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.