Monday, September 09, 2013

some consumers' indifference to ad claim dooms class action

McManus v. Sturm Foods Inc., No. 11–565–GPM, 2013 WL 4510109 (S.D. Ill. Aug. 26, 2013)

This case denied certification to a multistate class based on alleged misrepresentations that Sturm’s Grove Square coffee contained fresh ground coffee and a filter rather than “instant” or “soluble” coffee. 

The court began with definiteness/ascertainability: whether membership could be determined with objective criteria.  A class is overbroad if it includes many members who could not have been harmed at all (as opposed to a class whose members might ultimately not have suffered actionable harm because of a failure of proof).  If a class requires deception, then nondeceived consumers—consumers who bought for other reasons—aren’t harmed.  Under state laws requiring causation or actual reliance, the class definitions were overbroad because they included all purchasers, necessarily including those who knew of or who were indifferent to the product’s insoluble coffee content. This got rid of the Alabama, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Illinois, and South Carolina claims.

California and New Jersey permit a classwide presumption of reliance and causation in appropriate circumstances, but the court found those weren’t present here, so their definitions were also overbroad.  California allows a classwide presumption of harm/reliance if the misrepresentations were material and made to the entire class.  “In general, purchasers of a product labeled with the alleged misrepresentation have necessarily been exposed, but all products must have contained the misrepresentation.”  Presumed exposure to an ad campaign requires the campaign to have been extensive and longterm. 

Here, though, plaintiffs alleged that Sturm’s use of the word “soluble” rather than “instant,” package design, and store placement were deceptive.  Some purchasers were necessarily exposed to the claim on the packaging, but in 2011 Sturm changed its label to include the word “instant.” Class members exposed thereafter, representing nearly $4 million in gross sales and a vast majority of overall sales during the class period, weren’t exposed to this “primary” deception.  Plus, extensive sales occurred online.  Those consumers couldn’t have been exposed to the alleged misrepresentation prior to purchase. There also wasn’t sufficient evidence alleged in the complaint of an extensive and longterm ad campaign justifying a presumption of exposure.  Thus, materiality couldn’t be presumed classwide.

The New Jersey analysis was similar, though New Jersey doesn’t require reliance for recovery, only causation.  Before applying a presumption of causation, a court must consider whether plaintiffs could have known the truth.  Here, the class “potentially includes a great many individuals who bought Grove Square Coffee products because of, or in spite of, knowing that it contained instant coffee . . . . Moreover, numerous class members could have known, appreciated, or easily learned that soluble coffee is distinct from ground coffee—precluding a presumption of causality.”

To nail the coffin down, the court discussed the varying expectations of consumers, a fatal flaw under the law of states like Illinois, which treat deception/causation as individualized.  The named plaintiffs weren’t consistent about what they noticed—some only cared about price.  Other commenters (apparently from online fora) wanted instant coffee, were indifferent, or were simply interested in a lower priced product, leaving comments such as “price great compared to K-cups” and “I have no problem with it being instant, if it tasted good.”  Given that these class members couldn’t show any damage, the proposed class was fatally overbroad.  

Similar reasoning doomed the unjust enrichment claims.

Also, the class wasn’t ascertainable because of its subjective membership criteria: each member would be required to show deception.  And there was no typicality because the court held that “each class member’s expectations when he or she purchased the Grove Square Coffee product is at issue.”  Some read the package, and others didn’t.  Individual issues clearly predominated.

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