A federal court has rejected a class certification motion from a group of consumers alleging that “all-natural” Van’s Waffles have more fat and/or calories than listed on the packaging. Hodes v.  Van’s International Foods, et al., CV 09-01530 RGK (C.D. Calif. July 23, 2009).

Van’s manufactures, markets, and distributes frozen waffles.  Plaintiffs alleged that defendant marketed its waffles as healthy and “all natural,” and listed nutritional values on its packaging labels showing lower quantities of calories, fat, and sugar than its competitors. Plaintiffs further alleged that these nutritional values were false because the waffles contained significantly more calories, fat, and sugar than the labels represented. Plaintiffs further asserted that Van’s
knew of the error, but did not change the labels until late 2008.

Plaintiffs asserted claims for fraud, breach of express warranty, breach of implied
warranty of fitness for a particular purpose, false advertising, and unfair business practices in violation of the California Unfair Competition Law.

Plaintiffs sought certification of a nationwide class of consumers who have been purportedly
harmed by defendants’ misrepresentations. Judge Gary Klausner of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California found that (1) common questions of law and fact did not predominate over individualized issues, and (2) a class action was not superior to other methods for
fairly and efficiently adjudicating this controversy.  The court’s decision was based on the factor of Rule 23(b)(3) dealing with the manageability of this class action. First, the sheer number of class members, which was at least in the “tens of thousands,” caused the court concern over managing the proposed class. Specifically, the court had concerns about how plaintiffs would identify each class member and prove which brand of frozen waffles each member purchased, in what quantity, and for what purpose. The likelihood that tens of thousands of class members saved their receipts as proof of their purchase of Van’s waffles is very low.

Second, plaintiffs overstated the argument that the “individual nature of damages” in this case
did not overcome the alleged predominance of common issues relating to liability. This was not a case where the individual damages could be calculated almost as a “mechanical task.”  Here,
plaintiffs failed to present the court with any plan for how to determine the amount of damages
suffered by each class member, and thus no showing of why it would not require an investigation as to which of Van’s 19 frozen waffle varieties class members purchased, how much each class member spent, and whether those particular varieties contained nutritional inaccuracies.

Third, the court addressed the important issue of reliance.  Plaintiffs typically claim that the class can be certified because a particular consumer fraud act claim does not require a showing of reliance.  However, here, while plaintiffs alleged that they did not need to prove individual reliance by class members, they ignored the fact that other individualized purchasing inquiries that remain in this case.  The court was not convinced that the common questions of Van’s liability would predominate over the individual questions of who purchased Van’s frozen waffles during the relevant class period, which kind of frozen waffles they purchased, how many they
purchased, and whether the kinds they purchased contained false nutritional information.

A useful case reminding readers that the absence of a reliance requirement does not necessarily mean the class should be certified.