Monday, December 17, 2012

wishy-washy "may enhance" health claim still actionable

Koehler v. Litehouse, Inc., 2012 WL 6217635 (N.D. Cal.)

Koehler alleged that Litehouse’s Bleu Cheese Yogurt Dressing with Probiotics falsely claimed that it “May boost immunity” and the rear label of the product claims that it “May enhance the body's immune system,” in violation of the usual California statutes (and in breach of express warranty/constituting negligent misrepresentation).

Koehler’s amended complaint quoted from his expert’s affidavit; the court struck the references to the affidavit because they included only conclusory assertions, not nonconclusory factual statements.  Litehouse then argued that all Koehler’s claims failed as a matter of law because of the qualifier “may” in the statements.  Qualifying statements are important for a reasonable consumer’s understanding; the court found that “may” was similar to “up to,” and would signal a lack of certainty to a reasonable consumer.  However, at least some of the complaint seemed predicated on the idea that a consumer would understand the statements to mean that there is a possibility that the product would enhance the immune system, but that it does not, in fact, do so.  If the product doesn’t even have a likelihood or tendency to boost immunity, the advertising is false.  Allegations of this type stated a claim.

Litehouse then argued that, since Koehler only alleged that he read and relied on the label, he couldn’t base his claims on other advertising methods used by Litehouse.  “Whether Koehler as a class representative can present claims on behalf of other class members who may have relied on different advertisements than those on the product label is an issue of typicality and adequacy of representation more properly disputed at the class certification stage. This is very different from the issue of whether Koehler has standing to bring his own claims, which Litehouse does not even dispute.”

Litehouse then argued that Koehler lacked standing to seek injunctive relief because he was at no risk of future injury, given that he now allegedly knew the truth.  This rationale would prevent any injunction from issuing to stop false advertising, “eviscerat[ing]” the California legislature’s intent.

Litehouse then argued that Koehler’s California claims couldn’t be brought on behalf of a nationwide class.  The court granted the motion to dismiss the class action allegations, to the extent asserted on behalf of a nationwide class, since non-California residents lacked sufficient contacts with the state.  It also granted Litehouse’s motion to dismiss Koehler’s request for the disgorgement of all ill-gotten gains, since disgorgement as such wasn’t available under the law, and allowed him to amend his pleading to limit the disgorgement demand to restitutionary purposes only.

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