Friday, December 09, 2011

Like beatings for elephants

Profant v. Have Trunk Will Travel, 2011 WL 6034370 (C.D. Cal.)

Plaintiffs sued HTWT and its owners for violating the UCL and FAL based on allegations that defendants mistreat the elephants they own and train for commercial purposes. Plaintiffs paid for tickets to see the film Water for Elephants. HTWT trained Tai, an elephant who appeared in the film. Plaintiffs alleged that they bought tickets in reliance on defendants’ representations that they trained Tai using humane techniques and did not use shock devices or bull hooks.

After they saw the movie, plaintiffs allegedly watched a video of defendants treating Tai and other elephants cruelly, including beating elephants with bull hooks and using electric shocks.

The court first found that plaintiffs had standing. The court found there was no requirement that plaintiffs have directly used defendants’ services in order to be injured. A consumer suffers an injury in fact where she alleges that she wouldn’t have bought a product but for the misrepresentation. Plaintiffs here alleged that they researched defendants’ training mechanisms, and in reliance on defendants’ representations spent money on movie tickets. This was sufficient allegation of an injury in fact for standing.

The court also found the pleadings sufficient under Rule 9(b). Plaintiffs specified the misrepresentations alleged:(1) a February 2011 online article from Tai's veterinarian stating that Tai “has never known mistreatment”; (2) a statement on HTWT's website stating that HTWT is “helping to establish the high standard of care and humane treatment that elephants deserve”; (3) a press release for Water for Elephants where Defendant Gary Johnson states “Tai was never hit in any way at all”; and (4) a December 2008 statement to the media that “[HTWT] ... does [not] condone using electrical devices to discipline and control elephants except in situations where elephant or human safety is at risk.”

However, plaintiffs weren’t entitled to any relief, because compensatory damages and disgorgement aren’t recoverable under the UCL or FAL. Restitution, injunctive relief, and declaratory relief were all inappropriate. Restitution wouldn’t work because plaintiffs failed to allege that defendants got any money, directly or indirectly, from the movie tickets, and it wasn’t clear that defendants’ payment was in any way based on ticket sales.

As for injunctive or declaratory relief, plaintiffs needed to demonstrate that they were realistically threatened by a repetition of the violation. “Plaintiffs allege that they will face future harm by not being able to trust Defendants, and therefore will be unable to see movies starring their elephants. Plaintiffs allege that they want to watch elephants in movies in the future, but do not allege that they immediately anticipate watching such a movie. This future harm is conjectural and too speculative to satisfy the standing requirements to seek injunctive and declaratory relief in federal court. Therefore, Plaintiffs' allegations do not support injunctive or declaratory relief as a matter of law.”

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