Earlier this month a trial court in New York denied class certification purchaser of Snapple beverages who complained that drinks labeled “All Natural” are somehow misleading because they contain high fructose corn syrup. See Weiner v. Snapple Beverage Corp., (S.D.N.Y. 8/3/10).
Off and on, we have commented on the growing and alarming trend for plaintiffs lawyers to concoct consumer fraud class action claims against products, even when consumers were not injured and got basically what they paid for, because of some alleged ambiguity in the label or old-fashioned puffing.
Snapple Beverage Corporation was founded in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1972. Snapple began selling and marketing its teas and juice drinks in the late 1980s. In marketing its beverages, Snapple focused on, among other things, flavor, innovation, and humor. Snapple became known for its quirky personality and funny advertising, as well as its colorful product labels and beverage names. For instance, Snapple’s television advertisements featured, among other things, Snapple bottles dressed in wigs and hats, singing in a Backstreet-esque “boy-band,” running with the bulls (hamsters with cardboard horns) in Spain, and performing synchronized swimming.
When Snapple entered the beverages market in the late 1980s, it avoided putting preservatives, which were then commonly found in some similar beverages, in its teas and juice drinks. Snapple was able to do so by using a “hot-fill” process, which uses high-temperature heat pasteurization to preserve products immediately before bottling. Snapple also used 16-ounce glass bottles instead of aluminum cans or plastic. Hence the term on their label “All Natural.”
From their inception, Snapple’s beverages were sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. HFCS is made from corn ( a natural product last time we checked), and its primary constituents are glucose and fructose, the sugars that comprise table sugar and honey (which also sound pretty natural). It is undisputed that Snapple disclosed the inclusion of HFCS in the ingredient list that appears on the label of every bottle of Snapple that was labeled “All Natural.”
But plaintiffs alleged that they paid a price premium for Snapple beverages as a result of the “All Natural” labeling, and that Snapple’s “All Natural” labeling was misleading because Snapple had HFCS. They brought a class action on behalf of all people who purchased Snapple in New York. The FDA is reportedly looking at whether high fructose corn syrup may be considered a natural ingredient, but the court didn’t need that guidance to dispose of this bogus class claim.
The court focused on the Rule 23(b)(3) predominance inquiry which tests whether proposed classes are sufficiently cohesive to warrant adjudication by representation. The predominance requirement is met only if the plaintiff can establish that the issues in the class action that are subject to generalized proof, and thus applicable to the class as a whole, predominate over those issues that are subject only to individualized proof. The issues in turn are determined by the causes of action and defenses to them. Plaintiffs’ main claim was for alleged deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any business, trade or commerce under N.Y. Gen. Bus. L. § 349. Generally, claims under § 349 are available to an individual consumer who falls victim to misrepresentations made by a seller of consumer goods through false or misleading advertising.
New York’s § 349 does not require proof of actual reliance. But the plaintiff must show that the defendant’s material deceptive act caused the injury. In addition, a plaintiff must prove actual injury to recover under the statute. The court noted that proof of actual injury in this case is bound up in proof of damages, or by how much plaintiffs have been harmed. Only by showing that plaintiffs in fact paid more for Snapple beverages as a result of Snapple’s “All Natural” labeling could plaintiffs establish the requisite elements of causation and actual injury under § 349.
The court concluded that plaintiffs had not proposed a suitable methodology for establishing the critical elements of causation and injury on a class-wide basis. Without a reliable methodology, plaintiffs had not shown that they could prove at trial using common evidence that putative class members in fact paid a premium for the beverage. Because individualized inquiries as to causation, injury, and damages for each of the millions of putative class members would predominate over any issues of law or fact common to the class, plaintiffs’ § 349 claim could not be certified under Rule 23(b)(3).
In support of their contention that causation and injury were susceptible to generalized proof on a class-wide basis, plaintiffs relied on the expert report of Dr. Alan Goedde, an economist. In his report, Goedde proposed two “approaches” for determining the purported price premium attributable to Snapple’s “All Natural” labeling: (1) a “yardstick” approach, which would use “class-wide economic data and standard economic methodologies” to “compare the price of products labeled ‘All Natural’ to similar products which do not have ‘All Natural’ labeling;” and (2) an “inherent value” approach, which would analyze unspecified “studies and market research” to gather “data that can be used to determine the increased value, standing alone, that a product realizes due to the perception of that product being natural.”
The court found Goedde’s testimony unreliable. The witness did not demonstrate in adequate detail how his proposed “approaches” would be used to develop an empirical algorithm to determine, on a class-wide basis, whether there was a price premium as a result of Snapple’s “All Natural” labeling and, if so, how such a premium could be quantified. For example, he did not identify the products to which Snapple should be compared. He did not explain how his approach would isolate the impact of the “All Natural” labeling from the other factors that purportedly affect the price of Snapple and its competitors. He failed to take into account that there was no uniform price for Snapple beverages during the class period, and thus did not explain how his approach would account for the various prices that putative class members actually paid in determining injury
on a class-wide basis.
Goedde relied on two internal Snapple marketing strategy documents to support his alternate hypothesis that Snapple’s “All Natural” label allowed it to command a premium in the marketplace. Yet he did not review the deposition transcripts of Snapple’s witnesses or any of the other documents produced by Snapple, which would have provided critical context for these documents.
The court accurately spotlighted the common plaintiff tactic in these kinds of cases: the failure to
invest sufficient time and effort to develop a reliable methodology to support an expert opinion at the class certification stage. Although the court thought plaintiffs correct in arguing that Goedde need not “implement” or fully “test” his methodology at the class certification stage, an expert must still provide sufficient detail about the proposed methodology to permit a court to determine whether the methodology is suitable to the task at hand.
Without Goedde’s testimony, plaintiffs offered no evidence that a suitable methodology is available to prove the elements of causation and actual injury on a class-wide basis. Individualized inquiries would therefore be required in order to determine whether class members in fact paid a premium for Snapple beverages, and whether any such premium was attributable to the “All Natural” labeling. This would require, among other things, an examination of each of the millions of class members’ Snapple purchases, which the evidence showed were made in different locations, at different times, and for different prices, over the nearly eight-year class period.
One further issue of note is class definition. The court found that plaintiffs failed to show how the potentially millions of putative class members could be ascertained using objective criteria that were administratively feasible. Plaintiffs – typically – suggested that after certification, the court could require simply that class members produce a receipt, offer a product label, or even sign a declaration to confirm that the individual had purchased a Snapple beverage within the class period. The court labeled this suggestion “unrealistic.” Plaintiffs offered no basis to assume that putative class members retained a receipt, bottle label, or any other concrete documentation of their purchases of Snapple beverages bearing the “All Natural” description. Indeed, putative class members were unlikely to remember accurately every Snapple purchase during the class period, much less whether it was an “All Natural” or diet beverage, whether it was purchased as a single bottle or part of a six-pack or case, whether they used a coupon, or what price they paid. Soliciting declarations from putative class members regarding their history of Snapple purchases would invite them “to speculate, or worse.”
However beloved Snapple may be, said the court, there is no evidence to suggest that its consumers treat it like a fine wine and remove and save its labels.