Federal Court Misses Opportunity To Support Common Sense

A federal court last week refused to dismiss most claims by a putative class challenging health claims in vitaminwater beverage labeling. Ackerman v. Coca-Cola Co., CV-09-0395 (E.D.N.Y., 7/21/10).

Here at MassTort Defense we have warned companies about the dangers of consumer fraud class actions and highlighted some of the many ridiculous, far-fetched, beyond belief claims that plaintiffs make about being misled about some product.  This one is near the top of the list. Plaintiffs allege that the name, "vitaminwater," along with a description of the vitamins in the water are somehow deceptive because they supposedly mislead people to believe that the beverages do not have sugar or calories in them. Plaintiffs are not alleging that vitaminwater doesn't have water or doesn't have vitamins or that the particular vitamins in vitaminwater fail to provide the benefit claimed. Rather, they claim that vitaminwater’s labeling and marketing are misleading because they "bombard" consumers with a message that supposedly draws consumer attention away from the significant amount of sugar in the product. About the sugar? The FDA-mandated label on each bottle bears the true facts about the amount of sugar per serving.

(The opinion also rejected defendant's argument that the claim was expressly and/or impliedly preempted by statutes and regulations preventing states from imposing labeling requirements that are different from those imposed by the FDA.)

The complaint alleged claims of unlawful business acts and practices in violation of California Business and Professions Code (“Cal. BPC”) § 17200 et seq. (“Unfair Competition Law” or “UCL”); Cal. BPC § 17500 et seq. (“False Advertising Law” or “FAL”); and California’s Consumers Legal Remedies Act, Cal. Civ. Code § 1750 et seq. (“CLRA”); (2) unfair business acts and practices in violation of California UCL; (3) fraudulent business acts and practices in violation of California UCL; (4) misleading and deceptive advertising in violation of California FAL; (5) untrue advertising in violation of California FAL; (6) unfair methods of competition or unfair or fraudulent acts or
practices in violation of § 1770(a)(7) of the CLRA; (7) deceptive acts or practices in violation of
New York General Business law (“GBL”) § 349; (8) false advertising in violation of New York
GBL § 350; (9) violation of New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“NJCFA”), N.J.S.A. 56:8-1 et
seq.; (10) breach of an express warranty; (11) breach of an implied warranty of merchantability;
(12) deceit and/or misrepresentation; and (13) unjust enrichment.

The claims were brought on behalf of three purported classes of plaintiffs: all California Residents who purchased vitaminwater at any time from January 15, 2005 to the present, (the “California Class”); all New York residents who purchased vitaminwater at any time from January 30, 2003 to the present, (the “New York Class”); and all New Jersey residents who purchased vitaminwater at any time from January 22, 2003 to the present (the “New Jersey Class”).

So what's misleading? The court found that plaintiffs had sufficiently pleaded that the collective effect of the marketing statements was to mislead a reasonable consumer into believing that vitaminwater is either composed solely of vitamins and water, or that it is a beneficial source of nutrients.   Despite the fact that the sugar content was plain as day to anyone who would look at the label. The court found that the fact that the actual sugar content of vitaminwater was accurately stated in an FDA-mandated label on the product does not eliminate the possibility that "reasonable" consumers may be misled. The court relied on Williams v. Gerber Products Co., 552 F.3d 934 (9th Cir. 2008), for the notion that the mere fact that an FDA-mandated nutritional panel provided
accurate nutritional information on a product did not bar claims that reasonable consumers could
be misled. Reasonable consumers should not, said the court, be expected to look beyond representations on the front of the box to discover the truth from the ingredient list in smaller print on the side of the box. But unlike the Gerber case, there were no allegations here that the packaging for vitaminwater contained any false statements or pictures. As noted, plaintiffs concede that vitaminwater actually contains the vitamins the marketing says it does. And it hardly seems like an unfair burden on a "reasonable" consumer to turn from the word "vitaminwater" on one part of the bottle to the label in close proximity on the very same bottle.

As a matter of law, plaintiffs should not be permitted to move forward with a claim about the presence of an ingredient that is clearly disclosed on the Nutrition Facts label, exactly where FDA tells the manufacturer to put that information.  And, of course, the problem with allowing the claim to proceed past the motion to dismiss claim is that the case will proceed through expensive discovery to reach a stage where common sense prevails and summary judgment is granted -- if a defendant is not blackmailed into settling.  And a common thread in many of these consumer fraud class actions is the fundamental notion by plaintiffs' attorneys --implicit in their theory-- that the public must be stupid, cannot read labels, and cannot make legitimate product choices for itself. In fact, the public speaks just fine with its wallets and pocketbooks. Fortified beverages are not new and are one of the fastest-growing market segments. Consumers are indeed able to read nutrition labels and ingredient listings and make smart choices, for themselves, without the help of the plaintiffs' bar.  Contrast this case with recent comon sense decisions.