Another Un-natural "Natural" Claim Dismissed

We have posted before about the disturbing trend of plaintiffs parsing food labels to find something to complain about -- not that the product is unhealthy or harmful or doesn't taste good -- but a "gotcha" game raised to the level of a consumer fraud act violation or a breach of warranty class action.  So we like to note when common sense prevails in this arena.  A federal court recently held that a food manufacturer cannot be in breach of an express warranty for using the term "natural" on its label when that same label discloses the identity and presence of any ingredients the plaintiffs claim were not "natural."   See Chin v. General Mills Inc., No. 12-02150 (D.Minn. 6/3/13).


General Mills produces, markets, and sells a line of Nature Valley products, including “Protein Chewy Bars,” “Chewy Trail Mix Granola Bars,” “Yogurt Chewy Granola Bars,” “Sweet & Salty Nut Granola Bars,” and “Granola Thins.” By all accounts these are excellent products that taste great and offer nutritious ingredients. Plaintiffs were consumers who allegedly purchased one or more of the Nature Valley products. The plaintiffs alleged the products were deceptively labeled as “100 percent Natural” because they contained fructose corn syrup and high maltose corn syrup.  Plaintiffs alleged they relied on the representations, and would not have purchased the products or paid as much if they had known of the actual ingredients. Plaintiffs sought a national class, and sub-classes for New York and New Jersey.

The first problem was that plaintiffs sought relief for alleged representations made on bars that they never purchased; plaintiffs lacked Article III standing for these products and plaintiffs could not represent a class of consumers who purchased products that the named plaintiffs did not purchase. The named plaintiffs in a class action may not rely on injuries that the putative class may have suffered, but instead, said the court, must allege that they personally have been injured. Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 357 (1996); Thunander v. Uponor, Inc., 887 F. Supp. 2d 850, 863 (D. Minn. 2012).

The express warranty claim failed because the term “100% Natural” on a label cannot be viewed in isolation and must be read in the context of the entire package, including the ingredient panel. The specific terms included in the ingredient list must inform the more general term “Natural.” The specific terms determine the scope of the express warranty that was allegedly made to the plaintiffs. And here, a defendant cannot be in breach of an express warranty by including in the product an ingredient that it expressly informed consumers was included.  It is typical of plaintiffs in these cases to elevate one word or phrase in a label, while ignoring all the other information provided the consumer.

Finally, the fraud based claims were dismissed for failure to satisfy the heightened pleading requirements of Rule 9(b). Plaintiffs failed to plead how they were deceived by the “100% Natural” statement. Plaintiffs did not allege with any specificity what they believed “100% Natural” to mean.

Motion to dismiss granted.

 

 

Another "Natural" Food Claim Falls to Common Sense

A  federal district court recently dismissed a putative class action alleging the defendant food company mislabeled its Florida's Natural products as 100% orange juice despite the alleged addition of compounds to mask the taste caused by pasteurization. See Veal v. Citrus World Inc., No. 2:12-cv-00801 (N.D. Ala. 1/8/13).

The plaintiff asserted that because the label did not mention that flavoring and aroma are added, consumers desirous of 100% pure and fresh squeezed orange juice had been deceived into purchasing Florida’s Natural.  The plaintiff did not aver that he personally ever consumed Florida’s Natural orange juice or that he suffered any ill health effects from consumption of the same, but rather alleged only that he purchased it, repeatedly, over the six years preceding the first complaint.  The essence of his claim concerned the question of how much processing is permissible in a product labeled as “fresh” “100%” or “pure.”

Despite plaintiff’s numerous allegations as to the general conduct of the orange juice industry, the court found the plaintiff had failed to state an actual, concrete injury. He stated he did not know store-bought orange juice was not fresh squeezed, but nowhere alleged any harm from its purchase or consumption. He did not even claim that upon learning packaged orange juice was not truly “fresh”, he had to resort to squeezing his own oranges. In other words, despite plaintiff’s protestations that he did not receive the product he believed he was purchasing, he made no allegation that he had stopped purchasing what he considered to be an inferior product in favor of
purchasing what he actually sought, which is apparently unpasteurized fresh squeezed orange juice.

In an attempt to save his claim and demonstrate an injury worthy of finding standing, the plaintiff argued that he did not receive the “benefit of the bargain” of what he believed he was actually purchasing. He professed to compare the cost of defendant’s orange juice to an orange juice concentrate, and alleged the difference between them is proof of his loss. This theory did not rise to the level of a “concrete and particularized” injury as opposed to a “conjectural or hypothetical” one. Plaintiff did not allege what the “higher value charged” was or what the orange juice supposedly “would have been worth” if it was “as warranted.” He did not show what products he actually bought, when he bought them, or where he bought them, much less what he paid.

From a legal standpoint, many courts have held that “benefit of the bargain” theories of injury like plaintiff’s, where a plaintiff claims to have paid more for a product than the plaintiff would have paid had the plaintiff been fully informed (or that the plaintiff would not have purchased the product at all), do not confer standing. See In re Fruit Juice Products Marketing and Sales Practices
Litigation, 831 F.Supp.2d 507 (D. Mass. 2011); see also Birdsong v. Apple, Inc., 590 F.3d 955, 961-62 (9th Cir. 2009) (noting potential for hearing loss from improper iPod use was not sufficient to state an injury for standing); cf. Rivera v. Wyeth-Ayerst Labs., 283 F.3d 315, 319-21 (5th Cir. 2002); McKinnis v. Kellogg USA, 2007 WL 4766060, *4 (C.D.Cal.2007); Sugawara v. Pepsico, Inc., 2009 WL 1439115 (E.D.Cal.2009). Young v. Johnson & Johnson, 2012 WL 1372286 (D.N.J.2012).

The plaintiff also complained that even though the FDA does require that defendant label its product as “pasteurized orange juice,” all of defendant’s other alleged representations were voluntary, and thus not within the protection of the FDA. Because the court found the plaintiff lacked standing to pursue his claims, the court did not have to rely on the impact of the extensive FDA regulations governing orange juice,  Nevertheless, the court noted, defendant labeled its orange juice in accordance with FDA regulations. The plaintiff could not dispute that the defendant’s product is “squeezed from our Florida oranges” or “100% orange juice.” Rather, his focus was that the squeezing and pasteurization is performed on a massive scale, and that the pasteurization process destroyed the flavor, causing ingredients already present in orange juice to be replaced in the marketed juice.

However, said the court, the fact that the plaintiff may have believed defendant hired individuals to hand squeeze fresh oranges one by one into juice cartons, then boxed up and delivered the same all over the country does not translate into a concrete injury to plaintiff upon his learning that beliefs about commercially grown and produced orange juice were incorrect.  By its very definition under FDA guidelines, pasteurized orange juice is orange juice (1) that has been processed and treated with heat, (2) in which the “pulp and orange oil may [have] been adjusted in accordance with good manufacturing practice,” and (3) which may have been “adjusted” by the addition of concentrated orange juice ingredients or sweeteners. Clearly, the defendant was selling pasteurized orange juice while labeling it “pasteurized orange juice.” Although the plaintiff objected to such labeling, in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, he purchased a product labeled as pasteurized orange juice and then complained that it was pasteurized.

 No standing, complaint dismissed with no leave to amend yet again.

State Supreme Court Adopts Consumer Expectation Test for Alleged Food Defects

Our readers know that for nearly 50 years, an ongoing issue in product liability law has been the definition of "defect" within the strict liability context. A subtext to this ongoing discussion has been the appropriate test to apply to food products.  Earlier this month,  the “reasonable consumer expectation” test was adopted for food claims by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in a strict liability claim involving a boneless turkey product. See Pinkham v. Cargill Inc., No. 2012 ME 85 (Me., 7/03/12).

Plaintiff allegedly consumed a hot turkey sandwich during his break.  Defendant  allegedly manufactured the boneless turkey product in the sandwich.  In the middle of or immediately after eating the sandwich, Pinkham allegedly experienced severe and sudden pain in his upper abdominal area and thought that he might be suffering from a heart attack. His doctors later determined that in their opinion he most likely had an “esophageal tear or perforation.” Plaintiff sued, alleging that this was a result of bone in the boneless turkey.

Although 50 percent of all turkey consumed in 1970 was during the holidays, today that number is around 31 percent as more people enjoy turkey year-round. In 2010, U.S. consumption of turkey was 16.4 pounds per person.  And turkey is now a $16 billion annual industry, according to the National Turkey Federation.  Readers will recall that our own Ben Franklin proposed the turkey as the national bird, at least in a letter he wrote to his daughter Sarah on January 26, 1784.

Back to the litigation. Defendant moved for summary judgment. After considering the motion, the trial court granted the motion in favor of Cargill, noting that Maine had not yet established which test to use when evaluating a strict liability claim for an allegedly defective food product pursuant to Maine’s strict liability statute, 14 M.R.S. § 221. The court recognized that, prior to the enactment of the state's strict liability statute, courts used a test similar to the “foreign-natural” doctrine when addressing an injury caused by a food product in an implied warranty of merchantability case. E.g., Kobeckis v. Budzko, 225 A.2d 418, 423 (Me. 1967). Readers will recall that the “foreign-natural” doctrine provides that in general a food producer is not liable for anything found in the food product that naturally exists in the ingredients. E.g., Newton v. Standard Candy Co., 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21886, at *6 (D. Neb. Mar. 19, 2008).  The major alternative has been the “reasonable expectation” test: which provides that regardless of whether a substance in a food product is natural to an ingredient thereof, liability will lie for injuries caused by the substance where the consumer of the
product would not reasonably have expected to find the substance in the product. E.g., Jackson v. Nestle-Beich, Inc., 589 N.E.2d 547, 548 (Ill. 1992).

The trial court proposed to evaluate the summary judgment motion under both the traditional
“foreign-natural” doctrine and the more recent  “reasonable expectation” test. The lower court concluded that, because bone is naturally found in turkey, and because the average consumer would reasonably expect to find bone fragments up to two millimeters in size in processed “boneless” turkey product (which the doctor had), the contents of the food bolus discovered in plaintiff's esophagus did not demonstrate that the product was defective, as a matter of law.

The supreme court noted that the state's strict liability approach was rooted in the Second Restatement.  It observed that the Restatement comments define “[d]efective condition” in part as a product that is “in a condition not contemplated by the ultimate consumer.” Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A cmt. g. The comments also define “[u]nreasonably dangerous”: “The article sold must be dangerous to an extent beyond that which would be contemplated by the ordinary
consumer who purchases it, with the ordinary knowledge common to the community as to its characteristics.” Id. cmt. i.  Relying on these comments, the court moved to the reasonable expectations test.

Applying that standard, the supreme court ruled that plaintiff had provided sufficient evidence that an alleged defect in the boneless turkey product he consumed might have caused his surgery-requiring injury. There was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the turkey product caused the injury. One doctor testified that he believed that the injury was a “perforation secondary to a foreign body.”  There was direct evidence of the presence of the smaller pieces of bone or cartilage.  While there was no direct evidence of a larger piece of bone, the court thought a jury could conclude that a larger piece of bone could have been present in the turkey product Pinkham consumed, but may have passed, undetected, from Pinkham’s throat.

Whether a consumer would reasonably expect to find a particular item in a food product is normally a question of fact that is left to a jury.  The court concluded that the trial court could not find as a matter of law that a food bolus containing one-to-two-millimeter bone fragments is not defective.  The question of whether a consumer would reasonably expect to find a turkey bone or a bone
fragment large and/or sharp enough to cause an esophageal perforation in a “boneless” turkey product "s one best left to the fact-finder" said the court.

 

Consumer Fraud Claim on "All Natural" Beverage Rejected

One trend we are keeping an eye on here at MassTortDefense is plaintiffs' aggressive and excessive use of consumer fraud act claims, micro-analyzing every ad, turning traditional puffing into some kind of nefarious marketing scheme.  Class certification in such cases can trigger the need to think about "blackmail settlements."

So all victories are worth noting, and last week South Beach Beverage Co. Inc., maker of SoBe drinks, garnered dismissal of a California putative class action alleging false claims about their "0 Calories Lifewater" drinks. See Charles Hairston v. South Beach Beverage Co. Inc,. et al., No. 2:12-cv-01429 (C.D. Cal. 5/18/12).

SoBe manufactures a diverse range of beverages, including teas and enhanced waters, that are characterized by exotic flavor combinations and added vitamins. In his First Amended Complaint, plaintiff alleged that during the last three to four years, he regularly purchased SoBe 0 Calorie Lifewater beverages (“Lifewater”), which are no-calorie, vitamin-enhanced, flavored water drinks. Plaintiff raised three challenges to Lifewater’s labeling, which he claimed he “read and relied on.” First, plaintiff alleged that the “all natural” label was potentially deceptive because Lifewater contains “deceptively labeled ingredients” that are “synthetic or created via chemical processing.” Second, plaintiff alleged that Lifewater’s labels are potentially misleading because the names of various fruits are used to describe the different flavors of Lifewater even though Lifewater allegedly does not contain any actual fruit or fruit juice. Third, plaintiff alleged that the use of the common vitamin name (e.g., B12) on the product labels is misleading because the vitamins added to Lifewater are "synthetic" or created via chemical processing.

As is typical, plaintiffs alleged causes of action including for: (1) California Consumers Legal Remedies Act – California Civil Code §§ 1750, et seq. (“CLRA”); (2) California False Advertising Law – California Business & Professions Code §§ 17500, et seq. (“FAL”); (3) California Unfair Competition Law – California Business & Professions Code §§ 17200, et seq. (“UCL”).

Defendants argued first that the claims alleged related to the use of fruit names to describe the various flavors of Lifewater and their use of common vitamin names were preempted by the express preemption provisions in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (“FDCA”) and by the specific labeling regulations promulgated by the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”). The court concluded that plaintiff’s claims related to defendants’ use of the names of various fruits to describe the different flavors of Lifewater were indeed preempted. See, e.g., Dvora v.
General Mills, Inc., 2011 WL 1897349 (C.D. Cal. May 6, 2011) (holding that CLRA and UCL claims
were preempted where the plaintiff was challenging the use of the words “Blueberry Pomegranate”
in labeling a cereal not containing any blueberries or pomegranates because FDA regulations
explicitly permit manufacturers “to use the name and images of a fruit on a product’s packaging to
describe the characterizing flavor of the product even where the product does not contain any of
that fruit, or contains no fruit at all”); McKinnis v. General Mills, Inc., 2007 WL 4762172 (C.D. Cal.
Sept. 18, 2007) (holding that use of “Strawberry Kiwi” to designate the flavor of yogurt containing
no fruit ingredients was “permissible to demonstrate the ‘characterizing flavor’ of the product”).

The court also concluded that plaintiff’s claims related to defendants’ use of the common names
of vitamins were preempted. See, e.g., 21 C.F.R. § 101.9(c)(8)(v) (recognizing that “Vitamin C” and
“Ascorbic acid” are “synonym[s]” that may be used in the alternative in a product’s nutritional
information labeling); 21 C.F.R. § 101.9(k)(4) (stating that the FDA will consider a food
“misbranded” if its “label or labeling represents, suggests, or implies” that “a natural vitamin in food is superior to an added or synthetic vitamin”).

Significantly, the court concluded that plaintiff could not avoid preemption of these claims by arguing that his claim related solely to defendants’ “all natural” representations and that he included his fruit name and vitamin name claims only as support for his “all natural” claim. Such an argument would effectively allow a plaintiff to always avoid preemption of those claims, and would undermine the purpose of the federal labeling standards which includes avoiding
a patchwork of different state standards.  These claims were dismissed with prejudice.

Plaintiff also alleged that the “all natural” labeling on defendants’ products was potentially deceptive because the product contains “deceptively labeled ingredients” that are
“synthetic or created via chemical processing.” However, plaintiff could not state a claim under the
CLRA, FAL, or UCL regarding defendants’ allegedly deceptive “all natural” labeling because once
the preempted statements regarding fruit names and vitamin labeling were removed, plaintiff’s claim is based on a single out-of-context phrase found in one component of Lifewater’s label.

The court concluded that plaintiff’s selective interpretation of individual words or phrases from a product’s labeling could not support a CLRA, FAL, or UCL claim. See, e.g., Carrea v. Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, 2012 WL 1131526 (9th Cir. Apr. 5, 2012).  Lifewater’s label did not simply state that it is “all natural” without elaboration or explanation. Instead, the “all natural” language was immediately followed by additional statements, like “with vitamins” or “with B vitamins.”  Lifewater did not use the “all natural” language in a vacuum. Thus, it was impossible for plaintiff to allege how the “all natural” language would be deceptive without relying on the preempted statements regarding fruit names and vitamins.

In addition, the court concluded that no reasonable consumer would read the “all natural”
language as modifying the “with vitamins” language and somehow believe that the added vitamins are suppose to be “all natural vitamins.”  Moreover, to the extent there was any ambiguity, it was  clarified by the detailed information contained in the ingredient list, which explained the exact contents of Lifewater. In this case, the ingredient list was consistent with the front label statement of “all natural with vitamins.”

The court concluded that the challenge to the “all natural” language on Lifewater was not deceptive as a matter of law.

 

Fracking Toxic Tort Case Dismissed Per Lone Pine Order

Readers will recall our earlier postings on "fracking"; natural gas from shale rock promises to provide cleaner, abundant energy for the U.S.  New drilling methods allow companies to tap into huge quantities of gas from shale rock. New estimates show that we have enough of this natural gas to last 100 years at current consumption rates.

The second biggest natural gas field in the world -- the Marcellus -- runs through your humble blogger's home state of Pennsylvania. The energy, jobs, taxes, and independence that tapping into this domestic resource will bring has spurred much interest and anticipation. The method to extract the gas from the rock is called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which like any technology, carries potential risks.

However, the potential drilling into the Marcellus Shale has caught the attention of the plaintiffs' bar, including personal injury and environmental class action lawyers. Plaintiffs lawyers are openly speculating about everything from gas leaks and fires, to environmental groundwater impacts, to the problems of large tanker trucks on small rural roadways.

We posted before about one such case already filed regarding another deposit, out West. See Strudley v. Antero Resources Corp., No. 2011CV2218 (Colo. Dist. Ct., Denver Cty., 3/24/11). Plaintiffs sued the gas exploration company and drilling equipment contractor, alleging that the hyrdrofracking contaminated their well water.

Earlier this month, the Colorado court dismissed the claim, relying on a  Lone Pine order, 2012 WL 1932470. The case arose from drilling and completing three natural gas wells in Silt, Colorado known as the Diemoz A well, the Fenno Ranch A well, and the Three Siblings A well. Construction of the Wells allegedly began on August 9, 2010. By January 10, 2011, plaintiffs had moved out of their home and away from Silt.

The central issue was whether defendants caused plaintiffs’ alleged injuries, which
plaintiffs vaguely described as “health injuries” from exposure to air and water contaminated by
defendants with “hazardous gases, chemicals and industrial wastes." Plaintiffs also alleged that
defendants had caused loss of use and enjoyment of their property, diminution in value of
property, loss of quality of life, and other damages. 

Cognizant of the significant discovery and cost burdens presented by a case of this nature, the court endeavored to invoke a more efficient procedure than we see in the standard case management order. The court required plaintiffs, before opening full two-way discovery, to make a prima facie showing of exposure and causation, a form of a Lone Pine order. See Lore v. Lone Pine Corp., No. L-33606-85 1986 WL 635707 (N.J. Sup. Ct. Nov. 18, 1986). The court further
determined that the prima facie showing requirement should  not prejudice plaintiffs because
ultimately they would need to come forward with this data and expert opinion on exposure and causation in order to establish their claims anyway.

The court also seemed influenced by the fact that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (“COGCC”) had conducted an investigation of the plaintiffs’ well water and had concluded that the water supply was not affected by oil and gas operations in the vicinity. Defendants also provided evidence to support their contention that the air emission-control
equipment at the Wells and prevailing wind patterns made it unlikely that plaintiffs or their
property were exposed to harmful levels of chemicals from defendants’ activities.

Specifically, the CMO required plaintiffs to identify the identity of each hazardous substance from defendants’ activities to which he or she was exposed and which caused him or
her injury;  evidence whether any and each of these substances can cause the type(s) of disease or illness that plaintiffs claimed (general causation);  the dose or other quantitative measurement of the concentration, timing and duration of his/her exposure to each substance; a medically recognized diagnosis of the specific disease or illness from which each plaintiff allegedly suffers or is at risk for such that medical monitoring is purportedly necessary; and a conclusion that such illness was in fact caused by such exposure (specific causation).

Plaintiffs were given 105 days to comply with the CMO. After that time, all plaintiff's expert could opine was that “sufficient environmental and health information exists to merit further substantive discovery.” Significantly, he offered no opinion as to whether exposure was a contributing factor to plaintiffs’ alleged injuries or illness. And the requested march towards further discovery
without some adequate proof of causation of injury is precisely what the CMO was meant to
curtail. The expert  suggested, at best, a very weak circumstantial causal connection between the Wells and plaintiffs’ injuries. In fact, he merely temporally associated plaintiff’s symptoms with the Wells being brought into production.

While the proffered evidence showed existence of certain low level gases and compounds in both the air and water of plaintiffs’ Silt home, there was neither sufficient data nor expert analysis stating with any level of probability that a causal connection does in fact exist between the alleged injuries and exposure to defendants drilling activities.  This is particularly telling, since Mr. Strudley complained of “nasal sinus congestion, nose bleeds at inconvenient times” and “an aversion to odors,” while he owns a painting business, and was frequently exposed to paint vapors -- offering a ready alternative explanation for his alleged respiratory symptoms.

The expert did not opine on whether any and each of the substances present in the air and water samples (taken after plaintiffs had moved out) can cause the type(s) of disease or illness that plaintiffs claimed (general causation). He did not discuss the dose or other quantitative measurement of the concentration, timing and duration of the alleged exposure to each substance. Finally, and perhaps most significantly,the expert did not even attempt to draw a conclusion that plaintiffs’ alleged injuries or illnesses were in fact caused by such exposure (specific causation).

The case reflects an effective, but also appropriate, use of the Lone Pine order. It may be a useful model for other fracking toxic tort suits, and is important as an illustration of a method to avoid long, expensive, and unnecessary discovery in such cases. 

 

Update BUT SEE Strudley v. Antero, Colo. Ct. App., No. 12CA1251, 7/3/13.