, the manufacturer of a product is liable to a claimant for damage proximately caused by a characteristic of the product that renders the product unreasonably dangerous when such damage arose from a reasonably anticipated use of the product by the claimant or another person or entity.  Plaintiff thus argued that there were
genuine issues of material fact concerning what constitutes the “reasonably anticipated use” of an oil well pump.

Under the Louisiana product liability act, reasonably anticipated use’ means a use or handling of a product that the product’s manufacturer should reasonably expect of an ordinary person in the same or similar circumstances. This is an objective inquiry, which requires the court  to ascertain what uses of its product the manufacturer should have reasonably expected at the time of manufacture.  Plaintiffs pointed the trial court to 3 cases from California, Texas, and Oklahoma, over the past 30 years in which children had been injured while attempting to “ride” on an oil well pumping unit. See Titus v. Bethlehem Steel Corp., 91 Cal.App. 3d 372, 154 Cal. Rptr. 122 (Cal.App. 2d Dist. 1979); Burk Royalty Co. v. Pace, 620 S.W. 2d 882 (Tx.App. 12th Dist. 1981);  Knowles v. Tripledee Drilling Co., Inc., 1989 OK 40, 771 P.2d 208 (1989).  And the caretaker of the well thought he had heard about a similar incident.

The appeals court thus found that there was conflicting evidence on whether an attempt to “ride” the pumping unit is a use or handling of the pumping unit that the pump maker should reasonably expect of an ordinary person in the same or similar circumstances. This "scintilla of direct evidence" presented by plaintiff was sufficient to allow a reasonable juror to conclude that the defendant should have expected an ordinary person in the same or similar circumstances to use
or handle the pumping unit in this way.

What?  A manufacturer is not responsible for every conceivable or foreseeable use of its product.  All this scanty evidence suggested was that the misuse was foreseeable.  Not that it was reasonably foreseeable, not that a manufacturer should reasonably expect such misuse, certainly not that this was the act of an ordinary person under the circumstances. There was no evidence indicating that this accident occurred pursuant to a use reasonably expected of an ordinary consumer.

The Louisiana Act expressly rejected the prior standard that a seller was liable for all reasonably foreseeable uses and misuses of the product.  Moreover, the statute focuses the inquiry at the time of manufacture.  This 50-year old pump was made and sold before any of the incidents relied on by the court to reverse summary judgment.  How do accidents that occurred after the pump at issue here was manufactured put the manufacturer on notice?


 

Claim Against Starbucks For Hot Tea Rejected

A federal appeals court has upheld the exclusion of plaintiffs' experts in a design defect case alleging Starbucks Coffee Co.'s tea/coffee cup design caused severe burns to an elderly customer. See Moltner v. Starbucks Coffee Co., No. 09-4943 (2d Cir. 11/2/10).

Plaintiff alleged she purchased a venti-sized cup of tea, served double-cupped and lidded. She had difficulty removing the lid, and in the course of her attempts to pry it off, she alleged that the tea spilled onto her left leg, causing severe burns.

In support of her design defect claim, she presented the reports of four experts. The District Court for the Southern District of New York excluded the experts under Daubert and granted the coffee maker summary judgment.

The Second Circuit unanimously agreed that proof from Moltner's these design defect experts failed to meet the standards of Federal Rule of Evidence 702.  As the district court discussed, and the court of appeals affirmed, the first (Diller) report was unreliable because its conclusions were conclusory, devoid of any factual or analytical basis, and this report thus did not demonstrate a sufficient level of intellectual rigor. The second (Dr. Gerstman) report likewise was unreliable because it does not state the basis or analysis from which its conclusions were derived.  Third, the (Anders) report was the product of a method of testing that was insufficiently reliable and lacked “the same level of intellectual rigor that characterizes the practice of an expert in the relevant field.” The report by a fourth expert (DiMaria), which supported Moltner's negligence claim, was properly barred because it would not assist the jury in determining whether Starbucks breached its duty of care to the plaintiff.

We note this decision not so much for the Daubert analysis (which is not lengthy), but because it strikes us as another good example of what is wrong with so much product liability litigation today.  An elderly woman with serious injury is a sympathetic plaintiff in front of a jury.  But such a case should never get to a jury. The panel also rejected Moltner’s theory of negligence as infirm as a matter of law under Fung-Yee Ng v. Barnes & Noble, Inc., 764 N.Y.S.2d 183, 183-84 (1st Dep’t 2003) (“‘Double cupping’ is a method well known in the industry as a way of preventing a cup of hot tea from burning one’s hand.”).  Products are not defective just because they are capable of being involved in an injury.  Products need not be designed to prevent any injury no matter what the consumer does with the product.   Almost every design choice, including something as simple as double cupping, may have potential impact on the relative risks of injury.   A proper negligence analysis supports the decision to minimize the risk of injuries, yet juries are often incapable of confirming that analysis when confronted with a sympathetic plaintiff.  And while they should, juries confronted with a seriously injured plaintiff may find it difficult to recognize the proper role of personal responsibility in cases like this: regardless of the design of the cup or lid, when you are dealing with a very hot beverage, you must exercise precaution; it's a matter of common sense, common knowledge, common awareness. Hence the need for rules keeping out junk science and the need for courts to grant summary judgment. 


 

Class Action Alleging False Food Ads Rejected

Plaintiffs have failed in a proposed class action against McDonald's in which they alleged that the food company's advertising somehow misleads customers into believing that they can eat fast food daily without any potential health consequences.  Pelman v. McDonald's Corp., No. 02-civ-07821 (S.D.N.Y. 10/27/10).  Yes, loyal readers, you read that correctly: the claim is that the people of New York only know about fast food what they read in (or into) ads.

Plaintiffs in this action were New York State consumers claiming, pursuant to Section 349 of New York’s General Business Law, injury from defendant McDonald’s Corporation’s allegedly deceptive marketing scheme.  Plaintiffs claimed that the effect of defendant’s marketing – from 1985 until the filing of this case in 2002 – was to mislead consumers into falsely believing that defendant’s food products can be consumed on a daily basis without incurring any adverse health effects.  They alleged that, as a result of this marketing scheme, class members suffered injury. Specifically, plaintiffs alleged that defendant attempted to mislead plaintiffs and putative class members with misleading nutritional claims, in widespread advertising campaigns, that its foods were healthy, nutritious, of a beneficial nutritional nature, and/or were easily part of anyone’s healthy daily diet, each and/or all claims supposedly being in contradiction to medically and nutritionally established acceptable guidelines. Plaintiffs claimed that  they suffered injury in the form of the financial costs of defendant’s  products; “false beliefs and understandings" as to the nutritional content and effects of defendant’s food products, and physical injuries in the nature of obesity, elevated levels of  cholesterol, pediatric diabetes, high blood pressure, etc.

Plaintiffs moved for class certification pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3).  The court "begins and ends" its analysis of class certification with consideration of the predominance requirement of Rule 23(b)(3). The court concluded that establishment of the causation and injury elements of plaintiffs’ claims would necessitate extensive individualized inquiries; the questions of law and fact which would be common to putative class members would not predominate over questions affecting only individual members. Accordingly, certification of this action for class litigation under Rule 23(b)(3) was not appropriate. 

The court found that the focus was on whether the elements of plaintiffs’ cause of action under GBL § 349 may be established by common, class-wide proof.  The court had earlier in the case ruled that in accordance with GBL § 349’s requirement that plaintiffs’ injuries be "by reason of" defendant’s conduct, the plaintiffs had be aware of the nutritional scheme they alleged to have been deceptive, and that the injuries that were suffered by each plaintiff  were by reason of defendant’s alleged deceptive marketing.  However, allegations of “false beliefs and understandings” did not state a claim for actual injury under GBL § 349.  Neither did allegations of pecuniary loss for the purchase of defendant’s products. (In some states that kind of "the product worked and didn't harm me but I wouldn't have purchased it" argument does fly.)

Accordingly, the only alleged injuries for which putative class members could claim damages under GBL § 349 were those related to the development of certain medical conditions; and the causal connection, if any, for those kinds of injuries depended heavily on a range of factors
unique to each individual. Defendant’s nutritional expert concluded there are many factors that contribute to obesity and to obesity-related illnesses, and thus it is improper to generalize and make assumptions as to causation in any individual.  Many foods, not just defendant's, are high in fat, salt, and cholesterol, low in fiber and certain vitamins, and contain beef and cheese, and there is no evidence to suggest that all who consume such foods develop the kinds of medical conditions which were at issue in this case. 

Moreover, whether or not plaintiffs’ claims (that they ate McDonald’s food because they believed it to be healthier than it was in fact) are true for any particular person was an inquiry which also required individualized proof. A person’s choice to eat at McDonald’s and what foods (and how much) he eats may depend on taste, past experience, habit, convenience, location, peer
choices, other non-nutritional advertising, and cost, etc.

Plaintiffs also argued for issue classes, asserting that the 1) existence; 2) consumer-orientation; and 3) materially misleading nature of the marketing scheme alleged by plaintiffs were each
questions which could be settled upon a showing of objective evidence and legal  argument. Even if true, the court noted that all elements of the class action rule have to be met even for issue classes. Named plaintiffs did not present any specific evidence about the number of other persons within the relevant age group who were exposed to the nutritional marketing at issue, then regularly ate at McDonald’s, and subsequently developed the same medical injuries as those allegedly suffered by named plaintiffs.  So they hadn't even shown numerosity.


 

Federal Court Rejects Nicastro Analysis of Personal Jurisdicition

We don't often post on orders denying a motion for reconsideration, but it's worth noting that a federal trial court recently reaffirmed its earlier rulings of lack of personal jurisdiction in a products case.  Leja v. Schmidt Manufacturing Inc., No. 01-5042, (D.N.J. 10/19/10).  The court, in so doing, questioned the reasoning of the New Jersey Supreme Court opinion on personal jurisdiction that was recently accepted for review by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Nicastro v. McIntyre Machinery America Ltd., 987 A.2d 575 (N.J. 2010).

In the underlying industrial accident, plaintiff alleged he suffered severe injuries when he attempted to open a bulk sandblasting unit manufactured by Schmidt while it was still pressurized. The machine was custom-built by Schmidt Co. for the Sylvan Equipment Corporation, which acts as a machinery distributor and has its primary place of business in New York. In doing so, Schmidt assembled various component parts that were produced by other manufacturers. Included among those parts was a "camlock closure," which was designed and manufactured by yet another company, Sypris, a Kentucky company.  This was the allegedly defective part.

Sylvan leased the machine to L&L Painting Company, a New York company, for use in the removal of paint from bridges. When it proved inadequate for that task, Sylvan took the machine back from L&L and sold it to plaintiff's employer, the West Virginia Paint and Tank Company. The day of the accident, Mr. Leja attempted to open the camlock closure without first releasing the pressure inside the machine by activating the blow-down valve. The result was that pressure stored inside the machine apparently caused an explosion that propelled the lid off.

Plaintiff sued manufacturer Schmidt in state court, who removed to federal court and brought in component part maker Sypris. Arguing that it lacked the minimum contacts with New Jersey necessary for the court to exercise jurisdiction, Sypris moved to dismiss the third-party claims asserted against it by Schmidt pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(2).

In its original ruling, the court granted granted the motion.  In doing so, it first distinguished between the two types of personal jurisdiction – specific and general – stating that specific personal jurisdiction would exist if the cause of action arises out of or is related to Sypris's contacts with New Jersey. Sypris' conduct and connection with New Jersey must be such that it could reasonably anticipate being haled into court here. World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286, 297 (1980). Additionally, Sypris must have purposefully availed itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum state, thus invoking the benefits and protections of its laws.

Where the cause of action does not arise out of the defendant's forum activities, a court may exercise another variety of personal jurisdiction known as general personal jurisdiction, if the defendant has engaged in “continuous and systematic” contacts with the state, here New Jersey. Such general jurisdiction requires “a very high threshold of business activity.”

In this case, the court had previously found that the cause of action did not arise out of, and was not related to, Sypris' contacts with New Jersey. Sypris did not purposefully sell or direct the top closure, which allegedly caused the injuries, to New Jersey. In fact, the Sandblaster to which the part was attached arrived in New Jersey only after multiple transactions and travels to interim locations outside of New Jersey. The travels and eventual resting place of the Sandblaster in New Jersey was not the result of Sypris' purposeful conduct. Rather, the eventual sale of the Sandblaster to plaintiff's employer in New Jersey was a “random, fortuitous, or attenuated contact” that was insufficient to exercise specific personal jurisdiction.

As to general jurisdiction, the court had found that Sypris had no daily or regular contact with New Jersey that was central to the functioning of its business.  The percentage and absolute amount of sales to New Jersey is generally irrelevant.  Rather, the focus of analysis should be on whether the nature of defendant's contacts with the forum state was central to the conduct of its business, and here they were not. All of the defendant's activities were better characterized as sporadic, intermittent contacts rather than substantial and continuous.

Then along comes Nicastro.  The motion for reconsideration relied on Nicastro's holding that: the stream-of-commerce theory supports the exercise of jurisdiction if the manufacturer knew or reasonably should have known of the distribution system through which its products were being sold in the forum state. According to the NJ Supreme Court, due process permits the state to provide a judicial forum for its citizens who are injured by dangerous and defective products placed in the stream of commerce by a foreign manufacturer that has targeted a geographical market that includes New Jersey.  Here, Sypris had stipulated during the prior proceedings that it was aware that Schmidt generally distributed its machines throughout the nation.

There were procedural problems with the motion, and in addition, on the issue of the "intervening law," the court noted that the question of whether New Jersey's long-arm statute allows this federal court to assert personal jurisdiction over Sypris turns on the interpretation of the United States Constitution – an area that is uniquely the province of the federal courts.

On the merits of the reconsideration argument, the court said that the NJ holding was at odds with the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States in World-Wide Volkswagen and Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court of California, 480 U.S. 102 (1987).  The former ruled that, “the foreseeability that is critical to due process analysis is not the mere likelihood that a product will find its way into the forum State. Rather, it is that the defendant's conduct and connection with the forum State are such that he should reasonably anticipate being haled into court there.”  World-Wide Volkswagen, 444 U.S. at 297. The mere foreseeability that a product one sells may end up in the forum state does not render the seller amenable to suit in the forum state.  Justice Brennan's opinion in Asahi – the less restrictive of the two plurality decisions in that case – included a similar requirement, stating that the stream of commerce theory only creates personal jurisdiction over a foreign manufacturer if it “delivers its products into the stream of commerce with the expectation that they will be purchased by consumers in the forum State.” Asahi, 480 U.S. at 119-20. In doing so, Justice Brennan noted the contrast between “the foreseeability of litigation in a State to which a consumer fortuitously transports a defendant's product (insufficient contacts) and the foreseeability of litigation in a State where the defendant's product was regularly sold (sufficient contacts).”

The court concluded that this case falls under the “insufficient contacts” category identified by Justice Brennan in Asahi, and the fortuitous series of events by which the machine found its way to New Jersey is illustrative of that point. In light of the fact that Sypris custom-built the type of closure at issue in this case according to Schmidt's specifications and did not sell similar closures to other manufacturers, Sypris cannot be said to have introduced those closures “into the stream of commerce with the expectation that they w[ould] be purchased by consumers” in New Jersey. See Asahi, 480 U.S. at 119-20. Therefore, the court reaffirmed its earlier rulings that it lacked specific personal jurisdiction over Sypris, and the Motion for Reconsideration was denied.

We will see if the Supreme Court agrees as it reviews Nicastro directly.