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.