Is water a “natural element”?

A New York federal court judge elected to put the question to a jury in a false advertising lawsuit accusing Purex of deceiving consumers by prominently displaying the phrase “Natural Elements” on its product packaging.

Plaintiff Tony Luib argued that the claim implied that the product contained no synthetic ingredients. The defendant countered that the product contained roughly 12 ingredients, including water. Contending that water has a critical role in the product (by enabling the surfactants to lift stains from fabrics), Purex pointed out that if water constitutes a natural element, then by weight, the detergent consists almost entirely of natural ingredients.

Luib attempted to minimize the significance of water as an ingredient, noting that water “is found in practically all products and things” and that the mere use of water did not turn the detergent into a natural product. If water is excluded from the calculation, the detergent consists of little more than half natural ingredients by weight, the plaintiff said.

Ruling on the parties’ cross motions for summary judgment, U.S. District Judge Brian M. Cogan denied both, finding that several genuine issues of material fact remained.

“Whether or not the ‘Natural Elements’ label is materially misleading turns on whether a factfinder determines that a reasonable person would be misled by this label into thinking that the Products contain no synthetic elements,” the court said. “That, in turn, depends in part on whether a factfinder thinks it is reasonable to consider water as a ‘natural element.’ I cannot say that it would be unreasonable as a matter of law for a factfinder to come out one way or the other on this issue, and thus the inquiry is a factual one.”

To read the memorandum decision and order in Luib v. Henkel Consumer Goods, Inc., click here.

Why it matters: Unable to decide the case on summary judgment, the court held that a jury should decide whether water is a natural element and whether a reasonable consumer would think a product labeled “Natural Elements” contains synthetic ingredients.