Toy Class Rejected on Commonality Grounds

Christmas ought to be the toy season, after all Suzy wants a dolly and Johnny wants a truck. But the plaintiff bar wants it to be season of toy litigation.  Fortunately, a California court recently refused to certify a proposed class of consumers who sued alleging that venerable Tinkertoys were falsely advertised.  See O'Brien v. Hasbro Inc., No. BC438958 (Superior Court, County of Los Angeles, CA).

Plaintiffs' claim was that the packaging implied that the items pictured could be built with the parts contained in the package.  The court's reasoning in rejecting the the claim under California's Unfair Competition Law was interesting.  The court focused on the commonality issue, and whether the  plaintiffs could show through common proof that the entire class had been confused by the "Classic Tinkertoy Construction Set" packaging.

The evidence was that less than 100 consumers had ever complained to Hasbro about the issue. The court noted recent appellate decisions in which classes had been decertified when only a tiny percentage of the class actually had reported the alleged problem.

Even if traditional reliance is not an element of a claim, there is still going to be a requirement of injury.  If a class member is not deceived, then he or she has been injured.  And the fact that a tiny percentage of consumers claim to have been confused does not mean that plaintiffs can show on a common basis that all class members were deceived.

An interesting one to watch if it goes on appeal.

Self-Annointed Watchdogs, Eat Your Own Unhappy Meals

We are generally hesitant to post about some of the ridiculous industry-bashing that many anti-science, anti-capitalism groups spout -- for fear of spreading their misguided word one inch farther.  But sometimes, when litigation is threatened, you just have to stop biting your tongue.

The self-proclaimed Center for Science in the Public Interest has apparently threatened to sue McDonald’s if the popular food company does not stop marketing toys with its Happy Meals.  The claim is that the toys included in the meals instill unhealthy eating habits in children.  CSPI sent a letter to McDonald's last week demanding that the company immediately pull toys from its Happy Meal children’s meals. By advertising that Happy Meals include toys, McDonald’s somehow supposedly unfairly and deceptively markets directly to children.   Advertising a small toy in a Happy Meal box is supposedly deceptive because children under the age of 8 are not advanced enough to understand the "intent" of the marketing.

Well, how wrong can one misguided group be?  Let's count the ways.  Last time we checked, in a democracy with a free market economy, product sellers were free to make their products attractive to consumers, free to advertise them, and free to market their wares with accurate and truthful statements.  A Happy Meal is advertised to contain a toy.  It does.  It has a meal, just like promised.  And as a dad, I can attest to the fact the box meal does make kids happy.  Where is the deception?  There is none. The group cites a variety of state consumer fraud acts in the letter, but not a single case supporting its preposterous legal theories -- because there aren't any. For example, the group cites the Massachusetts law (93A), but the recent case Rule v. Ford Dodge Animal Health Inc., 2010 WL 2179794 (1st Cir. 6/2/10), makes clear that there is no valid consumer claim when the customer does not suffer a traditional and real economic injury.

Next, last time we checked, very few small children were behind the wheel in the drive-through line.  Parents can decide what their kids eat.  And parents can still say "no" when little Johnny or Suzie wants burgers and fries too often. When did we cross the line from parents raising their kids to the best of their ability, to the government (regulators or the courts through a suit) determining how kids should be raised, down to what they can eat and whether they get a small toy to play with after dinner?  According to CSPI, many children will pester their parents to take them to McDonald’s.  So what?  Kids pester; that's what they do.  Parents say "no."  That's what they do.  Problem solved -- without a class action.

Next, the rabble rousers complain that the Happy Meals are slightly higher in calories than the group thinks is reasonable.  Thank goodness for the self-appointed calorie police who think that the best way to tackle the issue of weight in this country is to have the courts force all food companies to make food that looks and tastes like cardboard and is boring, anything but "happy."  How about we get kids to put down the remote control and exercise and play sports more?  Problem solved -- without the litigation.

But, cries the group, the toys build brand loyalty and send the customers back again in the future.  Since when was it an actionable wrong to actually provide your customers with a product they like so much they come back and buy it again in the future?  What kind of economy does this group want?

CSPI needs to worry more about junk science than junk food.  In fact, in my area, McDonald's heavily advertises the four-piece Chicken McNuggets Happy Meal, which includes Apple Dippers, low-fat caramel dip and 1 percent low-fat white milk.  Maybe the issue is that the parents of the CSPI members never told them "no."  Not to worry, they will soon hear it from the courts if they pursue this threatened litigation.
 

House Committee Holds Hearing On Phthalates And BPA In Consumer Products

The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection held a hearing last week on “Phthalates and Bisphenol-A in Everyday Consumer Products.” See webcast here.  (MassTortDefense has posted on BPA before, here and here and here.  Phthalates are chemicals used to soften polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and make it flexible.)


This testimony before Congress pointed out one of the major problems with the knee-jerk reaction of sensationalist media, liberal lobbyists, and uninformed legislators who quickly call for the banning of useful products as soon as any scientific reports even hint of a risk. A chemist from the Consumer Product Safety Commission noted that the banning of di-isononyl phthalate (DINP) from all children's products, could lead to substitute plasticizers that are not as fully studied, not as well known, or not as well characterized toxicologically. And banning BPA could lead to more children injuries.


In addition to the CPSC, officials of the FDA, NTP, and EPA testified as well before the House subcommittee on June 10th. Also, the Science and Environmental Health Network testified in favor of a ban, while the American Chemistry Council opposed it. The hearing came as House and Senate conferees are working out differences in their respective legislation to reform the CPSC. See the MassTortDefense post here on that. The industry voluntarily removed DINP from teethers, rattles, and pacifiers in the late 1990’s. The Senate version of the CPSC bill would essentially prohibit these phthalates from children's toys or child care articles: DINP, di-isodecyl phthalate (DIDP), di-n-octyl phthalate (DnOP), di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP), and benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP).

Bisphenol-A (BPA) was the other chemical at issue in the hearing. The CPSC official testified that its beneficial uses in items such as helmets and other protective gear to prevent injuries in children needs to be considered. A ban could result in less effective protection of children from head, eye, or bodily injury. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has introduced legislation that would prohibit the use of bisphenol-A in all food and beverage containers. (The “Ban Poisonous Additives (BPA)” Act, text here.)  But the Food and Drug Administration associate commissioner for science testified that available evidence indicates that food contact materials containing BPA currently are safe as exposures from food contact materials are well below the levels that may cause health effects.

The FDA formed a BPA task force in April that is reviewing current research on BPA, and looking at all products regulated by the FDA to better understand potential routes of exposure. The FDA also is looking at concerns raised by the draft report by the National Toxicology Program. See our post here.

Recalls of Products Made in China (Part II)

In the previous post, MassTortDefense began exploration of some of the issues associated with the "year of China recalls."  During fiscal year 2007, the CPSC announced 473 recalls, of which 288 were from China.

We continue in Part Two with some practical tips that may be considered to mitigate the risks of using China-based suppliers.

TO DO LIST

U.S. products sellers have to respond with proactive planning:

Testing and Sampling
A report from two Canadian researchers notes that since 1988, a majority of recalls of toys were related to design issues as opposed to poor manufacturing. But, assuming a prudent design, adherence to specifications becomes the focus. US importers have at times in the past chosen products from a showroom, such as in Hong Kong. At other times, products from China are purchased through one or several middlemen, with the ultimate U.S. buyers having little information about the manufacturing or QC of the products.  And importers have relied on purchase orders - a looming battle of the forms scenario -- rather than on a comprehensive contract.

Now, companies may need to turn to be more involved in the process upstream. Random sampling rather than relying on test certificates from their sellers may be wise. Companies may need to negotiate vendor and supply contracts to require those counterparts to test products for compliance with specifications and U.S. regulations. Such a compliance program may include third-party testing and a system to track products in the retail stream of commerce. If self-testing is employed, it may be prudent to have it conducted by a group of employees incentivized to make the testing accurate and thorough.  Companies need to ensure that they have strong process controls at the key risk points of the distribution chain. QC can involve early warning systems, and includes making corrections, documenting results. The timing and scheduling of QC interventions may need to be modified. Even "sealed" products may need to be randomly inspected.

Management

There can be surprisingly high management turnover rates in China, and local management is often the source of fraud when it occurs. Multi-national product sellers may explore returning to use of expatriate management where possible, although they may lack the level of understanding of the local environment.   Importers may also seek to get a better sense of the sub-contracting activities of their suppliers.  Indeed, tracking vendors, subs, and components supplied for the product can be important, even as the supply chain is a moving target.

Note, in this setting, it may be a mistake to leave negotiations and contract management to less senior people. The audit structure employed by management should also be of a design to detect and deter fraud and nepotism at the local management level. This may require not only more inspectors, but a different kind of inspector/on the ground agent.

Risk Sharing
Contracts can be both a risk reduction and dispute resolution mechanism. It is imperative that the contract clearly lay out responsibilities and rights on QC, specifications, delivery, testing, sub-contractors, performance milestones.  U.S. companies are seeking to add arbitration clauses to new contracts, and as existing supply deals expire. Arbitration in a forum that Chinese courts will recognize may be a means to share the burden of a potential recalls, which for the most part has fallen on U.S. importers. China does not generally recognize ad hoc arbitrations. Some importers are looking at CIETAC, the China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission as a possibility.  In a CIETAC arbitration, there will still be limited discovery, and short document-focused hearings. Another possibility is the Hong Kong International Arbitration Center.

Companies may think about choice if language provisions in their arbitration clauses, the nationality of the arbitrators, discovery rights, injunctive relief the parties consent to. Choice of law clauses are also key in renegotiated contracts.

Importers are also seeking bonding from their Chinese partners as a way of ensuring financial sharing of the cost of recalls.


The most important kind of risk sharing, however, may be the risk of non-payment, which is only viable when the U.S. importer has good knowledge of the supply chain -- who are the suppliers, and what are they supplying.

It may increasingly make sense to provide for litigation support in the contract, so that the U.S. importer has access to needed records and witnesses should legal issues arise.

Many companies have a crisis management team in place, trained to handle problems with their products, should any arise.  The team may include legal, HR, PR, QC, and regulatory members.

Recalls of Products Made in China (Part I)

The Cook County, Illinois Circuit Court gave preliminary approval recently to a proposed settlement related to RC2 Corporation’s recall of toys tainted with lead. (A hearing on final approval is set for August.) The settlement relates to claims of consumers who purchased a recalled Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway product. This is another step towards resolution of one of the major 2007 recalls of toys made in China.

RC2 Corporation had announced last summer that it was voluntarily recalling five toys from the Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway product line due to levels of lead in surface paint that may exceed U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission requirements. There have been no reports of illness or injury related to any of the recalled toys.

This is a good reminder to readers of MassTortDefense concerning the risks of outsourcing to China, and an opportunity to comment on mitigation of those risks.

The Year of the China Recall

The year 2007 has been dubbed the year of China recalls because of the significant recalls of toys with lead, as well as tainted pet food, and toothpaste with chemical contamination. In fact, toy recalls had been stable (at about 30 per year) until 2007, which saw a huge spike in toy recalls to more than 80, involving 25 million units. [There have been about 50 already in 2008.]

Overall product recalls have been on the rise for several years. China’s share of total product recalls in the U.S. rose significantly (to about 67% overall), and China accounted for about 98% of all toy recalls in 2007. As recently as 1999, China accounted for less than half of U.S. toy recalls. Overall U.S. imports from China have increased steadily, and China supplies most of our imported toys, but recently the recalls of China-made toys has outpaced the increases in imports of toys.

And the presence of lead was the leading cause of products made in China being recalled. Overall, lead-focused recalls increased 10x in the last 4 years.

The number of products removed from the European Union market in 2007 increased by 53 percent, with more than half of the items coming from China. The EU notes that toys were the products most often removed from markets in the 27 EU member states. About 80 percent of all toys sold in Europe come from a Chinese manufacturing facility. (The EU has a rapid alert system known as RAPEX. The RAPEX report on goods pulled from the market in 2007 can be found  here.


IMPACT OF RECALLS

Recalls have direct and indirect costs to product sellers. The costs of notice, labor costs, disposal costs, lost inventory value, refunds and repair costs, and legal fees are some of the direct costs. Indirect costs include bad publicity, damage to goodwill and reputation, loss of sales, increased production costs and testing costs in the future, diversion of management and employees from normal duties, potential legal liability (personal injury, medical monitoring, punitive damages), and increased insurance premiums. The recall may spawn shareholder derivative lawsuits if the stock price is affected by the recall. An interesting report from Lucy Allen at NERA looks at the market cap impact of recalls. Government fines are possible. The CPSC recently issued a $1 million civil penalty against athletic-shoe maker Reebok International Ltd. related to company-issued charm bracelets with toxic levels of lead. It is not unusual for recalls to cost companies tens of millions of dollars.

REGULATION
Congress has already taken steps in response to the spate of recalls. The House passed the Consumer Product Safety Modernization Act, H.R. 4040, in December, and the Senate passed its own CPSC Reform Act, S.2663 in March. The two bills will be reconciled, and the CPSC budget, staff, and enforcement powers will be increased. Both bills mandate reduction of the amount of lead in toys; third-party testing of certain children's products; raise allowable penalties for violations; and give state attorneys general enforcement authority. Empowering state attorneys general is likely to generate more enforcement claims against companies, as state AGs have been willing to take an aggressive stand on other recent issues, beginning with tobacco. This provision might also undermine uniformity of enforcement of the CPS Act. State attorney generals may simply create a confused patchwork of standards.

The Senate provision would require the CPSC to post on Internet-searchable database the reports it receives about product-related injuries. This seems of limited use to the average consumer, but may encourage additional litigation; just like plaintiffs’ attempt with ADE reports in pharmaceutical litigation, this could be misused in product liability litigation.


WHAT CAN BE DONE
In some quarters, there is a notion that the market will force China to make improvements in quality control to avoid a repeat of the year of recalls. That is, if the products cannot be trusted, then importers will stop buying them. But the fact remains that regulation of product safety in China is not as advanced as it is in Europe and the United States. In essence the growth of their economy may have outpaced their ability to regulate product quality control.

Is there an ability to hold the Chinese companies accountable for the QC issues? Frequently, mass litigation arising from a large product recall will involve numerous parties within the chain of distribution, if not originally, then through indemnification and contribution claims. The original manufacturer of the allegedly defective product rarely is not involved. But plaintiff attorneys/consumers rarely try to pursue Chinese companies, forcing the U.S. importer/seller to try to pursue them.  But U.S. companies invariably may have difficulty pursuing the chain to a Chinese company that doesn't have assets or an office in the United States. Most Chinese companies have no assets in the United States, and will ignore U.S. complaints.

In the case of Menu Foods, the pet food manufacturer whose China-sourced ingredients allegedly contaminated dozens of brands of American pet food, several putative class-action suits were filed. See In re Pet Food Products Liability Litig., MDL No. 1850. But the Chinese defendants reportedly have not responded.

  • There can be issues of personal jurisdiction. Asahi Metal Indus.. Co. v. Superior Court of Calif., 480 U.S. 102 (1987)(plurality suggesting that placement of product in stream of commerce, without more, may not be the substantial connection between defendant and forum state necessary for finding of minimum contacts). 
  • Second, especially if the manufacturer is state owned, Chinese defendants may also assert defenses based on principals of sovereign immunity and international comity. Service of a Chinese company must be conducted in accordance with the Hague Convention, which can be cumbersome. Authorities in China frequently cannot locate the accused companies because the firms are often dissolved and the factories are under new ownership.
  • Discovery is extremely limited in China. Even if a damage award is entered against a Chinese company, enforcement of the judgment may be impossible if the Chinese company does not have significant assets in the U.S.. There is no treaty between China and the United States that requires reciprocal enforcement of judgments. (Although a U.S. judgment may not be enforced in China, there may be assets of the Chinese company in other countries that enforce U.S. judgments...worth thinking about)

 

How about suits in China? Its nearly infeasible to file a lawsuit against a Chinese company in China. It can be impossible to get an expert to testify. There is limited discovery, if any. There is tolerance or lenient views of perjury.  Precedent can be irrelevant. The damages obtainable are often insufficient, with lost profits seemingly a lost concept. There are a variety of practical realities that favor the “home team.”  Foreign lawyers typically cannot be utilized.

More of what can be done in the next posting.