Energy Drink Case Subject to Primary Jurisdiction

We have posted before about the important doctrine of primary jurisdiction.  Last week, a defendant obtained dismissal of a proposed class action over its energy drinks under this theory. See Fisher v. Monster Beverage Corp., No. 12-2188 (C.D. Cal. 11/12/13).

Plaintiffs sued individually and as putative class representatives for  allegedly "unfair and deceptive business and trade practices on behalf of anyone who purchased for personal consumption any of the Monster-branded energy drinks sold under the Monster Rehab® brand name and the original Monster Energy®."  Plaintiffs alleged various misrepresentations on the labels of the Original Monster and Rehab Varieties cans, including language that the drink "quenches thirst, hydrates like a sports drink, and brings you back after a hard day's night", that it would "RE-FRESH, RE-HYDRATE, REVIVE," and is "the ideal combo of the right ingredients in the right proportion to deliver the big bad buzz that only Monster can."  Plaintiffs alleged these statements were  misrepresentations because the cans do not hydrate like a sports drink, and allegedly cause dehydration; because "it is not the ideal combo of the right ingredients in the right proportion" and because the statement omits the potential health risks associated with such drinks.  Plaintiffs also alleged claims related to Monster's advertising "strategy."  Plaintiffs alleged that Monster specifically "targets" youth despite the caffeine levels in Monster Drinks.

The court tackled a number of challenges, including standing, preemption (some claims were preempted by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act), and the absence of particularity in many of the fraud allegations.  But our focus here is on primary jurisdiction.  The primary jurisdiction doctrine allows courts to stay proceedings or to dismiss a complaint without prejudice pending the resolution of an issue within the special competence of an administrative agency; it is most often invoked if a claim involves an issue of first impression or a particularly complicated issue Congress has committed to a regulatory agency.  The courts traditionally weigh four factors in deciding whether to apply the primary jurisdiction doctrine: (1) the need to resolve an issue that (2) has been placed by Congress within the jurisdiction of an administrative body having regulatory authority (3) pursuant to a statute that subjects an industry or activity to a comprehensive regulatory authority that (4) requires expertise or uniformity in administration.  The court determines that an otherwise cognizable claim implicates technical and policy questions that should be addressed in the first instance by the agency with regulatory authority over the relevant industry rather than by the judicial branch.

Defendants argued that the FDA has jurisdiction over issues involving food safety and labeling, and the FDA has specialized expertise in the "technical and policy" questions involved here; the FDA has commenced a science-based evaluation of the safety of caffeine-containing food products, including energy drinks. They also argued that the FDA has primary jurisdiction because the agency has special competence over the matters involving the alleged inadequate warnings and failure to warn issues in this case.  The court agreed that the matters at issue here have been placed by Congress within the jurisdiction of the FDA pursuant to statute and regulations that require the FDA's expertise. The FDA has regulatory authority over food labeling. The FDCA establishes a uniform federal scheme of food regulation to ensure that food is labeled in a manner that does not mislead consumers. Second, plaintiffs' claims ultimately involve "technical and policy claims" about the effects of caffeine and whether Monster should be allowed to advertise and label their products in a way that appeals to a younger demographic. Plaintiffs cited to studies examining the effects of "energy drinks" in general, demonstrating that issues raised in the complaint may affect an entire industry. 

Third, the FDA has taken an interest in investigating and resolving whether energy drinks, including Monster, contain proper levels of caffeine. The FDA's interest in regulating the safety of caffeine weighed in favor of exercising the primary jurisdiction doctrine.  Thus, the Court found that plaintiffs' claims were covered under the Primary  Jurisdiction Doctrine.  

 

 

Court Again Dismisses Claim Against "Non-Conventional" Alcohol Beverage

We posted last year about the dismissal of a motorcycle passenger's claim against the maker of a caffeinated alcoholic drink, seeking to hold the company liable for her crash-related injuries.See Cook v. MillerCoors LLC, No. 11-1488 (M.D. Fla.).

The operator of the motorcycle in the accident was killed, and the plaintiff Cook, who was a passenger, was injured. Prior to the crash, the driver allegedly had consumed several alcoholic beverages containing caffeine and other stimulants, manufactured by the defendant. Cook argued that such beverages were “uniquely dangerous” because they appeal to younger drinkers and because the addition of caffeine allegedly enables one to drink more alcohol without feeling as intoxicated as one normally would. Thus, she contended, consumers of these beverages are more likely to “engage in dangerous behavior such as driving.” She asserted the driver did not appear impaired, even though toxicology reports from his autopsy revealed that his blood alcohol level was 0.10 at the time of the crash.

The district court found flaws with the duty, breach, and causation elements of the claim. The court found that Cook had not established a duty to warn because “the dangers inherent in alcohol consumption are well known to the public.”  Readers can readily see why the court was reluctant to make an exception to the rule for the so-called "unconventional" beverage. There are hundreds of alcohol-containing products that are arguably not "conventional" in one way or another, by taste, ingredients, color, manufacturing process, advertising... To shift responsibility from the person who over-consumes one of these and then drives impaired is to send the absolutely wrong policy message.

Courts have typically recognized no duty on the beverage maker, regardless of a plaintiff's attempt to differentiate either themselves or the product. See, e.g., Malek v. Miller Brewing Co., 749 S.W.2d 521 (Tex. App. 1988) (finding no duty to warn despite claim that advertising led plaintiff to believe that “Lite” beer was less intoxicating than other beer); Pemberton v. Am. Distilled Spirits Co., 664 S.W.2d 690 (Tenn. 1984); Greif v. Anheuser-Busch Cos., Inc., 114 F. Supp. 2d 100 (D. Conn. 2000)(particular, alleged tolerance of an individual consumer); MaGuire v. Pabst Brewing Co., 387 N.W.2d 565 (Iowa 1986).

Plaintiff attempted to re-plead her claim, again alleging that the addition of stimulants that mask the intoxicating effects of alcohol was a defect, but also focusing on the supposed risks this formulation posed to youth. The court again found the complaint lacking. Alcoholic beverages are not considered unreasonably dangerous as defined by the Restatement (Second) of Torts, because the dangers associated with alcohol are well known.  Cook asserted that the risks are not common knowledge to youthful drinkers having experience only with conventional alcoholic beverages. This court was not convinced that “the special risks posed to youth” made the drink unreasonably dangerous from the perspective of the general public.  More significantly, Cook’s argument overlooked an important point: the alleged “special risks” manifest themselves only if the consumer chooses to drink in excess. The case law recognizes that anyone who drinks alcohol may become impaired and yet may not be able to discern his or her impairment. That does not make alcoholic beverages unreasonably dangerous or absolve the drinker of responsibility.

Moreover, the youth-based allegations did not change Florida law on causation, under which voluntary drinking of alcohol is the proximate cause of such an injury, rather than the manufacture or sale of those intoxicating beverages to that person. As to the plaintiff's warning theory, persons engaging in the consumption of alcoholic beverages may not be able to ascertain precisely when the concentration of alcohol in their blood, breath, or urine reaches the proscribed level, so they should in the exercise of reasonable intelligence, understand what type of conduct places them in jeopardy of violating the law. The degree of intoxication to be expected from any particular brand (or formulation) of alcoholic beverage does not require a special duty to warn, or give rise to a fact question about the warnings here.

The court distinguished Cuevas v. United Brands Co., Inc., 2012 WL 760403 (S.D. Cal. Mar. 8, 2012), as an economic injury claim brought under various consumer protection statutes and warranty theories which focused on the sale of the product allegedly in violation of FDA rules rather than its consumption.


 

Group Demands Regulation Of Energy Drinks

A group of scientists and physicians have petitioned the Food and Drug Administration asking for more regulation of popular energy drinks, because their caffeine content. The group contends the ingredient puts drinkers at possible risk for caffeine intoxication and other ailments. The letter was written by Dr. Roland Griffiths, of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

The United States is the world's largest consumer by volume of energy drinks, roughly 290 million gallons in 2007. That works out to about 3.8 quarts per person per year. The U.S. market for the drinks is estimated at $5.4 billion. Pretty much any successful product these days is likely to become a target of plaintiffs’ attorneys or Big Brother regulations designed to prevent people from making voluntary choices and excusing them from taking responsibility for their choices.
Caffeine is found in coffee beans, tea leaves, cocoa beans and other plants. Caffeine is an ingredient that consumers have enjoyed in many drinks for more than 100 years. The beverage industry offers both caffeine-free and caffeinated drinks. And customers are free to choose their drink of choice, whether caffeinated or non-caffeinated.

Caffeine is one of the most comprehensively studied ingredients in the food supply, with centuries of safe consumption in foods and beverages. In 1959, the FDA designated caffeine in cola drinks as "Generally Recognized As Safe" (GRAS). The FDA considers caffeine safe for all consumers, including children. In 1987, following extensive review, the FDA "found no evidence to show that the use of caffeine in carbonated beverages would render these products injurious to health." More than 140 countries have specifically considered the safety of caffeine and allow its use in beverages at various levels.

Red Bull, the best-selling energy drink in the USA, contains 80 milligrams of caffeine per 8.3-ounce can, about the equivalent of a cup of coffee. The "pick me up" quality long associated with many drinks reflects a complex mix of ingredients, including caffeine. The bitter taste of caffeine also adds to the complex overall flavor profile of soft drinks.
 

Consumers can easily find out how much caffeine is in a beverage by calling a company's 1-800 number or visiting its website for those drinks that don't list content on their labels. As with all foods and beverages, parents should use common sense in deciding whether to give their children caffeinated foods and beverages, and how much. That’s a parent’s job, not the government’s.
In the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, caffeine is specifically excluded from the category of substances classified as causing "substance dependence." Unlike drugs of abuse, people who choose to consume foods and beverages that contain caffeine can control or moderate their caffeine intake. Scientific studies confirm that although many people enjoy caffeinated products, those who choose to stop consuming or reduce caffeine in their diets can do so without difficulty.