Class Action on Smoke Detectors Dismissed: All Smoke No Fire

A California federal court recently rejected rejected a proposed class action in which plaintiffs alleged smoke alarms were defective in that the product’s packaging allegedly omitted safety information.  See Bird v. First Alert Inc. et al., No. 4:14-cv-03585 (N.D. Cal. ).

The defendant sells two types of smoke detectors — ionization, which the opinion said are better at catching fast-flaming fires, and photoelectric, which are reportedly more sensitive to smoldering fires. The basis of plaintiff's complaint is that the defendant failed to adequately disclose the
dangers of using ionization smoke alarms – specifically, that ionization smoke alarms do
not alert occupants of smoldering-type fires as effectively as photoelectric smoke alarms.  However, the ionization alarm, which Bird purchased, explains these differences clearly on its packaging and recommended the use of both types of alarms for “maximum protection." 

Defendant moved to dismiss. The allegations in the complaint "must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007).  A motion to dismiss should be granted if the complaint does not proffer enough facts to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face. See id. at 558-59. W]here the well-pleaded facts do not
permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged – but it has not shown – that the pleader is entitled to relief.  Although the court generally may not consider material outside the pleadings when resolving a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the court may consider matters that are properly the subject of judicial notice. Knievel v. ESPN, 393 F.3d 1068, 1076 (9th Cir. 2005); Lee v. City of Los Angeles, 250 F.3d 668, 688-89 (9th Cir. 2001). Additionally, the court may consider exhibits attached to the complaint, see Hal Roach Studios, Inc. v. Richard Feiner & Co., Inc., 896 F.2d 1542, 1555 n.19 (9th Cir. 1989),

Plaintiff obviously had a high hurdle to overcome to state a claim here, given that the product packaging explains that the two types of smoke alarms respond differently to different types of fires, and recommends that consumers utilize both types. Nevertheless, plaintiff contended that the disclosures on the packaging did not constitute a "warning" and did not amount to a "sufficient disclosure" of the extent of the "safety defect" inherent in the ionization smoke detectors, because they allegedly failed to state that the ionization smoke detectors might not safely alert consumers in time to escape the deadly effects of smoldering fires.

The court recognized that even a nondisclosure claim sounding in fraud must still be pled with particularity. Kearns, 567 F.3d at 1126-27; see also Marolda v. Symantec Corp., 672 F.Supp. 2d 992, 1002 (N.D. Cal. 2009). Specifically, the plaintiff must set forth an explanation as to why the omission complained of  made the warning or label false and misleading in order to state a claim under Rule 9(b). Bias v. Wells Fargo & Co., 942 F.Supp. 2d 915, 935 (N.D. Cal. 2013). Thus, plaintiff must describe the content of the omission and where the omitted information should or could have been revealed, as well as provide representative samples of advertisements, offers, or other representations that plaintiff relied on to make her purchase and that failed to include the allegedly omitted information. See Eisen v. Porsche Cars North Am., Inc.,, 2012 WL 841019 at *3 (citing
Marolda, 672 F.Supp. 2d at 1002). While the complaint alleged that the "packaging" on plaintiff's ionization smoke detector did not contain any warning, instructions, or other information disclosing,
describing, or warning about the smoke detector's inability to adequately, effectively, and
safely detect, warn, alert, and protect occupants from smoldering-type fires,  in fact the packaging did disclose information regarding the performance of ionization alarms in smoldering fires.

Yet, the complaint alleged no facts regarding these disclosures – in particular, when plaintiff looked
at the packaging (if ever), whether she reviewed the disclosures on the packaging (if at all),
or why she disregarded the clear recommendation that she use both ionization and photoelectric alarms. Nor did the complaint allege any facts showing that the disclosures were inadequate.

Motion to dismiss granted without prejudice.

Consumer Fraud Class Claim Dismissed in Beverage Case

Readers have seen our warning about the trend in food and beverage claims attacking virtually every aspect of the product's label as a supposed consumer fraud act violation. A federal court earlier this month dismissed just such a proposed class action challenging the labeling on VitaRain Tropical Mango Vitamin Enhanced Water Beverage.  See Maple v. Costco Wholesale Corp., No. 12-5166 (E.D. Wash., 8/1/13).

Plaintiffs alleged in their amended complaint that one defendant manufactured and bottled a product known as VitaRain Vitamin Enhanced Water Beverage. VitaRain came in four flavors: Tropical Mango, Raspberry Green Tea, Kiwi Strawberry, and Dragonfruit. The product was marketed and distributed by another defendant and sold at Costco warehouses throughout the
country. Plaintiffs alleged that the VitaRain Tropical Mango drink in particular was marketed as a natural product but in fact contained “unnatural” ingredients, including large amounts of “synthetic caffeine.” Specifically, plaintiffs alleged that the VitaRain Tropical Mango drink (1) lacked a front-facing disclosure that the beverage contained caffeine; (2) failed to disclose the relative amount of caffeine in the beverage; and (3) falsely claimed that the beverage is a “natural tonic” and
contains “natural caffeine.” Plaintiffs further alleged they “reasonably believed that they [had] purchased a Drink similar to vitamin water.” 

On behalf of a putative class consisting of all Washington residents who purchased the product over the four years preceding the filing of the lawsuit, the named plaintiff asserted claims for (1) violations of the Washington Consumer Protection Act; (2) misrepresentation; and (3) negligence.

Defendant Costco moved to dismiss the amended complaint, contending, inter alia, that some
of plaintiff’s claims were preempted by federal law; and that parts of the amended complaint failed to meet the pleading standards of Rules 8 and 9(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

To withstand dismissal, a complaint must contain “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). “Naked assertion[s],” “labels and conclusions,” or “formulaic recitation[s] of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Id. at 555, 557.  A claim has facial plausibility only "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

First an interesting civil procedure issue. Ordinarily, when the district court considers matters outside the pleadings it must convert a motion to dismiss brought under Civil Rule 12(b)(6) into a Civil Rule 56 motion for summary judgment. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(d). However, a court may consider certain materials without converting the motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment. See, e.g., United States v. Ritchie, 342 F.3d 903, 908 (9th Cir. 2003). Such materials include documents attached to the complaint, documents incorporated by reference in the complaint, or matters of judicial notice.  A document may be incorporated by reference into a complaint where the
plaintiff refers extensively to the document or the document forms the basis of plaintiff’s claim. In such cases, the defendant may offer that document and the district court may treat the document as part of the complaint for the purposes of a motion to dismiss. Here, the court concluded that judicial notice of the product label was appropriate and that it could consider the labeling without converting Costco’s motion to dismiss into one for summary judgment.

Defendants argued that plaintiff’s claims were expressly preempted by the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetics Act (“FDCA”), as amended by the National Labeling and Education Act (“NLEA”), 21 U.S.C. § 301 et seq. The FDCA “comprehensively regulates food and beverage labeling.” Pom Wonderful LLC v. Coca-Cola Co., 679 F.3d 1170, 1175 (9th Cir. 2012).  And specifically, they govern whether and how a label must disclose the presence of caffeine.  Here, the Amended Complaint sought "to create and impose”  two new requirements which would directly conflict with federal law: (1) a requirement that caffeinated beverages disclose the fact that they contain caffeine on the front label; and (2) a requirement that labels state the “relative amount” of caffeine by providing a “daily value” amount.  By virtue of imposing these new and conflicting requirements, defendants contended, plaintiff’s claims were preempted.  The court agreed; defendants showed that these food labeling requirements are expressly covered by the regulations. Federal law preempts any state law that would impose additional requirements on how food labels present nutrition information.  See Turek v. Gen. Mills, Inc., 662 F.3d 423, 426 (7th Cir. 2011).  Specifically, the court held that federal law preempts plaintiff’s claims that (1) defendants were required to disclose that the drink contained caffeine on the front label of the drink and (2) that defendants were required to state the “relative amount” of caffeine in the drink. Therefore Costco’s motion to dismiss was granted as to these claims.

Next, defendants contended that plaintiff had also failed to adequately plead causation, an element of the remaining consumer fraud-based allegations. Specifically, defendants argued that plaintiff had not alleged that he even read the complained-of labels before purchasing the VitaRain drink. The court noted that while the amended complaint contained detailed allegations about what was, and what was not, on the label of the VitaRain Tropical Mango drink he allegedly purchased, nowhere did he state that he actually read the label, or that his purchasing decision was driven by the alleged deceptive statements on the label.  Broad conclusory statements on causation. such as that class members have suffered "as a result of" purchasing the energy Drink, were insufficient, especially in light of Plaintiff’s failure to allege that he even read the allegedly deceptive labels prior to purchasing the drink.

Finally, on the misrepresentation claims, defendants suggested that plaintiff could not prove the reliance elements of his fraudulent misrepresentation and negligent misrepresentation claims because he had not alleged that he saw the alleged misrepresentations prior to purchasing
the drink. The court dismissed plaintiff’s misrepresentation claim for the same reason that the CPA claim was dismissed: Plaintiff failed to adequately plead reliance because he had not alleged that he based his purchasing decision on the complained-of labels or that he even read the labels
prior to purchasing the drink.  The court refused to credit the naked assertion that he would not have purchased the drink had the label not contained such statements in light of the missing averments.

Claims dismissed (with leave to amend).

 

Proposed TV Class Action Dismissed Again

A California federal  court has again dismissed a proposed class action brought against Sony Corp. of America regarding allegedly defective televisions. Marchante, et al. v. Sony Corp. of America Inc., et al., No. 3:10-cv-00795 (S.D. Calif.).

Plaintiffs alleged that overheating caused the chassis and internal parts of nine different Sony rear-projection televisions to melt or burn during normal use. Plaintiffs, on behalf of  a proposed class of purchasers, claimed that Sony violated several consumer protection statutes (such as, typically the California Consumer Legal Remedies Act) and breached express and implied warranties by selling them the defective televisions. Earlier this year, the court dismissed without prejudice all of the claims, and plaintiffs filed an amended pleading.  Defendants again moved to dismiss.

The court reviewed the Twombly/Iqbal standards, and ruled that the plaintiffs had not fixed the pleading problems. Plaintiffs again alleged that Sony engaged in unfair business acts or practices by selling, promoting, and recalling the television models at issue. The court had previously dismissed plaintiffs’ unfair business act claim because plaintiffs failed to allege a substantial consumer injury; in the new complaint plaintiffs again failed to allege that the televisions exhibited any problems during the one-year limited warranty period. Every alleged problem surfaced several years after purchase. Any alleged failure to disclose thus related to a defect that arose years after the express warranty expired. And any failure to disclose therefore could not constitute substantial injury.  Although plaintiffs did amend their complaint to include allegations that the televisions failed to operate properly from the outset, plaintiffs’ amendments did not cure the deficiencies of the prior complaint.  The fact remained that the defects did not become apparent to the plaintiff-consumers until after the warranty expired. Thus, the complaint still fell short of alleging that the defects caused the televisions to malfunction within the warranty period, as is required to allege a substantial consumer injury under California's consumer statutes. 

As a general rule, manufacturers cannot be liable under the CLRA for failures to disclose a
defect that manifests itself after the warranty period has expired.  A possible exception exists, however, if the manufacturer fails to disclose information and the omission is contrary to a representation actually made by the defendant, or the omission pertains to a fact the defendant was otherwise obligated to disclose. Here, all of plaintiffs alleged CLRA violations pertained to Sony’s alleged failures to disclose; the question therefore was whether Sony carried any obligation to disclose the alleged defect. The court noted that under the CLRA, a manufacturer’s duty to disclose information related to a defect that manifests itself after the expiration of an express warranty is limited to issues related to product safety.  Moreover, in order to have a duty to disclose, the manufacturer must be aware of the defect at the time that plaintiffs purchased, since a manufacturer has no duty to disclose facts of which it was unaware. In dismissing the prior complaint, the court held that plaintiffs failed to invoke the safety exception because the complaint was devoid of allegations that anyone or any property —other than the television itself— was damaged by the allegedly defective televisions.  

Even assuming plaintiffs’ allegations that the televisions pose a safety risk were sufficient to invoke the safety exception (fire hazard?), plaintiffs failed to allege that Sony was aware of this safety hazard at the time plaintiffs purchased the televisions.  First, plaintiffs alleged that Sony had known about it since 2008 and "possibly even earlier.”   Plaintiffs bought their televisions in 2004, 2005, and 2006. So under plaintiffs’ own allegations, Sony may not have been aware of the alleged defect at the time plaintiffs made their purchases, or even within the respective one-year post-purchase warranty periods.  Second, all of plaintiffs' allegations regarding Sony’s knowledge of the alleged defect pertained to Sony’s knowledge that the defect caused excess heat that resulted in the deterioration of the television display, not that the defect posed any safety hazard. 

 The court thus dismissed the CLRA claims without prejudice. 

The court previously dismissed plaintiffs’ claim for breach of the express (limited warranty) because the alleged defects did not manifest until after the one-year warranty period expired. The general rule is that an express warranty does not cover repairs made after the applicable warranty period—here, one year after purchase—has elapsed.  None of the plaintiffs here sought repair or replacement of their televisions within the warranty period. None of the four named plaintiffs alleged that Sony either refused to repair any covered defects or refused to replace any televisions suffering from covered defects.

Plaintiffs’ implied warranty claims again failed because they were untimely. Subject to a sixty-day minimum and one-year maximum, implied warranties are equal in duration to corresponding express warranties under California law, said the court.  The implied warranty here was deemed to have a one-year duration to match that of the express warranty. And because Plaintiffs purchased the televisions in 2004, 2005, and 2006, the implied warranties would have expired by 2007, at the latest. But the amended complaint did not contain allegations that the televisions failed to function as warranted or that plaintiffs sought warranty coverage during the one-year period following their respective purchases. Thus, these claims were dismissed with prejudice.

Plaintiffs continue to try to shoe horn claims into the consumer fraud matrix, thinking they will have an easier road to class certification.  That makes the court's scrutiny of the pleadings even more crucial.

 

"Infected" Tissue Claim Not A Consumer Fraud Claim

Readers have seen my warnings about plaintiff attorneys trying to turn every marketing statement of opinion or puffing into a consumer fraud claim. Now comes a decision about a non-consumer product consumer fraud claim. A federal court recently decided that a plaintiff failed to plead a proper consumer fraud claim against a human tissue product supplier for allegedly providing infected material that was implanted into his body. See Wamsley v. Lifenet Transplant Services Inc., No. 10-00990 (S.D.W. Va., 11/10/11).

Plaintiff sued non-profit corporations who were suppliers and distributors of human tissue products, such as human tendons. Plaintiff alleged that he underwent surgery to repair a rupture to the Achilles tendon in his left ankle, a procedure that involved the implantation of a human tendon obtained from defendants. Plaintiff alleged the product was defective because it was “infected.”  Consequently, plaintiff alleged he had to undergo additional surgeries “to correct the damage caused by the defective tendon.

Plaintiff claimed that supplying an infected tendon constitutes an unfair method of competition and unfair or deceptive act or practice as defined by the West Virginia Consumer Credit Protection Act.  Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that plaintiff had failed to allege any action or inaction on the part of the defendants which would constitute unfair competition, unfair acts or practices, deceptive acts or practices, or fraudulent acts or practices. Plaintiff only formulaically recited the elements of a cause of action under the WVCCPA.   the court agreed and had plaintiff file an amended complaint which alleged defendants concealed from plaintiff, his doctors, and his hospital, that the tendon was infected.  He claimed the alleged concealment
that a tendon provided for human implantation is infected constitutes an unfair method of competition and unfair or deceptive act or practice.
 

Defendants then filed a motion to dismiss the amended complaint arguing that plaintiff’s
amended complaint fails to meet the pleading standards articulated in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), and Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). Defendants further contended that plaintiff did not have a private cause of action under the WVCCPA because no causal connection exists between the alleged unlawful conduct and the alleged ascertainable loss: because a physician (a “learned intermediary”) made the decision as to what product to use to repair the ruptured Achilles tendon, plaintiff could not establish the necessary causal connection between the alleged unlawful practice by defendants and the alleged injury.

The court began by outlining the relevant legal standard, familiar to our readers. The
plausibility standard requires a plaintiff to demonstrate more than a sheer possibility that a
defendant has acted unlawfully;  it requires the plaintiff to articulate facts, when accepted as
true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. While a court must accept the material facts alleged in the complaint as true, bare legal conclusions are not entitled to the assumption of truth and are insufficient to state a claim.  Facts pled that are merely consistent with liability are not sufficient.

Moreover, the court noted in an elegant way, "fraud is a generous tort, encompassing affirmative misrepresentations and omissions alike, its boundaries limited only by the imaginations of crafty and unprincipled minds."  A claim that “sounds in fraud” must satisfy Rule 9(b)’s more rigorous pleading standards. Rule 9(b)’s heightened pleading standards advance several interests, including protecting defendants’ reputations from baseless accusations, eliminating unmeritorious suits that are brought only for their nuisance value, discouraging fishing expeditions brought in the dim hope of discovering a fraud, and providing defendants with detailed information in order to enable them to effectively defend against a claim.

Plaintiff’s sole relevant factual allegation concerning defendants’ alleged unlawful conduct was that the defendants concealed from plaintiff, his doctors, and his hospital, that the tendon was infected. But he offered not a single fact in support of his theory that defendants concealed from surgeons the fact that the human tissue they provided was “infected” or knew that the surgeons would implant the diseased tendon into a human body.  (Indeed, the serious nature of this allegation made it more at home in a criminal court than a consumer fraud action.) Such an unadorned, conclusory averment leashed to not a single supporting fact failed to meet the pleading standard. Moreover, Plaintiff’s allegation that defendants concealed a material fact sounds in fraud
and, thus, triggered rigorous pleading requirements under Fed.R.Civ.P. 9(b).  However, the court called this a  "shoot-and-ask-questions-later lawsuit"  because it offered no facts to support a good faith belief that defendants knowingly distributed diseased or “infected” human body parts to plaintiff’s health care providers. No names, places, dates, or times, and no concrete facts to support the alleged conduct. No narrative on what was medically deficient about the tendon implant except to state that it was “infected.” In sum, plaintiff’s theory of liability failed to cross the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief. 

Even if the amended complaint had been "the model of perfect pleading," it would still fail because it does not state a cognizable claim under the WVCCPA. Plaintiff cannot shoulder his burden of stating a claim upon which relief can be granted because, within the meaning of the WVCCPA, the provisioning of blood and human tissue by the non-profit defendants to the health care providers was not “trade or commerce”; the service provided by the defendants was not performed “in connection with the sale or advertisement of any goods or services”; plaintiff was not a “consumer”; and the parities had not entered into a “consumer transaction.”

The West Virginia Legislature, in accord with many other jurisdictions, expressed its intent
that suppliers of human blood and tissue products be held to different legal standards than those
businesses that manufacture, distribute, and sell conventional goods and services. Blood and tissue distributors are rendering a service— and not making a sale—when they provide human blood and tissue products according to the West Virginia Legislature, which intended to limit the liability of such distributors in contract warranty and strict liability tort claims, plainly distinguishing human body products from ordinary goods. The court thus applied the West Virginia high court's decision in White v. Wyeth, 705 S.E.2d 828, 837 (W. Va. 2010), which held prescription drugs aren't proper subjects of consumer protection claims; the court refused to allow a plaintiff to morph what is most naturally a product liability or breach of warranty action into a purported statutory consumer protection claim would permit an end-run around the state's blood shield statute.

Finally, the court noted that plaintiff was correct in observing that if his WVCCPA complaint was dismissed, plaintiff would be left with no adequate legal remedy. Defendants had explained that the WVCCPA claim was a products liability claim in disguise, brought only because the statute of limitations had run on plaintiff’s traditional tort remedies. Thus, any difficulty plaintiff might having pursuing more traditional causes of action was likely his own fault.  The legislature did not intend that WVCCPA serve as "a Plan B litigation backstop" for claims when a plaintiff had—but did not pursue—appropriate traditional causes of action.


 

A Picture Worth a Thousand Words Under Twombly?

We have posted about plaintiffs attorneys seeking to exploit the valuable and significant economic boon that is hydraulic fracturing. Today's post comes from that litigation, but the focus is not on fracking, but on a civil procedure issue that one infrequently sees in mass torts.  Plaintiffs in a case complaining about hydraulic fracturing operations in the Fayetteville Shale deposit in Arkansas recently survived a motion to dismiss, in large part because of the photographs they attached to the complaint.  Ginardi v. Frontier Gas Services LLC, No. 4:11-cv-00420 (E.D. Ark.,  8/10/11).

Plaintiffs alleged that the defendant's compressor stations caused harmful levels of noise pollution, and emitted large amounts of methane and hydrogen sulfide, among other flammable and toxic gasses. Plaintiffs offered multiple theories of liability including: strict liability, nuisance, trespass and negligence. Plaintiffs are seeking to represent similarly situated persons in
a class action. 

Defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that the complaint was insufficient because it failed to connect Kinder Morgan to the noise and gas emissions that are the central alleged injury of the case. Defendant’s argument relied on the heightened pleading standards of Twombly and Iqbal.

The district court downplayed the clear significance of those two decisions, continuing to emphasize the supposed "relatively low hurdle of presenting plausible facts to create a reasonable inference" that Kinder Morgan is involved in activities that may have harmed plaintiffs.

But of more interest is the treatment of the argument that plaintiffs made suggesting that the photographs attached to the amended complaint were sufficient to create a reasonable inference that Kinder Morgan was connected to the alleged misconduct. One supposedly showed the proximity of plaintiffs’ property and residences to the compressor station. The second was a photograph of warning signs at the compressor station, allegedly showing that Kinder Morgan was involved in its operation, and that the facility created noise and emitted toxic material.

Certainly, exhibits properly attached to the complaint may be considered in analyzing a motion to dismiss.  Lum v. Bank of America, 361 F.3d 217, 221 n. 3 (3d Cir.2004).  And it may be more common for a plaintiff to attach photographs to the complaint in certain kinds of claims, such as intellectual property claims. E.g., Magna Mirrors of America, Inc. v. Dura Global Technologies, LLC, 2011 WL 1120265 (E.D.Mich.).  But it is not true that a picture is always worth a thousand words.  If a plaintiff has to write a brief explaining what the picture supposedly shows, or the photograph is susceptible to a variety of interpretations, the photograph cannot substitute for the well-pleaded allegations of a complaint. Dock v. Rush, 2010 WL 4386470 (M.D.Pa.).  A famous photographer once noted, "I always thought good photos were like good jokes. If you have to explain it, it just isn’t that good."

The proximity allegedly shown in the first clearly did not apply to the putative class members; the proposed class was of all those who live or own property within a one-mile radius of defendants' stations in Arkansas -- not what was shown in the photograph. The signs in the second had no context but apparently were merely to warn workers about potential hazards on the site. Nevertheless, the court, with no real analysis, concluded that the complaint with photographs attached as exhibits contained sufficient factual content. If, in words, plaintiffs had alleged merely that the defendant posted signs on its property, warning workers on the site of certain hazards, no reasonable court would have concluded that the pleading requirement was met.

 

Federal Court Dismisses Proposed Television Consumer Fraud Class Action

Here's a case of a venerable rule (puffery) and an important new doctrine (Twiqbal) being applied in the context of a troubling trend -- the spate of consumer fraud class actions challenging everything a defendant says about its products.  A New Jersey federal court recently rejected a putative class action alleging that Panasonic Corp. falsely advertised its Viera plasma televisions made in 2008 and 2009. Shane Robert Hughes et al. v. Panasonic Consumer Electronics Co., No. 2:10-cv-00846 (D.N.J. July 21, 2011). A useful and detailed analysis of commonly found flaws in consumer fraud class action complaints.

Plaintiffs putatively represented a class defined as individuals and entities who own or purchased any 2008/2009 model Panasonic Viera Plasma Television. Plaintiffs alleged that the televisions suffered from increased “voltage adjustments” causing a rapid deterioration in picture quality. The  class members allegedly relied on Panasonic’s representations concerning the "industry leading" black levels and contrast ratios, and/or personally observed the televisions’ excellent picture quality on models displayed in retail stores. Plaintiffs sought damages and/or refunds from Panasonic for violations of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“NJCFA”), N.J. STAT. ANN. § 56:8-1 et seq.; other states’ consumer protection acts; and under various express and implied warranty claims.

Defendant moved to dismiss. The adequacy of pleadings is governed by Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2), which requires that a complaint allege “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,” but also requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007).

Although class members were from around the country, the court determined it need not decide whether it was appropriate to engage in a choice of law analysis at the pleadings stage because, as detailed below, each of the plaintiffs’ claims failed as a matter of law under any of the possibly applicable laws.

Claims under the NJCFA and most state consumer fraud acts require a plaintiff to allege (1) unlawful conduct by the defendants; (2) an ascertainable loss on the part of the plaintiff; and (3) a causal relationship between the defendants’ unlawful conduct and the plaintiff’s ascertainable loss.  Panasonic argued, among other things, that even if the allegations are true, plaintiffs’ CFA claim failed because plaintiffs had not pointed to any actionable unlawful conduct by Panasonic. According to Panasonic, plaintiffs did not set forth any specific advertisements, marketing materials, warranties, or product guides that plaintiffs viewed; where and from whom at Panasonic did plaintiffs received any such information; or how precisely, plaintiffs were injured by any such representations.

The Court found that Panasonic’s alleged misrepresentations about the Televisions’
“industry  leading” technology and features, which create superior image and color quality, were not “statements of fact,” but rather subjective expressions of opinion. Indeed, such statements of
product superiority are routinely made by companies in advertising to gain a competitive advantage
in the industry. The NJCFA distinguishes between actionable misrepresentations of fact and
"puffery.” Rodio v. Smith, 123 N.J. 345, 352 (1991) (the slogan “You’re in good hands with Allstate” was “nothing more than puffery” and as such was not “a deception, false promise, misrepresentation, or any other unlawful practice within the ambit of the Consumer Fraud Act”); see New Jersey Citizen Action v. Schering-Plough Corp., 367 N.J. Super. 8, 13-14 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2003) (finding that defendant’s advertisements which employed phrases as “you . . . can lead a normal nearly symptom-free life again” were “not statements of fact, but are merely expressions in the nature of puffery and thus were not actionable” under the NJCFA).  The same is true in many states.

The remaining misrepresentations may have been statements of fact rather than mere puffery. However, plaintiffs did not assert sufficient allegations of fact to satisfy the requisite level of adequate pleading under Rule 9(b) or by Twombly/Iqbal.  For example, regarding the alleged misrepresentation about half-brightness, the Amended Complaint did not allege the date, place or time of this misrepresentation or otherwise inject some precision and some measure of substantiation into plaintiffs’ allegations of fraud. While plaintiffs could not be expected to plead facts solely within Panasonic’s knowledge or control, plaintiffs should be able to allege the specific advertisements, marketing materials, warranties or product guides that they each reviewed, which included this misrepresentation and when it was so advertised.

Plaintiffs also alleged various omissions, but fraudulent omissions require a showing of intent. Here, even accepting the allegations of omissions in the Amended Complaint as true, the court found that plaintiffs failed to allege sufficient facts to raise any plausible inference that Panasonic knowingly concealed the alleged defect with the intent that consumers and industry experts would rely upon the concealment. Indeed, throughout the Amended Complaint, it was alleged that Panasonic knew “or should have known” of the defect, but provides no additional facts explaining how or why Panasonic had knowledge of the defect to satisfy Twombly/Iqbal. Such allegations of intentionally failing to disclose the alleged defect were merely conclusory assertions.

Even assuming plaintiffs sufficiently alleged the “unlawful conduct” element under the consumer fraud acts, the court also concluded that the Amended Complaint did not satisfy the pleading requirements of Twombly/Iqbal or Rule 9(b) as to the “ascertainable loss” element.  A plaintiff must suffer a definite, certain and measurable loss, rather than one that is merely theoretical. The certainty implicit in the concept of an ascertainable loss is that it is quantifiable or measurable. The allegations did not sufficiently plead either an out-of pocket loss by plaintiffs or a showing of loss in value. For example. plaintiffs failed to allege how much they paid for their Televisions and how much other comparable Televisions manufactured by Panasonic’s competitors cost at the time.  Plaintiffs failed to allege how much of a premium they claim to have paid for their Panasonic Televisions.  Furthermore, in the Amended Complaint, plaintiffs affirmatively stated that most continue to use the Televisions, thus obscuring any possible measurable loss.  Typically, plaintiffs try not to allege details in this area for fear of undermining their class certification arguments.

Plaintiffs' warranty claim suffered from several defects. While the claim at times was presented as an alleged manufacturing problem, a review of the Amended Complaint revealed that plaintiffs alleged only that the Televisions suffered from an inherent design defect and/or improper programming. Plaintiffs one vague, conclusory allegation that the defect was caused, in part, due to “manufacturing errors” was insufficient to satisfy the requisite pleading standards under Twombly/Iqbal.  Moreover, the express warranty claims were impacted by what the court already concluded in connection with plaintiffs’ consumer fraud claims, that Panasonic’s statements about the Televisions’ “industry leading” technology and features, which create superior image and color quality, were mere expressions of puffery. As such, these marketing statements were not sufficient enough to create an express warranty. 

On the implied warranty claim, while plaintiffs alleged that the Televisions were defective, plaintiffs did not allege that the Televisions were inoperable or otherwise not in working condition. Indeed, the Amended Complaint did not contain any explicit allegation that plaintiffs could no longer use their Televisions - in other words, that they were no longer generally fit for their ordinary purpose.  Although the Televisions may not have fulfilled plaintiffs’ subjective expectations, plaintiffs did not adequately allege that the Televisions failed to provide a minimum level of quality, which is all that the law of implied warranty requires. See also In re Ford Motor Co. Ignition Switch Prods. Liab. Litig., 2001 WL 1266317, at *22 (D.N.J. Sept. 30, 1997) (merchantability “does not entail a promise by the merchant that the goods are exactly as the buyer expected, but rather that the goods satisfy a minimum level of quality”).

Thus, the court concluded, each of plaintiffs’ claims failed to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6), to satisfy Rule 9(b) heightened pleading requirements, and/or pleading standards under
Twombly/Iqbal. The court granted Panasonic’s motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint without prejudice.

Federal Court Dismisses Soda Misrepresentation Claim

A New Jersey federal recently dismissed a putative class action accusing The Coca-Cola Co. of misleading consumers about the health value of the carbonated beverage Diet Coke Plus.  Mason et al. v. The Coca-Cola Co., No. 09-cv-00220 (D.N.J. 3/31/11).

This is another in the series of cases we have warned readers about: plaintiffs are not injured, are not at risk of injury, have gotten the benefit of their bargain, but claim they were somehow duped by marketing. Here, plaintiffs alleged that they “were persuaded to purchase the product because the term ‘Plus’ and the language ‘Diet Coke with Vitamins and Minerals’ suggested to consumers that the product was healthy and contained nutritional value,” when it allegedly did not.

Defendants moved to dismiss under the Twombly/Iqbal doctrine.  Of course, claims alleging fraud or mistake must also meet the heightened pleading requirements of Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b), which requires such claims to be pled with “particularity.”

To state a claim under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act., a plaintiff must allege: “(1) unlawful conduct by the defendants; (2) an ascertainable loss on the part of the plaintiff; and (3) a causal relationship between the defendants’ unlawful conduct and the plaintiff’s ascertainable loss.” Frederico v. Home Depot, 507 F.3d 188, 202 (3d Cir. 2007). Plaintiffs claimed that defendant committed affirmative acts of fraud and deception, and that they were persuaded to purchase the product because the term ‘Plus’ and the language ‘Diet Coke with Vitamins and Minerals’ somehow suggested to consumers that the product was healthy and contained extra nutritional value.

However, the FDA's warning letter about the product attached by plaintiffs to their own complaint shows that it is not false that Diet Coke Plus contains vitamins and minerals.  Plaintiffs failed to allege with particularity what further expectations beyond these ingredients they had for the product or how it fell short of those expectations. Plaintiffs simply made a broad assumption that defendant somehow intended for Diet Coke Plus’s vitamin and mineral content to deceive plaintiffs into thinking that the beverage was really “healthy.”  Without more specificity as to how defendant made false or deceptive statements to plaintiffs regarding the healthiness or nutritional value of the soda, the court found that plaintiffs failed to plead the “affirmative act” element with sufficient particularity to state a viable NJCFA claim.

Plaintiffs also failed to plead an ascertainable loss. When plaintiffs purchased Diet Coke Plus, they received a beverage that contained the exact ingredients listed on its label. Plaintiffs could not explain how they experienced any out-of-pocket loss because of their purchases, or that the soda they bought was worth an amount of money less than the soda they consumed. Mere subjective  dissatisfaction with a product is not a quantifiable loss that can be remedied under the NJCFA.  The same defects doomed the common law misrepresentation claims.

Although the FDA had issued the warning letter (on a somewhat arcane and technical issue), the court noted that not every regulatory violation amounts to an act of consumer fraud. The court also noted that it is simply not plausible that consumers would be aware of FDA regulations regarding “nutrient content” and restrictions on the enhancement of snack foods. The complaint actually did not allege that consumers bought the product because they knew of and attributed something meaningful to the regulatory term “Plus” and therefore relied on it. Rather, plaintiffs alleged merely that they subjectively thought they were buying a “healthy” product that happened to also apparently run afoul of a technical FDA regulation.

Twombly and Iqbal Webinar

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings in Twombly and Iqbal —which updated the Conley “any set of facts” standard for motions to dismiss, and confirmed that the new plausibility standard applies to all civil cases— federal courts and some state courts have wrestled with how to apply the clarified pleading standards to all sorts of complaints.

BNA is holding a webinar on Wednesday, November 17, and my partner Stephen J. McConnell and I will be on a panel to discuss the impact of the rulings on plaintiffs and the courts.

The seminar will be November 17, 2010; 1:00 PM – 2:30 PM EST.

Topics to be discussed will include:

■ Have courts granted significantly more motions to dismiss in the wake of these cases?


■ Have plaintiffs’ attorneys risen to the challenge of meeting the plausibility standard laid out in the cases?


■ What types of claims have been most affected since the rulings came down?


■ Will Congress respond to these decisions?



To register for this webinar or for more information, please click here.

 

Duke Hosts Conference on Civil Rules

At the request of the Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure, the Advisory Committee on Civil Rules sponsored a conference last week at Duke University School of Law. The purpose of the conference was to explore the current costs and burdens of civil litigation, particularly discovery, and to discuss possible solutions. The Conference was designed in part to highlight some new empirical research done by the Federal Judicial Center, and others, to assess the degree of satisfaction with the performance of the present system and the suggestions of lawyers as to how the system might be improved.  The Conference included insights and perspectives from lawyers, judges and academics, on the discovery process (particularly e-discovery), pleadings, and dispositive motions. Other topics considered included judicial management and the tools available to judges to expedite the litigation process, the process of settlement, and the experience of the state courts on these issues.

Specifically, the empirical data from the FJC was discussed by Judge Rothstein, and Emery Lee and Tom Willging of the FJC; the ABA Litigation Section research data was to be reported by Lorna Schofield; the NELA Data was next.  Prof. Marc Galanter commented on vanishing jury trial data. Litigation cost data from the Searle Institute, and RAND data were circulated. The next section of the agenda focused on pleadings and dispositive motions, fact based pleading, Twombly, Iqbal. Participants included several judges and academics. The following panel asked about excessive discovery, and included practitioners, judges, and academics. The judicial management issue, and the level of early judicial involvement, was next.

Day Two focused on e-discovery and the degree to which the new rules are working or not.  The U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform weighed in with a white paper.  The conference turned next to whether the process was structured sufficiently for trial and settlements as they really occur, i.e., should the endgame be viewed as settlement rather than trial. Corporate counsel, outside lawyers, public and governmental lawyers weighed in next. The following panel offered perspectives from the state courts. Finally, the Bar Association and lawyer group proposals were on the table. The Lawyers for Civil Justice, DRI, Federation of Defense & Corporate Counsel, and International Association of Defense Counsel submitted a white paper.

One speaker summed up the two-day discussion, suggesting that consensus had formed around the proposition that federal judges should provide strong, early, consistent case management, although plaintiff lawyers felt there was no need to give the judges any more formal authority.  But there was great disagreement on critical questions of the scope of discovery, the breadth of possible voluntary disclosures, and pleading requirements. Readers have read my posts about  Twombly and Iqbal, which clarified the requirements of what must be included in a complaint.

A survey of the Oregon system, a fact-based pleading approach, was presented by the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System. It has not led to more dismissals, and most observers agreed that fact-based pleading was revealing the key issues and narrowing the contentions earlier. 

The notion that the cost of the process is so large that it may be making litigation beyond the reach of many potential litigants is something a number of participant expressed concern about. One judge noted that he now requires lawyers to estimate the costs of discovery, and report that to their client. One participant raised the issue of cutting off discovery for defendants who move to
dismiss, although it is unclear how that would be an effective remedy for any current unsatisfactory case management methods.

 

Does the Twombly-Iqbal Pleading Standard Apply to Defenses Too?

A suit over an allegedly defective truck is the stage for the latest entry in the debate whether the claim pleading standards clarified in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937 (2009), apply to affirmative defenses as well.

In Hayne v. Green Ford Sales Inc., 2009 WL 5171779 (D. Kan. 12/22/09), defendants plead standard affirmative defenses to the breach of warranty claim, including statute of limitations, contributory fault, failure to mitigate damages, assumption of risk, superseding/intervening act, waiver, failure to use product in manner designed or intended, and estoppel. Plaintiffs moved to strike the defenses under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(f).

The court, sua sponte, noted that the motion to strike raised the issue as to what pleading standard applies to affirmative defenses. Recognizing that the courts have split on the issue so far, the district court found that the Twombly/Iqbal standard for pleading a claim also applies to defenses.

Courts that have applied the heightened pleading standard  to affirmative defenses: CTF Dev., Inc. v. Penta Hospitality, LLC, 2009 WL 3517617, at *7-8 (N.D.Cal. Oct. 26, 2009) Tracy ex rel. v. NVR, Inc., 2009 WL 3153150, at *7-8 (W.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2009); FDIC v. Bristol Home Mortg. Lending, LLC, 2009 WL 2488302, at *2-4 (S.D.Fla. Aug. 13, 2009); Teirstein v. AGA Medical Corp., 2009 WL 704138, at *6 (E.D.Tex. Mar. 16, 2009); Greenheck Fan Corp. v. Loren Cook Co., 2008 WL 4443805, at *1-2 (W.D.Wis. Sept. 25, 2008); Stoffels ex rel. SBC Tel. Concession Plan v. SBC Commc'ns, Inc., 2008 WL 4391396, at *1 (W.D.Tex. Sept. 22, 2008); Safeco Ins. Co. of Am. v. O'Hara Corp., 2008 WL 2558015, at *1 (E.D. Mich. June 25, 2008); Holtzman v. B/E Aerospace, Inc., 2008 WL 2225668, at *2, (S.D.Fla. May 28, 2008); United States v. Quadrini, 2007 WL 4303213, at *3-4 (E.D.Mich. Dec. 06, 2007).

The court observed that "parties do not always know all the facts relevant to their claims or defenses until discovery has occurred."  But to equate the plaintiff's knowledge, or lack  of knowledge, after months or perhaps years of possible preparation and investigation, and having full access to plaintiff, the product, and key fact witnesses in most cases, to the defendant's ability in a few short days after being served to know all the relevant facts, is a completely unfair comparison.  While the court said it did not mean to "suggest that heightened pleading requires the assertion of evidentiary facts. A minimal statement of only ultimate facts should suffice," the better reasoned decisions are cases like First Nat'l Ins. Co. of Am. v. Camps Servs., Ltd, 2009 WL 22861, at *2 (E.D.Mich. Jan. 5, 2009) (finding Twombly's analysis of the “short and plain statement” requirement inapplicable to affirmative defenses); and Romantine v. CH2M Hill Eng'rs, Inc., 2009 WL 3417469, at *1 (W.D.Pa. Oct. 23, 2009) (declining to apply Twombly to affirmative defenses).

The Supreme Court addressed in Twombly the requirements for a well-pled complaint under Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)'s “short and plain statement” requirement.  No such language, however, appears within Rule 8(c), the applicable rule for affirmative defenses. As such, Twombly 's analysis of the “short and plain statement” requirement of Rule 8(a) is inapplicable to a motion under Rule 8(c).

As posted about before, the plaintiffs' bar is seeking to get these Supreme Court cases overturned in Congress.  The possible application of the rule to affirmative defenses shouldn't make any defendants re-think opposition to the legislation.  But the handful of courts that have applied the standard to defenses raise a yellow flag for defendants.

Anti-Iqbal Legislation Update

A few months ago, we alerted readers to the bill that Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) had introduced that would undermine the clarified civil pleading standards for plaintiffs set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1955 (2007) decision, and reaffirmed in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009), decided in May.

The so-called "Notice Pleading Restoration Act of 2009’’ would turn back the clock to the ancient and unrealistic interpretation of Rule 8 of the Civil Rules announced in Conley v. Gibson more than 5 decades ago. The bill is clearly aimed at helping the plaintiffs' bar and making it more difficult for defendants to get courts to dismiss frivolous and ungrounded litigation before expensive discovery. Specter, the newly turned Democrat facing an uphill re-election battle, submitted the bill over the summer. In the Senate, a hearing on the bill is expected in the Judiciary Subcommittee on administrative oversight and the courts, chaired by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

Last week, Rep. Nadler (D.N.Y.), along with Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Henry Johnson (D-Ga.), introduced a bill in the House (H.R. 4115) to overturn Iqbal and Twombly. Their version is called the “Open Access to Courts Act of 2009.”  Unlike the Specter bill, the House version incorporates specific language from the Supreme Court's ancient Conley decision. The bill states a court shall not dismiss a complaint “unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of the claim which would entitle the plaintiff to relief.”  The House bill also would expressly bar a federal court from using the Iqbal and Twombly analysis, stating a court shall not dismiss a complaint “on the basis of a determination by the judge that the factual contents of the complaint do not show the plaintiff's claim to be plausible or are insufficient to warrant a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.”  In other words, the claim need not even be plausible, and it is not a problem if no reasonable person could infer that the defendant might actually be liable.

The House bill follows directly from the efforts of the American Association for Justice, formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, which convened a meeting of many of the pro-litigation, anti-business interest groups to map out a strategy to not just turn back the clock, but to replace the current common sense regime. They eventually sent a letter to the members of the House and Senate Judiciary committees, complaining that the current standards are hampering access to the courts and are denying their clients due process.  This coalition must have also thought that the Specter bill did not go far enough in simply trying to turn the clock back to the status quo ante.

In reality, it's hard to argue for overturning the two decisions without resort to hollow sloganeering or vague appeals to a warped definition of due process.  The decisions -- and think about whether you would want a case to proceed against you on this basis -- focus the trial courts' attention on mere “threadbare recitals” and vague and “conclusory statements,” to watch out for a mere re-stating of the hornbook legal elements of the case, and to look for a plaintiff to allege a “plausible” claim for relief that judges can evaluate based on their “judicial experience and common sense.”   In other words, say plaintiffs, please allow us to bring frivolous claims, alleging nothing of substance, and get into expensive protracted discovery so that we can force defendants to settle.  That's "due" process.

The legislation would likely create great confusion over the applicable legal standards for motions to dismiss, and eventually overwhelm the courts with frivolous lawsuits.  It seems the Democrats' goal to make it impossible for defendants to get cases dismissed early.

Not surprisingly, the House bill ignores the national security issues associated with overturning Iqbal, a case in which the plaintiff sought to sue a group of top government officials for allegedly violating his civil rights after he was arrested and detained in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.  The Democrats appear to think it is a good idea to subject Justice Department and FBI and Homeland Security officials to suits that are not plausible, are conclusory, are mere recitals of the elements of a cause of action. 

At the very least, any legislative effort is premature, pending a study to measure the possible effects of the Iqbal and Twombly decisions that is being conducted by the Judicial Conference of the United States. A preliminary study, reviewing both district and appellate court cases, concluded there was little evidence to date that courts were dismissing meritorious claims under the Iqbal/Twombly standards.

BPA Litigation Update- Part I

In the BPA MDL, Judge Ortrie D. Smith granted in part and denied in part defendants’ motions to dismiss various claims. In re: Bispehnol-A Polycarbonate Plastic Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 1967 (W.D. Mo.).

Readers of MassTortDefense will recall that last year the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation centralized fourteen cases; since then, the Panel has continued to transfer cases from around the country, so now about thirty-eight cases have been transferred. In addition, approximately ten cases have been filed in the MDL District and have become part of the consolidation. Defendants roughly fall into two categories: the Bottle Defendants and the Formula Defendants. Generally, the Bottle Defendants make baby bottles, sippy cups and similar products for infants and toddlers, and/or sport bottles. The Formula Defendants sell infant formula packaged in metal cans.

Most of the complaints assert, on behalf of consumers, various causes of action including: (1) violation of state consumer protection laws, (2) breach of express warranty, (3) breach of the implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose, (4) intentional misrepresentation, (5) negligent misrepresentation, and (6) unjust enrichment.

In one Order the court began by addressing the motions to dismiss claims for fraud, misrepresentation and breach of express warranties. The MDL court had previously, mindful of Rule 9, required plaintiffs to identify defendants’ alleged statements that form the basis for their claims of fraud, misrepresentation, and breach of express warranties. Plaintiffs’ continued failure to do so was, said the court, now fatal to these claims. Likely because they were unable to comply, and perhaps because they recognized what compliance would do to their already slim chances for class certification (because of the individual issues that a response would highlight), plaintiffs responded to the aforementioned requirement by saying that they had not identified any advertisements or other media because the allegations are not based on any particular representations. A misrepresentation claim not based on any misrepresentation. Rather, plaintiffs’ allegations are based on defendants’ supposed “overall course of conduct” in marketing and selling the products at issue. Taken as a whole, defendants’ alleged “overall course of conduct” somehow deceptively conveyed the impression or message that the products at issue are safe and healthy for use by infants and children.

By disclaiming reference to any particular fraudulent act, plaintiffs had disclaimed one of the essential elements of a fraud or misrepresentation claim. All states require proof of reliance and causation. For a statement to be relied upon and thus cause a purchaser’s injury, the statement must have been heard by the purchaser. Plaintiffs’ theory – that the placement of a product in a stream of commerce alone somehow conveys a sufficient representation about the product’s safety that can serve as grounds for fraud liability – is a rule that has not been demonstrated to exist in any of the fifty states.

Allowing the mere sale of products to convey an affirmative representation regarding safety would eviscerate the law of warranty and be contrary to the rationale supporting the limited circumstances in which actions constitute representations, noted the court.  Plaintiffs’ failure to identify any expressions made by defendants to them about their products precludes any claim that an express warranty was made, let alone violated. Given the absence of any “affirmation of fact or promise,” (see UCC Article 2-313), plaintiffs cannot allege an express warranty was made. The Supreme Court’s decision in Iqbal requires a plaintiff to identify the basis for, if not the content of, the alleged warranty. And, in a related issue, plaintiffs’ were thus unable to allege how the supposed, non-existent, warranties became “part of the basis of the bargain.”  A representation cannot be part of the “bargain” if the other party to the bargain did not know the representation was made! Merely alleging a representation became part of the bargain does not satisfy Iqbal. If one party (here, the buyer) is not aware of the statement, that party cannot claim the statement became a part of the parties’ bargain.

The court declined to dismiss the claims for fraudulent omissions, based on what it called a “common-sense” view of Rule 9 under which it was unnecessary to require plaintiffs to specifically identify who failed to disclose information and each occasion upon which they failed to disclose it. Rule 9 is satisfied, said the court, with respect to a claim of fraudulent omissions if the omitted information is identified and “how or when” the concealment occurred.

The claim for breach of implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose was dismissed because while the ordinary purpose for baby bottles can be described as to allow babies and toddlers to drink liquids, a plaintiff cannot rely on this ordinary purpose to support a claim that there was a warranty of fitness for a particular purpose; they must point to some other purpose that is not “ordinary” in order to support their claim.

The court put off ruling on the claims for breach of the implied warranty of merchantability because defendants’ arguments (including lack of privity, untimeliness, and failure to provide notice), seemed premised on the unique characteristics of various states’ laws. Thus, they seemed more amenable to analysis at the time of any class certification decision, which will inevitably raise choice of law issues. A similar deferral was applied to dismissal of all unjust enrichment claims. Many of defendants’ arguments seemed to depend on unique aspects of various states’ laws, found the court.

Defendants also made a strong argument that the claims, at bottom, were improper “no injury” claims. The court agreed as to the category of plaintiffs who disposed of or used up the products before learning about BPA. They received all the benefits they desired and were unaffected by defendants’ alleged concealment. Importantly, the court recognized that while they may contend they would not have purchased the goods had they known more about BPA, these plaintiffs received 100% use (and benefit) from the products and have no quantifiable damages. In this instance, plaintiffs’ position “leads to absurd results.”  These buyers obtained the full anticipated benefit of the bargain. While they may not have paid the asking price, had they allegedly known, offset against this is the fact that they received the full benefits paid for – leaving them with no damages. Plaintiffs here may allege they would not have purchased those products had they supposedly known the true facts, but, again, they obtained full use of those products before learning the truth: the formula was consumed or the children grew to an age where they did not use bottles and sippy cups, so they were discarded. These consumers thus obtained full value from their purchase and have not suffered any damage. These plaintiffs are relegated to the unjust enrichment claim.

The court distinguished, however, those plaintiffs who learned about BPA’s presence and potential effects and either still have the goods or subsequently replaced or disposed of them. Defendants’ argument does not apply to this category, found the court.

That left before the court only plaintiffs’ claims that defendants made fraudulent omissions, violated various state consumer protection statutes, breached the implied warranty of merchantability, and that defendants were unjustly enriched. With these remaining claims pending, the court, in a second order, granted in part defendants’ motion to dismiss on the basis of preemption and denied their motion to dismiss on the ground of primary jurisdiction.

Defendants’ preemption and primary jurisdiction arguments were generally alike in that they both contend their use of BPA should only be subject to regulation by the FDA. Indeed, FDA has issued regulations prescribing the conditions for “safe” use of resinous and polymeric coatings, allowing the coatings to be formulated from “optional substances” that may include “[e]poxy resins” containing BPA. Thus, BPA’s presence in some resinous and polymeric coatings and in polycarbonate resins is subject to regulation by the FDA. It is also a fair reading of FDA’s regulations authorizing BPA’s use that the FDA thinks that food additives containing BPA could be used safely without labeling requirements.

The doctrine of primary jurisdiction applies when enforcement of a claim that is originally cognizable in the courts requires the resolution of issues which, under a regulatory scheme, have been placed within the special competence of an administrative body. The FDA clearly has specialized expertise and experience to determine whether BPA is “safe.” However, said the court, the ultimate issues in these cases, as alleged by plaintiffs, are whether defendants failed to disclose material facts to plaintiffs and thus, for example, whether defendants breached the implied warranty of merchantability through the sale of products containing BPA. FDA’s decision that BPA is “safe” is not determinative of any of those issues, said the court. This conclusion seemed to give insufficient attention, in our view, to the argument that plaintiffs have predicated their claims on proof that BPA is allegedly unsafe: the undisclosed facts are not material unless BPA is not safe. The products are not unmerchantable unless BPA is unsafe, Since plaintiffs base their claims on such evidence, the claims seemed to fall within the primary jurisdiction of the FDA.  The MDL court did not agree.

Turning to the preemption issue, the court first rejected the claim of implied preemption. While noting that FDA has approved BPA use in food additives and noting the agency’s decision not to require labeling, the court concluded that the FDA’s approval of BPA as safe without labeling requirements establishes only a regulatory minimum; nothing in these regulations either required or prohibited defendants from providing the disclosures sought. The court cited Wyeth v. Levine for the proposition that that there is no preemption when federal law did not prevent the drug manufacturer from strengthening its drug label as necessary to comply with the standard to be imposed by state law.

However, the Formula Defendants also raised express preemption; they asserted that the FDA regulations exempt Formula Defendants from having to disclose the presence of BPA in their products. Express preemption exists when a federal law explicitly prohibits state regulation in a particular field. With respect to food labeling, federal law generally prohibits states from establishing any differing requirements for the labeling of food. Thus, plaintiffs’ claims are expressly preempted because they would impose disclosure requirements concerning BPA, the exact opposite of the exemption. Now, here is the interesting twist: plaintiffs asserted that Congress also provided an exception to express preemption under the law for “any requirement respecting a statement in the labeling of food that provides for a warning concerning the safety of the food or component of the food.”  But, the court noted, plaintiffs cannot have it both ways.  If their claims are based on warnings about the safety of food, then their claims would have been subject to dismissal under the primary jurisdiction doctrine because the determination whether BPA is “safe” is solely the province of the FDA, and the FDA has concluded that the use of BPA in epoxy liners is “safe” so long as the manufacturer abides by the FDA’s prescribed conditions. See 21 C.F.R. § 175.300 (2009).  If the claims against the Formula Defendants are not subject to primary jurisdiction, as plaintiffs argued, then they are subject to express preemption analysis.

It may seem clear to readers of MassTortDefense that even with respect to those claims the court concluded should not be dismissed on the pleadings, the court's analysis highlights several issues that may make it difficult for the plaintiffs to proceed as a viable class action.