Photo of Sean Wajert

Sean P. Wajert is a partner at Shook, Hardy & Bacon LLP, and the Managing Partner of Shook's Philadelphia office.  He concentrates his complex litigation practice on the defense of companies from a variety of industries, including the chemical, consumer product, drug and medical device industries.  His practice focuses on complex commercial litigation, mass tort, toxic tort and product liability litigation, and appellate work. For a decade he served as Chair of the Products Liability Group of his prior firm.  Sean also taught complex litigation issues for ten years as a Lecturer-in-Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Let’s start the New Year off right.  It’s not often we find ourselves agreeing with the Ninth Circuit, especially in the class action realm.  But the Ninth Circuit recently upheld the denial of class certification to a group of dog owners alleging a pet food maker misled buyers about the alleged presence of heavy metals in its food products. See Reitman v. Champion Petfoods USA, Inc., 830 F. App’x 880 (9th Cir. 2020).

Twelve named plaintiffs purported to represent 12 state-specific classes. They alleged that defendant misrepresented the quality and content of the dog food in its label.  In earlier proceedings, the proposed class was narrowed to California residents who purchased the dog food since 2014. The plaintiffs alleged that defendants failed disclose that the dog foods contain levels of arsenic, mercury, lead, cadmium and/or BPA, which are known to pose health risks to humans and animals, including dogs. Plaintiffs also alleged defendants were knowingly, recklessly, and/or negligently selling certain of the contaminated foods containing pentobarbital.  This allegedly rendered false any statement that the ingredients are biologically appropriate. Finally, defendants also allegedly misled consumers by marketing that their dog food is made from fresh and regional ingredients and is never outsourced. Plaintiffs asserted state-law claims on behalf of the class: (1) violations of California’s Consumer Legal Remedies Act (“CLRA”),  (2) violations of California False Advertising Law (“FAL”),  (3) violations of the Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”), (4) breach of express warranty; (5) breach of implied warranty of merchantability; (6) fraudulent misrepresentation; (7) fraud by omission; (8) negligent misrepresentation; and (9) unjust enrichment.

The district court found that common questions of law or fact did not predominate, finding that plaintiffs were not entitled to a presumption of reliance because plaintiffs cannot show that members of the class were exposed to the same misrepresentations. Even if there was a common general “message” on the products, numerous issues requiring individualized attention would predominate over any common questions. Even the specific phrases at issue required context that differs from bag to bag. Reitman v. Champion Petfoods USA, Inc., No. CV181736DOCJPRX, 2019 WL 7169792, at *1–2 (C.D. Cal. Oct. 30, 2019).

Moreover, the variations went to the very heart of plaintiffs’ claims: Whether a reasonable person would be deceived by the message. That question will necessarily require an individualized inquiry into the specific formula at issue i each brand extension because each formula is unique and has different representations on the packaging that give context to the overall message. Here, the misrepresentations at issue were subject to variations depending on the formula purchased by the proposed class member; every package differed and the changes would require the court to determine what combinations of labels were visible before determining whether that combination is deceiving to a reasonable consumer. The district court recognized that every package also differs in providing additional statements that give context to the overall theme such that an individualized determination must be made bag by bag to determine whether a reasonable customer would be deceived. Therefore, plaintiffs did not meet Rules 23(b)(3)’s predominance requirements as to their UCL, FAL, and CLRA claims.
The Ninth Circuit


Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Affirms Denial of Class Claims in Pet Food Case

The American Tort Reform Foundation (ATRF) named nine “Judicial Hellholes” in its new annual report intended to shine a light on lawsuit abuse and its effects. See https://www.judicialhellholes.org/reports/2020-2021-executive-summary

ATRF explains that lawsuit abuse harms average, hard-working Americans by clogging our court system with meritless and frivolous cases; dollars spent fighting lawsuits are dollars taken away

Our readers know that vanilla-based litigation remains active.  Yet another proposed class claim fell short in Howard Clark v. Westbrae Natural Inc., No. 3:20-cv-03221 (N.D. Calif. 12/1/20).  Plaintiff  alleged that the use of the word “vanilla” on the label of Westbrae Natural, ’s organic unsweetened vanilla soymilk misrepresents to consumers that the product’s vanilla flavor

In a unanimous, published decision, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a a putative class action brought by a plaintiff-consumer who alleged claims arising when Diamond Foods allegedly included partially hydrogenated oils as an ingredient in Pop Secret popcorn. See McGee v. S-L Snacks Nat’l, 982 F.3d 700 (9th Cir. Dec. 5, 2020).

In sum, the panel affirmed the district court’s dismissal for lack of constitutional Article III standing as the plaintiff did not plausibly allege that, as a result of her purchase and consumption of Pop Secret, she suffered economic or immediate physical injury, or that she was placed at substantial risk of adverse consequences. Concerning plaintiff’s alleged economic injury, the panel held that plaintiff had not alleged that she was denied the benefit of her bargain, particularly given the labeling disclosure that the product contained artificial trans fat.

The panel also held that plaintiff failed to allege an economic injury based on an overpayment theory.
Plaintiff did not allege that Pop Secret contained a hidden defect, or that Pop Secret was worth objectively less than what she paid for it. Concerning plaintiff’s alleged present physical injury, the panel held that plaintiff had not plausibly alleged that she suffered physical injuries due to her consumption of Pop Secret. Concerning plaintiff’s alleged future physical injury, the panel held that plaintiff had not plausibly alleged that her consumption of Pop Secret substantially increased her risk of disease.


Continue Reading Everyone Knows Popcorn is (Trans-) Fattening

Increasing attention has been given to the failure of MDL courts to apply the FRCP, particularly Rule 12(b)(6), to address meritless and inadequately pleaded claims on federal dockets in MDLs. In non-MDL cases, such claims are routinely disposed of by Rule 12(b)(6), but in an MDL, avoiding the clear impact of the rules is deemed

Vanilla in common parlance denotes, well, common.  And indeed, vanilla is one of the most common ingredients in food, whether as a primary flavor or a component of another flavor. But for centuries it was rare, a delicacy for the rich.  And even after new fertilization methods greatly expanded output, demand exceeded supply.  So, as

In the class action context, the named plaintiffs as class representatives must allege and show that they personally have been injured, not just that injury has been suffered by other, unidentified members of the class to which they belong and which they purport to represent.  If the named plaintiff cannot establish Article III standing, she may not seek relief on behalf of herself or any other class member, and it will lead to dismissal of the action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. As the 11th Circuit recently noted, see Muransky v. Godiva Chocolatier, Inc., — F.3d —- , No. 16-16486 & 16-16783, 2020 WL 6305084 (11th Cir. October 28, 2020), the question whether pleading merely that a statutory requirement was violated is enough to establish standing, even when the plaintiff suffered no injury from the alleged violation, was a question that had bedeviled litigants, scholars, and lower courts.  At least, up until Spokeo Inc. v. Robins, 136 S. Ct. 1540, 194 L.Ed.2d 635 (2016), in which the Court explained that a party does not have standing to sue when it pleads only the bare violation of a statute.

FYI, defendant Godiva began as a family business nearly 100 years ago in Brussels, and yes, was named after the legend of Lady Godiva and the associated values of boldness, generosity, and a pioneering spirit.  Like StarWars, this legend started over a tax protest.  Anyway, in 1968, Godiva was appointed official chocolatier to the Royal Court of Belgium. Great stuff.

Article III standing consists of three elements:  an injury in fact, that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision.  These elements are an indispensable part of the plaintiff’s case.

In Muransky, plaintiff had pleaded the case as a pure statutory violation of the the Fair and Accurate Credit ‎Transactions Act (“FACTA”). He alleged that Godiva chocolate stores had printed too many credit card digits on hundreds of thousands of receipts over the course of several years, and pointed out that those extra numbers were prohibited under a federal law apparently aimed at preventing identity theft. His complaint disclaimed any recovery for actual damages.
Continue Reading Court of Appeals Decides Important Standing Issue

“Bellwether” cases are an important case management tool in many MDL proceedings, which typically include numerous individual claims. A bellwether is the sheep that leads the flock, and in an MDL, these lead “test” cases may shed important light on how a jury will react to the parties’ themes, how credible and persuasive their experts are, and how the court views key legal issues.  This information can at times be as, if not more, important as the amount of the actual verdict.  But to shed meaningful light, the bellwether trials must produce a sufficient number of outcomes to provide relevant guidance, given the variety of fact patterns in a typical MDL.  Outcomes in this context might include motions practice, but often does really mean verdicts.

Recently, the judge overseeing the device MDL, In re Cook Filter MDL (amended bellwether), No. 1:14-ml-02570 (MDL S.D. Ind.)(Third Amended CMO #27, 10/26/2020), has had to confront two issues affecting the litigation’s bellwether case management plan.  The first three bellwether cases ended before trial, and now the pandemic is impacting how a new bellwether trial might proceed.  Accordingly, he issued an order amending the bellwether case process, in essence asking the parties to provide additional information for the selection of viable and appropriate bellwethers.
Continue Reading MDL Revises “Bellwether” Trial Process