Coffee's On: Claims Dismissed in Single-Cup Brewing Class Litigation

A federal court last week dismissed the claims in a case accusing Green Mountain Coffee Roasters of misrepresenting the performance quality of its single-cup brewing systems. See Green v. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc., et al., 2011 WL 6372617 (12/20/12 D.N.J.).

Your humble blogger is in the minority, not being a coffee drinker. Nearly 60% of adults drink coffee daily. The average American drinks 3.1 cups of coffee each day. This contributes to an $18 billion U.S. coffee market. One of the tremendous innovations (speaking from experience, having given these as holiday gifts) in the market is the single cup brewing machine for the home, allowing coffee lovers to make less than a full pot, and to choose from among hundreds of flavors and brands of coffee-related beverages.

Defendants are in the specialty coffee and coffee maker businesses. They manufacture single-cup brewers, accessories and coffee, tea, cocoa and other beverages in "K–Cup portion packs.” Plaintiff Green maintained that his machine failed to brew the programmed amounts of K–Cup coffee within a few weeks of use. Plaintiff asserted that the machines had defective components, including defective pumps. As a result, the machines allegedly failed and brewed less than the specified amount. Furthemore, this defect allegedly caused consumers to use additional K–Cups to brew a single beverage. 

Plaintiff maintained that defendants' actions were in violation of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“CFA”), N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:8–1, et seq., and constituted a breach of implied warranty. 

Defendants moved to dismiss.  The court noted that threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice under Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), and Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007).  If the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint should be dismissed for failing to show that the pleader is entitled to relief. A plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. 

The motion challenged plaintiffs' standing. To have standing, the plaintiff must have suffered an injury in fact—an invasion of a legally protected interest which is (a) concrete and particularized, and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical. Second, there must be a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of—the injury has to be fairly traceable to the challenged action of the defendant, and not the result of the independent action of some third party not before the court. Third, it must be likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision.  The injury-in-fact element is often determinative.

The injury must affect the plaintiff in a personal and individual way.  Here, Green alleged that he purchased and used the Keurig Platinum Brewing System (model series B70).  Nevertheless, he sought to represent all individuals in New Jersey who “purchased or received”  a variety of Keurig Brewing Systems. Plaintiff did not have standing to pursue a claim that products he neither purchased nor used did not work as advertised.

Regarding that model series B70, plaintiff contended in his complaint that, because of defective components, the coffee machines at issue brew a lesser amount of coffee than the companies represented, compromising the quality of the beverage. Consumers are then forced to use additional K-Cups, which are a portion pack for the systems, according to the complaint. Defendants maintained that even if their alleged conduct was unlawful, plaintiff had not sufficiently pled ascertainable loss.  In a misrepresentation case, a plaintiff generally may show ascertainable loss by either out-of-pocket loss or a demonstration of loss in value.  In this case, Green did not allege that he made a claim for warranty repair or replacement of his machine.  The warranty provided as part of the contract of sale is part of the benefit of the bargain between the parties. Any defects that arise and are addressed by warranty, at no cost to the consumer, do not provide the predicate loss that the CFA expressly requires for a private claim.  Because plaintiff had not availed himself of defendants' warranty, he could not allege that the warranty does not address the defect in his machine.

Furthermore, the court found unpersuasive plaintiff's argument that the warranty did not address the defects in the brewers because other consumers allegedly reported that their replaced or repaired brewers were equally defective.  Allegations regarding the experience of absent members of the putative class, in general, cannot fulfill the requirement of pleading injury with adequate specificity.

Similarly, plaintiff did not sufficiently plead loss in value.   Plaintiff broadly asserted that he suffered a loss because each brewer failed to perform its advertised purpose and caused purchasers to suffer a loss of value of the product. But Green failed to allege how much he paid for his brewer and how much other comparable brewers manufactured by competitors cost at the time of purchase. Furthermore, Green had not suffered a diminution in value because the defective brewer could have been repaired or replaced with a new brewer which would have had its own one-year warranty.


Regarding the implied warranty claim, the general purpose of the brewers is to brew beverages. Even if defendants may have advertised that the machines would brew a specific amount of beverage, that alone did not transform the “general” purpose.  Green did not allege that his machine would not brew coffee or that it was inoperable.  The complaint was also devoid of any allegation that plaintiff can no longer use his brewer. Therefore, Green had not sufficiently alleged that his brewer was unfit for its ordinary purpose of brewing beverages at the time of purchase.

Defendants also contended that the class allegations should be dismissed. Plaintiff argued that the Court should deny the motion because it was premature. Nevertheless, a court may strike class action allegations in those cases where the complaint itself demonstrates that the requirements for maintaining a class action cannot be met.  Here, the court concluded that the plaintiff could not  meet the predominance requirement set forth in Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(b).

The complaint did not allege that all individuals in New Jersey who purchased the Keurig Brewing Systems had experienced the defect. Plaintiff acknowledged that there were members in the putative class who had not yet suffered the alleged pump failure. Consequently, the putative class included individuals who do not presently have a claim against defendants. Proving that defendants breached the implied warranty of merchantability would also require an individualized inquiry. Not every member of the putative class experienced a defect with the model series B70. Even if the purported defect had manifested in all of the brewers purchased within the class period, the court would have to make individual inquiries as to the cause and extent of the defect.  Motion granted. 

 

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.