Many food and beverage companies are labeling their products “Natural”, “100% Natural” or “All Natural” in order to attract more health-conscious consumers. Two such consumers are Lauren Ries and Serena Algozer. Ms. Ries claims she bought an “All Natural Green Tea” at a gas station because she was thirsty and looking for a healthy alternative to soda. Ms. Algozer claims she purchased several AriZona ice teas over the years, but neither plaintiff has a receipt for any of these purchases, nor can they remember the prices.
They filed a class-action lawsuit against AriZona Ice Tea in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, alleging that the drinks contained ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup and citric acid. According to the lawsuit, these ingredients are man-made products rather than the natural flavorings they claim to be, thereby making the “natural” labels misleading.
AriZona Ice Tea though, was able to provide testimony from expert witnesses that said otherwise. Dr. Thomas Montville, for example, a Rutgers University food scientist, maintained that both these ingredients are natural substances. The beverage company was also able to provide declarations from their suppliers that both citric acid and high fructose corn syrup are natural ingredients.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys on the other hand, were unable to produce a single expert witness in the three years of the case, which had been scheduled to go to trial on May 13, 2013. They also failed to respond to contentions that the plaintiffs failed to support their claims for restitution or disgorgement. They pointed to the fact that patents existed for the production of high fructose corn syrup, but the judge refused to take “judicial notice” of the fact. The judge was also unconvinced by the deposition of Don Vultaggio, the owner of Hornell Brewing Company, which supported the plaintiffs’ claim that consumers are likely to be confused and misled by the “natural” labels on the ice tea containers.
The lawsuit sought restitution, disgorgement of profits, injunctive relief, and attorneys’ fees. They claimed these under California laws such as the False Advertising Law, the Unfair Competition Law, and the Consumer Legal Remedies Act.
Judge Richard Seeborg had partially certified the class for the injunction against the “natural” label, but had refused to certify a class for restitution. Recently, Judge Seeborg found in favor of the defendants and granted summary judgment against the plaintiffs. According to his 13-page order, the plaintiffs “offer not a scintilla of evidence from which a finder of fact could determine the amount of restitution or disgorgement to which plaintiffs might be entitled if this case were to proceed to trial”.
The judge also determined that the plaintiffs’ counsel could not adequately represent the class and, on those grounds, granted the request to decertify the class.
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