Mass Tort Defense

Class Claim Against Crock-Pot Seems a Crock

There was an era in television that featured lots of made-for-TV "sporting events," like Battle of the Network Stars, that were popular with some viewers, but not really sports.  That is the world of consumer fraud class actions today, popular with some lawyers but very little deception of consumers going on.

A federal court last month dismissed proposed consumer class action claims against the  manufacturer of the Crock-Pot.  See Rice v. Sunbeam Products Inc., No. CV 12-7923-CAS (C.D. Cal., 1/07/13).

Plaintiff alleged that the Crock-Pot, a slow-cooking kitchen device sold on-line by the manufacturer direct to consumers and through various retailers of household goods, posed an unreasonable risk of burns, fires, and other related injuries to consumers when used as intended, asserting claims under the state Consumer Legal Remedies Act, Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1750, et seq. (“CLRA”);  the California Unfair Competition Law, Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17200 et seq. (“UCL”); the California False Advertising Law, Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17500 et seq. (“FAL”); and various common law claims.

The device's accompanying Owner’s Manual recommended cooking times between one hour and nine hours using one of the device’s three temperature settings. After purchase, with the device slow cooking plaintiff’s meal, she allegedly reached across her counter to grab an item next to the Crock-Pot. As she was doing so, she allegedly suffered a burn on her wrist due to the high temperature of the stainless steel exterior of the Crock-Pot. Plaintiff alleged that the placement of the heating components in the device created high temperatures on the exposed stainless steel part of the Crock-Pot, which in turn created an unreasonable risk of harm to consumers. Plaintiff brought this putative class action suit on behalf of herself and all other persons who purchased a Crock-Pot during the last four years from defendant’s website or an authorized retail store located in the State of California. Defendant moved to dismiss. 

Although only part of the Court's analysis, let me point out what is wrong with these kinds of all too common claims: the Owner’s Manual mentioned six times that the device becomes hot during cooking and the Owner’s Guide instructs the user to place the Crock-Pot at least six inches from other items and surfaces while in use because it gets hot.  But the class was surprised that it might burn them?

The CLRA prohibits a variety of “unfair or deceptive acts” in the sale of goods or services to a consumer. Cal. Civ. Code § 1770(a). This includes the use of “deceptive representations” in connection with the sale of goods or “representing that goods. . . have characteristics, ingredients, uses, [or] benefits. . . which they do not have. . . .” Id. § 1770(a)(4), (5). California courts have interpreted the CLRA to also proscribe fraudulent omissions in limited circumstances: “the omission must be contrary to a representation actually made by the defendant, or an omission of a fact the defendant was obliged to disclose.” Daugherty v. Am. Honda Motor Co., Inc., 144 Cal. App. 4th 824, 835 (2006). Relevant here, a duty to disclose arises where the defendant “had exclusive knowledge of material facts not known to the plaintiff” or “actively conceals a material fact from the plaintiff.” In re Toyota Motor Corp. Unintended Acceleration Mktg., Sales Practices, & Products Liab. Litig., 754 F. Supp. 2d 1145, 1172–73 (C.D. Cal. 2010); see also Ehrlich v. BMW of N. Am., LLC, 801 F. Supp. 2d 908, 916 (C.D. Cal. 2010) .

Here, defendant allegedly failed to disclose that the exposed stainless steel base of the Crock-Pot allegedly reaches dangerously hot temperatures, higher than comparable home kitchen appliances.  Plaintiff alleged that despite the fact that defendant advertised the Crock-Pot for “household use only,” the external surface of the device reaches temperatures that are appropriate only for commercial kitchens.  Defendant argued that the representation that it is for “household use only” would not deceive a reasonable consumer into believing that the base of the device would not reach temperatures that could cause burns during normal use. The Crock-Pot becomes hot regardless of whether or not a consumer supervises it. Defendant further argued that because
it made no representations about the surface temperature of the Crock-Pot, such that plaintiff cannot state a claim on the basis of an omission “contrary” to a claim actually made by defendant. In support of this contention, defendant noted the six times in the Owner’s Manual where it  disclosed that the device becomes hot during cooking.

The Court concluded that plaintiff failed to state an actionable claim under the CLRA under either a representation or omission-based theory. Most problematically, plaintiff failed to allege with the requisite particularity several of the representations she and other consumers reasonably relied on in making their purchasing decisions. Moreover, even putting to one side the pleading deficiencies, the Court was unconvinced that plaintiff was pleading actionable representations—a plaintiff must allege a plausible interpretation of a representation that defendant actually made to state a claim under the CLRA, based on the perspective of a reasonable consumer in the marketplace. Here, plaintiff did not plausibly allege that a reasonable consumer would be deceived by any of the alleged representations. The Court was unable to discern how a reasonable consumer would understand a statement regarding “all day cooking” to be a representation regarding the temperature of the exterior of the Crock-Pot. Second, plaintiff’s argument with respect to the alleged “safe for household use” representation was also unconvincing. Plaintiff failed to explain how an instruction regarding the use of a cooking device in the home is deceptive to a reasonable consumer with respect to the temperature that this cooking device allegedly reaches while cooking. In fact, the Owner’s Guide instructs the user to place the Crock-Pot at least six inches from other items and surfaces while in use, among other cautionary statements. For these reasons, the Court concluded that plaintiff failed to adequately plead a misrepresentation under the CLRA.

Plaintiff alleged that defendant violated the UCL by (1) failing to disclose the unreasonably hot surface temperatures the Crock-Pot attains during cooking; (2) failing to provide warnings on the device itself; (3) misrepresenting the Crock-Pot’s safety for household use; and (4) continuing
to market the device after receiving notice of the purported defect. However, plaintiff failed to adequately allege that defendant had knowledge of a defect that needed to be remedied.  In addition, plaintiff offered no factual support for her allegation that defendant’s conduct causes harm to consumers that “greatly outweighs any benefits” associated with the sale of its Crock-Pot in the marketplace. Plaintiff’s conclusory allegation failed to state a claim based upon alleged unfair conduct.  Accordingly, the Court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s UCL claim.

To plead a claim under the FAL, a plaintiff must allege that a defendant publicly disseminated advertising that false or misleading, and which the defendant knew or reasonably should have known was untrue or misleading. Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17500. As with the CLRA, the perspective of a reasonable consumer is the standard by which an advertisement is measured. See Paduano v. Am. Honda Motor Co., Inc., 169 Cal. App. 4th 1453, 1497–98 (2009). The Court found that the alleged representations that plaintiff purported to rely on in support of its FAL  claim were not actionable nor pleaded with sufficient particularity. As noted, plaintiff failed to adequately allege defendant’s knowledge of the purported defect. Courts that have considered the
issue have required that a plaintiff allege in far greater factual detail the basis for a claim that defendant had knowledge of a defect or the falsity of its statements. Vaguely alleging awareness of customer complaints, without any factual detail, does not suffice to demonstrate that defendant should have known about the falsity of its alleged representations.  Accordingly, the Court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s claim under the FAL.
 

Finally, the warranty claims were dismissed because the plaintiff failed to avail herself of the remedy provided for in the warranty, the return of the allegedly defective Crock-Pot.   Moreover, her warranty allegations rested on the alleged representations that the Crock-Pot was “safe and fit for household use,“ which were insufficient to create an express warranty under California law. 


 

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Sean P. Wajert of Shook, Hardy & Bacon LLP