Class Certification Rejected in French Fry MDL

A federal court has rejected class certification in the multidistrict litigation concerning McDonald's Corp.'s french fries. In Re McDonald’s French Fries Litigation, MDL No. 1784, Civ. No.06-C-4467 (N.D. Ill. May 6, 2009). Plaintiffs in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., brought claims against McDonald's for allegedly putting hydrolyzed wheat bran and hydrolyzed casein in a beef flavoring for oil used in production of french fries and hash browns. Plaintiffs included individuals with celiac disease; galactosemia; autism; and wheat or gluten allergies. Defendant was alleged to have falsely claimed the "Potato Products" were gluten, wheat, and dairy-free through its website and in literature available at the restaurants.

The plaintiffs did not claim that they were physically harmed by the presence of trace amounts of wheat gluten and casein — a milk protein — in the beef flavoring. Rather, they based their claims on theories of consumer fraud and alleged economic losses. Plaintiffs claim they purchased Potato Products based solely on defendant’s representations that those products were free of gluten, milk and/or wheat ingredients, that the Potato Products in fact contained these allergens, and that absent defendant’s misrepresentations, plaintiffs would not have purchased the Potato Products.

The court first addressed the class definition. Named plaintiffs had testified in their depositions that they were quite satisfied with the Potato Products they consumed. (This shows the importance of pre-certification discovery, and the common common disconnect between the theories of class counsel and the reality of the class). None of the named plaintiffs had any physical reaction to eating the Potato Products. It was clear, therefore, that many persons in the class as defined by plaintiffs had gone on eating defendant’s Potato Products even after defendant clarified its product disclosures. Expert testimony showed that many patients with food allergies conduct their own ‘trials’ to determine what foods with gluten they have previously enjoyed that they may eat in moderation without experiencing symptoms. People who continued to use the products suffered no injury, not even the economic one claimed in this lawsuit. So the class was both over-inclusive and too indefinite for certification.

Regarding a narrower possible class of persons who because of their diagnosis of celiac disease, galactosemia, autism or a wheat, gluten or dairy allergy would not have eaten McDonald’s french fries or  hash browns if they had known they contained, potentially, a small amount of hydrolyzed wheat bran and hydrolyzed casein in the beef flavor that makes up one percent of the oil in which the potato suppliers par-fry the potatoes before shipping them to McDonald’s, and who relied on a representation by defendant that its Potato Products were wheat or milk free in purchasing and eating the french fries or hash browns….the court found that individual issues and individualized proofs would destroy manageability of a class action. That class in essence asked the court or jury to, at a minimum, review and evaluate potentially millions of letters from doctors for each class member. In addition, each claimant would have to individually affirm that he or she had seen the representation, purchased Potato Products on the basis of the representation, and no longer did so following defendant’s expanded product disclosure in February, 2006. Such a necessary separate evidentiary inquiry into each class member’s claim precluded certification.

Finally, choice of law issues ensured that individual issues of law clearly predominated over
common issues, making a nationwide class unmanageable. In at least some jurisdictions, reliance is necessary to connect the representations with the economic harm claimed, and in others individual proof is necessary to show that any injury was proximately caused by the misrepresentation made by a defendant.