Plaintiffs have sued the Procter & Gamble Co. in a proposed national class action, alleging that new Pampers diapers containing “Dry Max” technology is causing rashes and “chemical burns” in some infants. See Clark, et al. v. Procter & Gamble Co., No. 10-301 (S.D. Ohio, 5/11/10). Plaintiffs seek reimbursement for the cost of diapers, as well as for alleged medical expenses and treatment. The plaintiffs allege that P&G knew or should have known that the diapers with Dry Max technology could harm kids’ bottoms. They assert causes of action for breach of implied warranty of merchantability, breach of implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose, violation of consumer fraud acts, negligence, unjust enrichment, and strict liability. Then came word that the Consumer Product Safety Commission would review consumer complaints regarding Pampers with the new Dry Max technology.
P&G notes that the Dry Max technology is a significant innovation in diapers. The Dry Max technology allows the diapers to be thinner and lighter, but still absorbent. The Proctor & Gamble website notes the safety of the diapers for babies, and the heavy testing — the product is one of the most tested diapers in the company’s history. To date, there have been in excess of two billion diaper changes using the new product, with only a handful of rash complaints, none of which were shown to be caused by the type of materials in the product. In fact, the company has received fewer than two complaints about diaper rash for every one million diapers sold, which apparently is average for the diaper business and does not deviate from the number of calls received prior to Dry Max.
It is hard to imagine that common issues will predominate over the individual issues arising from causation and injury, in the putative class action. Diaper rash is very common, and sometimes severe, regardless of the diaper used. At any given moment, more than 250,000 babies will experience a serious rash. Disposable diapers in fact have helped reduce the incidence of rash by more than 50 percent since they were first introduced in the 1960s because they pull wetness away from a baby’s skin. It is very common for long-time consumers of child care or personal care products to correlate a change in product style or design with an adverse effect.
What is most interesting for our readers, perhaps, is the fact that this litigation was apparently spurred by the social networking site, Facebook, where some parents have been blaming the new diapers for rashes. This has spread not only word of the incidence of a possible problem, but also the non-scientific, non-expert attribution of causation. Here, for example, there have actually been very few complaints to the CPSC, but the CPSC said the on-line activism was part of what has prompted them to examine the alleged diaper issues.
Sites like Facebook give consumers a bigger platform to voice their opinions and find other similarly situated individuals, and product sellers need to realize how that can spur litigation. Social media alone do not produce litigation, of course. But from a potential liability standpoint, the social networking sites are becoming a new resource for plaintiff product liability attorneys. Facebook provided plaintiff attorneys potential access to thousands of product users documenting their experiences with the product. Some even have posted relevant photographs. The diaper Facebook group apparently grew to more than 10,000 members. Such Internet activity can include product users talking about the possibility of litigation and searching for attorneys. Some members of the plaintiff bar have used on-line media to communicate with potential clients, and identify ideal class representatives.
Defense lawyers need to recognize they can research and learn from plaintiffs’ on-line activities, as well, particularly before the involvement of plaintiff attorneys. Discovery requests for
Facebook profiles, forensic examinations of computers, or, at proper times, third-party requests directly to the social networking site, may be part of their arsenal. There may be information about named class representatives, or the class in general. After litigation is filed, some class members continue to participate in Facebook groups. People will say things in that informal environment that they might not say in a deposition.
Of course, several advisory ethics opinions remind litigators that rules of professional responsibility apply when accessing social networks for case purposes. Contacting parties or witnesses through a “friend request” must be done in accordance with the applicable Rule of Professional Conduct.