Friday, June 14, 2013

Typicality defeats a food class action

Major v. Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc., 2013 WL 2558125 (N.D. Cal.)

Major sued Ocean Spray alleging that she bought several Ocean Spray juices/drinks “unlawfully labeled ‘No Sugar Added’ or bearing improper nutrient content claims, or false representations that the products are free from artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.”  She alleged that she bought five flavors, Blueberry Juice Cocktail, 100% Juice Cranberry & Pomegranate, Diet Sparkling Pomegranate Blueberry, Light Cranberry, and Ruby Cherry.  She asserted the usual California claims, including warranty claims. 

Her complaint defined the putative class as California purchasers who bought Ocean Spray products (1) labeled “No Sugar Added” but which contained concentrated fruit juice and/or provided enough calories to trigger a disclosure requirement; (2) falsely represented to contain no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives; (3) represented to be “healthy” or a source of an antioxidant/nutrient in violation of nutrient standards.  The class certification motion reformulated the putative class as purchasers who bought any products from Ocean Spray’s 100% Juice, Juice Drinks, Sparkling, and Cherry products, in any flavors.

The court found that Major failed to show typicality.  A district court must “ensure that the named plaintiffs have incentives that align with those of absent class members so as to assure that the absentees' interests will be fairly represented.” Typicality isn’t satisfied “where the evidence needed to prove at least one of the named plaintiff's claims is not probative of the other class members' claims.” When cases involve several products, typicality isn’t met when the named plaintiff bought a different product than that purchased by unnamed plaintiffs. 

And that was true because Major’s proposed classes encompassed products she didn’t herself purchase.  For example, Major sought to cover any product from the Sparkling line, based on the purchase of Diet Sparkling Pomegranate Blueberry drink.  But the motion failed to link any of those products to any alleged misbranding. 

Major failed to explain why every flavor in the Sparkling line was misbranded.  The labels and nutrition claims on each product may be unique.  Major based her claims with respect to the Sparkling line in part on the claims made on the Diet Pomegranate Blueberry label, but because that language includes specific claims about blueberries, it would only be applicable to drinks containing blueberries.  The evidence needed to prove that the blueberry claims were false wouldn’t be probative of the claims of unnamed class members who bought non-blueberry Sparkling products.

(This is not an unexpected result.  But I wonder how strongly it follows from the rationale for the typicality requirement. In what way would including other products provide plaintiff with the wrong incentives to represent the entire class?  Is the thought that she might wrongly give up claims based on other products in order to achieve a more favorable result with respect to products she bought?)

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