Class Certification Denied in Microwave Popcorn Litigation

A federal court has denied class certification in a proposed consumer fraud class action arising from the sale of microwave popcorn with artificial butter flavoring. See Courtney Fine v. Conagra Foods, Inc., No. CV 10-01848 SJO (C.D. Calif., Aug. 27, 2010).

The facts: Diacetyl is a naturally occurring chemical in butter, and was also used in artificial butter flavors for decades. In 2007 defendant Conagra, maker of microwave popcorn, issued a press release to the public stating it was no longer adding the compound diacetyl, which has been associated with lung injury in factory workers exposed to high doses, to its butter-flavored microwave popcorn products. Since the announcement, defendant "reformulated" all butter-flavored varieties of Orville Redenbacher's and Act II microwave popcorn in response, it said, to consumer uncertainty regarding the ingredients of the microwave popcorn. Conagra also redesigned the packaging for these products to display the words "No Added Diacetyl."

Plaintiff alleged that she understood the advertising claim to be there was no diacetyl in the new popcorn, as opposed to no added diacetyl, and alleged she relied on defendant's claims that there was "no diacetyl" in the popcorn products when making the purchases. Plaintiff asserted, however, that diacetyl is still present in the products (as part of natural butter). Plaintiff further asserted that had she known the representation regarding the diacetyl was false, she would not have made the purchases.

Plaintiff alleged causes of action for: (1) false and misleading representation of material facts, constituting unfair competition within the meaning of California Business & Professions Code §§ 17200, et seq. ("UCL"); and (2) false advertising in violation of Business & Professions Code §§ 17500, et seq. ("FAL"). She further alleged that she suffered a monetary loss as a result of defendant's alleged actions, which were in violation of the Consumer Legal Remedies Act ("CLRA"), Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1750, et seq.

Last March, Conagra removed the case from state court to federal (Judge Otero). Then they filed a Motion to Dismiss based on various grounds, including that: (1) Plaintiff does not allege a cognizable injury resulting from defendant's products and therefore lacks standing; (2) Plaintiff fails to state a claim under the UCL, FAL, and CLRA as a matter of law under Rule 12(b)(6). The gist of the final argument was that plaintiff "received exactly what she paid for."  But, the court was persuaded that plaintiff adequately asserted that she did not get what she paid for, as she was under the impression that defendant's popcorn products were free of diacetyl. That is, she asserted that Conagra’s placement of "No Diacetyl Added" on the packaging is a material misrepresentation, and that reasonable consumers could (somehow) have taken the label to mean that diacetyl did not exist in the product at all.

Plaintiffs then moved for certification of a class consisting of all persons residing in the state of California who purchased Orville Redenbacher's brand Light Butter, Movie Theater Butter Light microwave popcorn, and/or ACT II brand 94% Fat Free Butter, Light Butter, and Butter Lover's microwave popcorn for personal use and not for resale since September 1, 2007. Plaintiff sought certification under Rule 23(b)(3) and 23(b)(2), but argued her "primary goal is to obtain injunctive relief by way of an order enjoining Defendant from its continued practice of making misleading advertising and label claims about its butter flavored microwave popcorn products."

The court denied the motion for class certification on three related grounds. The first problem was that in the court's prior Order Denying Defendant's Motion to Dismiss (6/29/10), the court had ruled that plaintiff established standing for herself because she alleged that she incurred injury as a result of defendant's allegedly improper conduct. That is, plaintiff's spending money on defendant's popcorn in reliance of defendant's placing "No Added Diacetyl" on the packaging.

In the class Motion, plaintiff sought to certify a class that includes "all persons residing in the State of California who purchased [Defendant's] popcorn for personal use and not for resale since September 1, 2007."  Named plaintiff made no mention of the proposed class being comprised only of members who made the purchase as a result of defendant's allegedly false statements, which would be necessary in order to establish standing for the rest of the class.  The court noted that other courts have held that class definitions should be tailored to exclude putative class members who lack standing; each class member need not submit evidence of personal standing but, nonetheless, a class must be defined in such a way that anyone within it would have standing. Burdick v. Union Sec. Ins. Co., 2009 WL 4798873, at *4 (C.D. Cal. 2009).

Accordingly, class certification was improper here, given that plaintiff's proposed class included many people who may not have relied on defendant's alleged misrepresentations when making their purchasing decisions.

Second, a related problem was the Rule 23(a) requirement that plaintiff’s claims be typical of the class claims. The court agreed with Conagra that plaintiff failed to adduce facts suggesting that other class members have been injured by the same course of conduct that she asserts injured her. There could be no serious question, said the court, that the vast majority of putative class members here never read (let alone considered) the defendant's statement at issue, do not know what diacetyl is, and did not base their popcorn purchases on diacetyl-related issues. Plaintiff purchased popcorn, she said, because of defendant's allegedly misleading statements regarding diacetyl. Plaintiff's injury was established due to her alleged reliance on defendant's statements. But plaintiff sought to certify a class that would likely include people with varying rationales behind their purchases – many who purchased popcorn based on factors like flavor or brand. Plaintiff thus failed to establish that she could be a typical representative of the class, whose members were buying for all sorts of reasons unrelated to diacetyl.

Third, because the court found that plaintiff was not a typical representative, the court also held that plaintiff was not an adequate representative under Rule 23(a)(4).

What is refreshing about this short opinion is the recognition that Rule 23(a) matters too.  Often we see courts giver very cursory analysis of the (a) elements and/or emphasize that regardless of the initial prerequisites the issues of predominance, manageability and superiority dictate the certification result.  While the fact that class members undoubtedly bought microwave popcorn for many reasons would impact predominance of individual issues, it also does in fact suggest that the class representative's claims were not typical of the the class, as defined.

(NB. Your humble blogger is involved in the diacetyl litigation, but not this case.)

 

Causation Expert Opinions Excluded in Toxic Tort Case

A federal judge has issued an opinion explaining her Daubert and summary judgment rulings in a case brought by a consumer who alleged he contracted lung disease from the fumes of microwave popcorn. Newkirk et al. v. ConAgra Foods Inc., No. 2:08-cv-00273 (E.D. Wash. 7/2/2010).

Readers of MassTortDefense may be familiar with the so-called "popcorn lung" litigation in which plaintiffs have alleged they contracted a series of diseases, including Bronchiolitis obliterans, from inhaling the chemical diacetyl which had been used in the artificial butter on microwave popcorn.  Most of the claims have been made by workers with alleged industrial-level exposures on a daily basis in popcorn factories several years ago.  There are, however, a handful of cases by consumers claiming they somehow had sufficient exposure in their homes to have the same respiratory injuries.  These latter cases raise significant issues of general and specific causation, arising from the central tenet of toxicology: the dose makes the poison.  The studies relied on by plaintiffs noted that the cumulative exposure to diacetyl was correlated with chronic effects on lung function in plant workers.

Plaintiff Newkirk claimed that the natural and artificial butter flavoring in ConAgra's Act II Butter and Act II Butter Lovers popcorn products caused him severe and progressive damage to the respiratory system, extreme shortness of breath, and reduced life expectancy.  He claimed that he ate between five and seven bags of ConAgra's popcorn every day for more than a decade.

The motions centered around plaintiff's burden to prove causation. Plaintiffs in toxic tort cases must establish both general and specific causation. Golden v. CH2M Hill Hanford Group, Inc., 528 F.3d 681, 683 (9th Cir.2008). Evidence supporting general causation addresses “whether the substance at issue had the capacity to cause the harm alleged.” In re Hanford Nuclear Reservation Litigation, 292 F.3d 1124, 1133 (9th Cir.2002). Specific causation, by contrast, concerns whether a particular individual suffers from a particular ailment as a result of exposure to the substance. Defendants challenged plaintiff's proof of both under Daubert.

Plaintiffs retained Dr. Egilman to offer an opinion on general causation, as well as to examine Mr. Newkirk, diagnose him, and offer an opinion regarding the specific cause of his condition. The expert opinion testimony of Dr. Egilman was the plaintiffs’ primary evidence supporting general causation. (All of the Newkirks’ other causation expert witnesses assumed that general causation already has been established.)  He opined that,  “There is no known safe level of diacetyl exposure. Existing scientific studies also suggest that levels of diacetyl exposure below and around 1 ppm can cause BO and other respiratory illnesses.”


The court found, however, that Dr. Egilman's attempt to analogize kitchen to industrial exposures failed. He offered no sufficient basis or methodology for support for the conclusion that there is no important (medically relevant) qualitative difference between the vapor from butter flavoring slurry in a mixing vat in a popcorn plant and the vapor from butter flavoring that is emitted from microwave popcorn in the home. There was nothing to support Dr. Egilman’s conclusions that were at the heart of this case: that the vapors emitted from a microwave popcorn bag contain the same proportion of chemicals or in sufficient doses or that all of the substances in the two instances are identical. In other parts of his reports and testimony, the court found, Dr. Egilman relied on some existing data, mostly in the form of published studies, but drew conclusions far beyond what the study authors concluded.

Or, Dr. Egilman manipulated the data from those studies to reach misleading conclusions of his own. Slip opin. at 25. For example, he relied on statements by a Dr. Cecile Rose, on a patient (and another consumer plaintiff), Mr. Watson, who allegedly contracted disease from popcorn fumes. But this was in the nature of a single case report, and in it even Dr. Rose did not assert that her conclusions could be extrapolated to other consumers in the absence of publication or peer review; Dr. Egilman acknowledged that Dr. Rose did not publish the exposure levels measured in Mr. Watson’s home -- so no such comparison was possible.  Dr. Rose herself qualified her conclusions: “It is difficult to make a causal connection based on a single case report. We cannot be sure that this patient’s exposure to butter flavored microwave popcorn from daily heavy preparation has caused his lung disease.” 
 

The expert also relied on testing conducted by Dr. John Martyny in a kitchen (not of a consumer), despite that doctor's own reflections that the methodology underlying the work could not support extrapolating to general causation for a broader group of consumers.  The expert also relied on animal studies. Expert opinion relying on animal studies to reach an opinion on causation in humans is usually admissible only when the expert explains how and why the results of the animal toxicological study can reliably be extrapolated to humans. General Electric Co. v. Joiner, 522 U.S. 136, 143-45 (1997).  Dr. Egilman offered no such analytical bridge between the animal studies finding harm from high levels of diacetyl exposure to lab rats and his conclusion that those studies demonstrate that diacetyl exposure causes decreased lung function in humans. He offered no sufficient explanation for how and why the results of those studies could be extrapolated to humans, let alone low-dose consumer contexts.

Without Dr. Egilman's testimony to support causation, the plaintiffs' other expert witnesses couldn't establish this element either.

Note also that the court excluded Dr. Egilman's "legal conclusions" from his expert report and affidavits, since the witness was no more capable than the fact-finder to draw such a conclusion. See Nationwide Transp. Fin. v. Cass Info. Sys., 523 F.3d 1051, 1059-60 (9th Cir.2008) (expert witness cannot give an opinion as to her legal conclusion, i.e., an opinion on an ultimate issue of law). For example, Dr. Egilman tried to opine that about what the defendant "knew" and "failed to warn" consumers. This is another useful precedent against plaintiffs' mis-use of the conduct "expert" who provides mere legal conclusions and invades the province of the jury.

(Your humble blogger is involved in the diacetyl litigation, but not this case.)