Defendants have moved to dismiss the complaint in a proposed class action by parents claiming that the makers of shampoos and and soaps for kids failed to list toxic chemicals on product ingredients lists. Vercellono, et al. v. Gerber Products Co., et al., No. 2:09-cv-02350 (D.N.J.).

The complaint names Gerber, Johnson & Johnson Consumer Cos. Inc., Procter & Gamble
Distributing LLC, MZB Personal Care, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Nestle Inc. as defendants.
The plaintiffs claim that several products, including Grins & Giggles, Head-to-Toe Baby Wash and others, contain formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane.  Plaintiffs further allege that these chemicals have been linked to cancer, skin allergies and other health problems.

The plaintiffs are seeking compensatory, punitive and/or exemplary damages for the proposed class, which is defined as all consumers nationwide who purchased the products in question.  Plaintiffs allege that the companies violated consumer fraud statutes by making or distributing baby care products specifically marketed for sensitive skin despite containing the chemicals, and misrepresented that the products they marketed, distributed, promoted, sold, and/or made were safe for children.

Defendants’ motions attack several aspects of the complaint, including the injury allegations in connection with the consumer fraud count.  The motion illustrates one of the key battlegrounds in a consumer fraud class action.  While plaintiffs typically assert that the predominating issues are common, defendants will point to the injury element under the statute as requiring individual proof.  But before even deciding the class issues, the question is raised whether plaintiffs have adequately alleged an  injury.  Often, they will seek to avoid suggestion of personal physical injury, because of the individual issues it raises.  But there is risk in going too far.

According to the Gerber motion, plaintiffs suffered only mere exposure to the chemicals and failed to cite any actual injury. The complaint fails to allege that plaintiffs, their children, or anyone else has ever suffered any actual harm as a result of using the products. Nor does the complaint allege that the products failed to perform as a bath product. Rather, the complaint merely alleges that plaintiffs have suffered “exposure” to formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane.  While they assert that they were injured by paying the purchase prices for the defendants’ products, under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, as under many such acts, plaintiffs are required to allege that they have suffered an ascertainable loss, and allegations of economic loss are insufficient, as are allegations of  the vague potential of a speculative future injury.