Wednesday, October 10, 2012

... but nationwide class action against Pom proceeds

In re POM Wonderful LLC Marketing and Sales Pratices Litigation, 2012 WL 4490860 (C.D. Cal.)

Plaintiffs alleged that Pom’s health claims for its pomegranate juice products were false and misleading, alleging the usual California statutory claims.  They moved to certify a nationwide class, and the court granted the motion.  Pom argued that there couldn’t be predominance for a nationwide class under Mazza.  “To the extent that Pom argues that California law cannot be applied to consumers nationwide as a matter of law, Pom is incorrect. Mazza did not vacate the district court's class certification as a matter of law, but rather because defendant Honda met its burden to demonstrate material differences in state law and show that other states' interests outweighed California's.” 

Since Pom was headquartered and located solely in California, developed its marketing strategies in California, and produced all of its pomegranate juice products in California, application of California law would be constitutional; Pom had the burden of showing that foreign law would apply.  But Pom didn’t meet that burden.  It provided a chart summarizing each state’s consumer protection laws on elements such as scienter, reliance, and timeliness, as well as remedies and defenses. But it didn’t explain which of these foreign laws differ from California's laws.  And even assuming that Pom had identified specific differences, Pom didn’t apply them to the facts of this case to demonstrate a true conflict.  So California law would apply to a nationwide class.

Pom argued that common questions of fact didn’t predominate because 1) Pom disseminated several different advertisements, 2) class members may or may not have relied on the various advertisements, 3) class members bought Pom products for different reasons, and 4) class members' claims require individualized damages inquiries. Nope. 

The complaint alleged that Pom falsely promoted its products as having “special benefits relating to diseases and health-related conditions,” and as having tens of millions of dollars of medical research behind them. “[T]he mere fact that Pom used several different advertisements to convey its health message is not dispositive.”  Pom marketed pomegranate juice as “the magic elixir of our age,” that “helps all sorts of things in the body.”  It directed its marketing staff that Pom's “[m]ain messaging should be about heart health or longevity,” and that “pomegranate juice[ ] promotes health and prolongs life.”  Each member of the class need not hear the exact same words; the class action mechanism would be useless if a defendant could evade it by altering wording or format.  The court concluded:

Pom disseminated its message via radio, billboards, and national print media over a period of several years. Plaintiff has provided evidence that Pom succeeded in getting its message out, including Pom's co-owner's statement that “72% of people who buy pomegranate juice buy it for the health reason....“ Even Defendant's survey expert, Ravi Dhar, determined that a significant majority of respondents, in excess of 90%, cited health reasons as a motivating factor behind their purchase of Pom juice. The questions whether Pom's representations regarding the health benefits were material and deceived consumers predominate over individual questions regarding specific advertisements.

Pom argued that reliance would present predominantly individualized issues, material misrepresentations raise an inference of reliance as to the entire class, and materiality to a reasonable consumer is subject to common proof.  Individualized damage calculations can’t alone defeat class certification. 

Superiority also favored the class action.  “[T]he extent of Pom's contacts with California and the lack of any demonstrated material conflict with the law of other states weigh in favor of concentrating litigation of class members' claims in this forum. Any potential management difficulties are outweighed by the efficiencies to be gained by litigating class claims, which will almost certainly require detailed scientific and expert evidence, all at once.”  And there was no realistic alternative.  Pom noted that the FTC is currently litigating the truth of its claims, but that doesn’t necessarily provide the class with a remedy, and individual actions aren’t realistic.

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