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California: Home of the food lawsuit

California: Home of the food lawsuit

Wanna sue somebody? Then go west and chase an ambulance — or food truck — into California’s ill-famed Food Court and behold a cash cow waiting to be milked and bilked.

The lawyers are tripping over each other in the Northern District of California — bravely fighting for their spot in the legal queue as they expose the hell unleashed on the American consumer through product labeling terms such as organic, sugarless, no sugar added, low-cal, and 100 percent natural.

Hershey chocolate, Twining’s tea, Chobani yogurt, Trident gum, and basket of others are in the firing line, accused of defrauding and tricking Americans.

From Fox & Hounds [3]: “The number of consumer fraud class actions brought in federal court against food and beverage companies has skyrocketed in the last 5 years. In 2008, there were roughly 19 cases. That number jumped to 102 in 2012. Where are the vast majority of these cases being filed? California.”

The American Tort Reform Association [4] puts the Northern District of California on the top rung of its list of Judicial Hellholes [5].

The trial lawyers, having exhausted the old boilerplate suits involving Cheeto [6] dependence and Twinkie addiction, have moved on to challenging the “hawking of granola bars, fruit juice, and green tea as being good for you.” As William Stern, a partner with Morrison & Foerster (a firm which is trying to get several food suits booted) tells Businessweek: “Hyper-technical does not begin to describe this litigation. Trivial might be a better word.”

Paul Barrett [7], writing a sharp column in Businessweek, offers this example of a California suit involving Trident: The gum is advertised as “sugar free.” However, the plaintiff’s allege the “Term is improper unless the label also says ‘not a reduced-calorie food’ or ‘not for weight control.’”

Does it pay off for the plaintiffs? It sure did in 2009 when Dannon settled a case involving yogurt digestive claims for $35 million.

Shred of Hope

From Businessweek [7]: “In every competitive marketplace that’s ever existed, colorful and even exaggerated claims have been a largely harmless part of virtually every sales pitch,” says Darren McKinney, the association’s [ATRA] spokesman. The Food Court cases, he says, are the invention of plaintiffs’ attorneys who imply that their own clients “are imbeciles who can’t read the list of ingredients, which are right there on the label, along with the ‘all natural’ claims, or whatever the plaintiffs are all worked up about.”

What will the future hold as litigation plays out in the Food Court? Maybe the legal horizon isn’t so dark; a shred of hope from Bloomberg Law [8]: “To date, the court has not shown itself to be an automated device, finely tuned for separating defendants from their money. Defendants have a number of tools to defend these cases, and plaintiffs’ counsel face a range of long term risks. As this wave of litigation matures, it will probably lose momentum as claims founder on lack of proof, lack of actual harm, and, inevitably, by shifting attention to other kinds of products.”

A shift to “other kinds of products?” Maybe there’s still room on the legal buffet for Cheeto [6]dependence and Twinkie addiction after all.

 

*photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons [9], Brian Turner

 

Follow me on Twitter: @CBennett71 [10]

Email me: [email protected] [11]

 

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