Ninth Circuit Refuses to Revive Water Class Action

The Ninth Circuit this week declined to revive a proposed class action in Washington federal court accusing defendant of mis-labeling a water drink containing caffeine.  See Harold Maple v. Costco Wholesale Corporation, No. 13-36089, 14-35038 and 14-35059, 2016 WL 2621345 (9th Cir. 5/9/16).

 

This was a putative class action arising from allegedly unfair or deceptive statements found on the label of a product known as VitaRain Tropical Mango Vitamin Enhanced Water Beverage (“VitaRain”) bottled by Niagara Bottling and sold by Costco. The putative class was defined as all Washington residents who purchased the VitaRain product over the four years preceding the filing of the lawsuit.
Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint asserted claims for violations of the Washington Consumer Protection Act (“CPA”), RCW 19.86.010 et seq.; misrepresentation; and negligence. Plaintiff specifically alleged that the VitaRain beverage (1) lacked a front-facing disclosure that the beverage contains caffeine; (2) failed to disclose the relative amount of caffeine in the beverage; and (3) falsely claimed that the beverage was a “natural tonic” and that it contained “natural caffeine.”

Thus this case falls within the ongoing trend of litigation challenging anything and everything a product maker says on a label, no matter how innocent or general.

The district court dismissed the complaint, and plaintiff Harold Maple appealed. The 9th Circuit affirmed that the district court correctly held that the complaint failed to state a claim. As a matter of law, the name of the beverage is not “likely to mislead a reasonable consumer.” Panag v. Farmers Ins. Co. of Wash., 204 P.3d 885, 894–95 (Wash.2009). Here, the term “Vita” could mean many things,not necessarily vitamins, and rain could not be an actual ingredient, and the label contained no misleading statements.  To the extent that Plaintiff's claim challenged the labeling of the type of “caffeine” or “tonic” as “natural” or “all natural” and the failure to describe the caffeine and other ingredients as “unnatural,” the claim failed because Plaintiff did not allege that he read those parts of the label. Accordingly, he could not establish causation. See, e.g., Indoor Billboard/Wash., Inc. v. Integra Telecom of Wash., Inc., 170 P.3d 10, 22 (Wash.2007) (“A plaintiff must establish that, but for the defendant's unfair or deceptive practice, the plaintiff would not have suffered an injury.”).

The district court also correctly held that dismissal without leave to amend was proper. On appeal, Plaintiff argued that amendment could save the complaint because he could somehow allege a subclass of plaintiffs who did read the relevant parts of the label. But because Plaintiff's own individual claim failed, dismissal without leave to amend was correct.  Here's the useful point - the potential existence of other classes of which Plaintiff is not a member is irrelevant. Sanford v. MemberWorks, Inc., 625 F.3d 550, 560–61 (9th Cir.2010); Boyle v. Madigan, 492 F.2d 1180, 1182 (9th Cir.1974) (citing O'Shea v. Littleton, 414 U.S. 488, 494 (1974)).

The only error was dismissing without prejudice, which the panel corrected.

 

 

EPA Draft Report on Fracking

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently issued a draft report on hydraulic fracturing, concluding that there is no evidence that fracking has “led to widespread, systemic impact on drinking water resources in the United States.”  We have posted about fracking issues before, and many predictions of fracking-related litigation have rested on assumptions rejected by the report.  

The 1000-page "Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources" synthesizes available scientific literature and data to assess the potential for hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas to change the quality or quantity of drinking water resources, and identifies factors affecting the frequency or severity of any potential changes. This report is to be used by federal, tribal, state, and local officials, industry, and the public to better understand and address any potential vulnerabilities of drinking water resources to hydraulic fracturing activities.

Congress requested the report in 2010, so no one can say EPA rushed the process.  While there are theoretical mechanisms by which fracking-related activities “have the potential to impact drinking water resources,” the number of actual, identified cases of impact was extremely small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells in operation. (Somewhere around 30,000 new wells are being drilled annually.)

 

This assessment relied on relevant scientific literature and data. Literature evaluated included
articles published in science and engineering journals, federal and state government reports, nongovernmental organization (NGO) reports, and industry publications. Data sources examined
included federal- and state-collected data sets, databases maintained by federal and state
government agencies, other publicly-available data and information, and data, including
confidential and non-confidential business information, submitted by industry to the EPA.

 

The report evaluated the various stages of the water cycle used in hydraulic fracturing activities, including water acquisition, chemical mixing at the well pad site, well injection of fracking fluids, the collection of hydraulic fracturing wastewater and wastewater treatment and disposal. The report also confirms the growing consensus that fugitive gas or fluid migration through fractures at depth (that is, the actual hydraulic fracturing process) cannot result in groundwater contamination.

Fracking technology has promised true energy independence, and provided an economic boom to many key aspects of the economy. Hydraulic fracturing supports more than 2 million U.S. jobs, has increased supplies of oil and natural gas, and has helped to put downward pressure on energy prices. It also has strengthened America’s energy security and geopolitical position.

The EPA does report various ways to mitigate some of the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing activities, including with respect to well construction. The API responded that hydraulic fracturing is being done safely under the strong environmental stewardship of state regulators and industry best practices. From 2009 to 2013, while the EPA was conducting this study, state agencies finalized an estimated 82 groundwater-related rules for oil and gas production, including hundreds of discrete rule changes, according to the Ground Water Protection Council. Continuous safety improvements have been an ongoing part of hydraulic fracturing for 65 years, said API.  

The draft EPA report is open for comment, and peer review by the Science Advisory Board. 

 

Florida Supreme Court Decides Right of Fishermen to Sue For Pollution

In a case that may impact some of the litigation rising from the Gulf Oil Spill, the Florida Supreme Court last week ruled in favor of a group of commercial fishermen who alleged damages arising from pollution in the Tamp Bay. See Howard Curd, et al. v. Mosaic Fertilizer LLC, (No. SC08-1920 Fla. 6/17/2010). The issue on appeal -- which the court took as a certified issue of great public importance -- was whether Florida law permits commercial fishermen to recover for economic losses proximately caused by the negligent release of pollutants, despite the fact that the fishermen do not own any property damaged by the pollution.

The defendant owned/operated a phosphogypsum storage area near Archie Creek in Hillsborough County. The storage area included a pond enclosed by dikes, containing waste water from a phosphate plant.  The dike gave way and pollutants were allegedly spilled into Tampa Bay.
The fishermen claimed that the spilled pollutants resulted in a loss of underwater plant life, fish, bait fish, crabs, and other marine life. They did not claim an ownership in the damaged marine and plant life, but claimed that it resulted in damage to the reputation of the fishery products the fishermen were able to catch and sought to sell.

The lower court concluded that the state statute on water pollution did not permit a claim by these fishermen for monetary losses when they did not own any real or personal property damaged by the pollution. After initially permitting the fishermen to proceed on their claims of negligence and strict liability, the lower court ultimately ruled that these claims were not authorized under the economic loss rule. The court reasoned that an action in common law either through strict liability or negligence was not permitted because the fishermen did not sustain bodily injury or property damage. The strict liability and negligence claims sought purely economic damages unrelated to any damage to the fishermen's property. Accordingly, the court further reasoned that Mosaic did not owe the fishermen an independent duty of care to protect their purely economic interests. 

The state supreme court disagreed.  The court pointed to a number of factors on the statutory claim:  it expressly protected public and private interests; it is to be liberally construed to effect the purposes set forth in the state statute and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act.  Moreover, the Florida  Legislature found and declared that escape of pollutants “poses threats of great danger and damage . . . to citizens of the state, and to other interests deriving livelihood from the state.”   Also, under the definition of statutory damages cited above, one can recover for damages to real or personal property and for damages to natural resources, including all living things. Finally, not owning property affected was not a listed defense to the cause of action in the act.

The lower court found that the economic loss rule barred the common law claims, as the fishermen's negligence and strict liability claims sought purely economic damages unrelated to any damage to the fishermen's property. Second, Mosaic did not owe an independent duty of care to protect the fishermen's expectation of profits. The supreme court found instead that neither the contractual nor products liability economic loss rule was applicable to this situation. The parties to this action were not in contractual privity. Moreover, the defendant in this case was not  a manufacturer or distributor of a defective product that has caused damage to itself.  Rather, plaintiffs brought traditional negligence and strict liability claims against a defendant who had allegedly polluted Tampa Bay and allegedly caused them injury.

Turning to the issue whether Mosaic owed an independent duty of care to protect the fishermen's purely economic interests—that is, their expectations of profits from fishing for healthy fish, the court found Mosaic did owe a duty of care to the fishermen, a duty that was not shared by the public as a whole.  The court admitted that as a general principle of common law negligence, some courts have not permitted recovery for purely economic losses when the plaintiff has sustained no bodily injury or property damage. See Union Oil Co. v. Oppen, 501 F.2d 558, 563 (9th Cir. 1974) (noting “the widely recognized principle that no cause of action lies against a defendant whose negligence prevents the plaintiff from obtaining a prospective pecuniary advantage”). The reasoning behind this general rule is that if courts allowed compensation for all losses of economic advantages caused by a defendant's negligence, a defendant would be subject to claims based upon remote and speculative injuries that it could not foresee. Such courts have concluded that the negligent defendant owes no duty to plaintiffs for such losses.

The Florida court concluded that the defendant here did owe a duty of care to these commercial fishermen, and that the commercial fishermen thus had a cause of action sounding in negligence. Under Florida law, the question of whether a duty is owed is linked to the concept of foreseeability. In the present case, the duty owed by Mosaic arose out of the nature of Mosaic's business and the special interest of the commercial fisherman in the use of the public waters. The court concluded that Mosaic's activities created an appreciable zone of risk within which Mosaic was obligated to protect those who were exposed to harm. Mosaic's business involved the storage of pollutants and hazardous contaminants. It was foreseeable, said the court, that were these materials released into the public waters, they would cause damage to marine and plant life as well as to human activity in the water.

Further, the commercial fishermen had a special interest within that zone of risk, an interest not shared by the general community, found the state supreme court.  The fishermen were licensed to conduct commercial activities in the waters of Tampa Bay, and were dependent on those waters to earn their livelihood. Mosaic's activities placed the fishermen's peculiar interests directly within the zone of risk created by the presence of its facility. As a result, Mosaic was obligated to exercise prudent foresight and take sufficient precautions to protect that interest.

As pointed out in the dissent, the majority opinion decided the case for a more narrow class than those bringing the suit -- and more narrowly than the claims they alleged. Although Curd's proposed class consisted of “all fishermen and those persons engaged in the commercial catch and sale of fish,”  the majority's decision did not extend to distributors, seafood restaurants, fisheries, fish brokers, or the like whose incomes may also have been affected by the alleged pollution. Additionally, the majority only addressed economic harm that allegedly resulted from the depletion of marine life and the resulting inability to harvest the commercial fishermen's usual yield—not from harm to reputation as alleged in the complaint. The fishermen presumably must still prove all of the elements of their causes of action, including damages.