California's Supreme Court ruled late last month that consumers who purchase a product allegedly as a result of misleading advertising can sue the manufacturer even in the absence of traditional injury, despite enactment of a recent ballot proposition that was designed to stiffen injury requirements and limit standing under the state's unfair competition and false advertising laws. Kwikset Corp. v. Superior Court, No. S171845, 2011 WL 240278 (Cal. Jan. 27, 2011).
Readers have seen our posts about the danger of plaintiffs' misuse of state consumer fraud acts and unfair and deceptive practices acts. Partially in response to such abuse, a few years back the voters of California passed Proposition 64, which substantially revised the state's unfair competition and false advertising laws by beefing up standing and injury requirements for suits by private individuals. The initiative declared: “It is the intent of the California voters in enacting this act to prohibit private attorneys from filing lawsuits for unfair competition where they have no client who has been injured in fact under the standing requirements of the United States Constitution.” Specifically, Proposition 64 also restricted standing to consumers who can allege they have suffered “injury in fact” and have “lost money or property” as a result of the defendant's improper business practice. The plain import of this is that a plaintiff now must demonstrate some form of economic injury -- the issue is what form.
Plaintiff James Benson brought suit against Kwikset Corp. challenging the company's “Made in U.S.A.” labeling of lock sets that allegedly contain foreign-made parts or involved foreign manufacture. Specifically, plaintiff alleged that Kwikset falsely marketed as “Made in USA” locksets that contained screws or pins made in Taiwan or that were assembled in Mexico. Plaintiff prevailed in the trial court, on injunctive relief, but lost on the restitution claim. While cross-appeals were pending, Proposition 64 took effect. The lower courts gave plaintiff an opportunity to plead standing based on injury under the new Prop standing requirements of injury in fact and loss of money or property. The amended complaint then alleged that plaintiff relied on Kwikset’s representations in deciding to purchase the locks, and that he supposedly would not have purchased the locksets if they were not labeled “Made in the USA.” On appeal, the court of appeals vacated the decision in light of the standing issues in the wake of the new law. The court found that the plaintiffs (new plaintiffs had been added) had alleged “injury in fact,” but they had not alleged “loss of money or property” because they got perfectly functioning locksets in return for their money, and they were not overpriced or defective. Plaintiffs therefore received the benefit of the bargain.
The state Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal, specifically to address the new standing requirements and what constitutes “loss of money or property” under California’s unfair competition law (Business and Professions Code section 17200 et seq. (the UCL)) and the false advertising law (Business and Professions Code section 17500 et seq.).
The state high court held that plaintiffs who allege they are deceived by a product’s label and thus purchase a product that they would not have purchased otherwise have “lost money or property” as required by Proposition 64 and have standing. The court somehow concluded that such an individual does not receive the “benefit of the bargain” even if the product is not overpriced or defective, and works just fine. The Supreme Court concluded that “labels matter.” For each consumer who relies on the truth and accuracy of a label and is deceived by misrepresentations into making a purchase, the economic harm is the same: the consumer has purchased a product that he or she paid more for than he or she otherwise might have been willing to pay if the product had been labeled accurately, said the court. This economic harm -the "loss of real dollars from a consumer's pocket" -is the same whether or not a court might objectively view the products as functionally equivalent. If a party has alleged or proven a personal, individualized loss of money or property in any non-trivial amount, he or she has also alleged or proven injury in fact.
The majority worried that to deny such consumers standing would bring an end to private consumer enforcement regarding label misrepresentations. Instead, this unfortunate decision may well encourage frivolous and contrived class action litigation by plaintiffs who have not suffered any type of quantifiable economic loss -- exactly what the voters voted to curtail.
The dissent correctly noted that the majority's ruling directly contravened the both the intent of Prop 64 and the express language of the amendment. Indeed Proposition 64 was an effort to curb suits just like this one (which was mentions in the campaign), in which plaintiff got the benefit of their bargain. In direct contravention of the electorate's intent, the majority disregarded the express language of the amendment and arguably made it easier for a plaintiff to achieve standing under the UCL. Lost money cannot refer to every time a consumer pays for something, because then every consumer would always have standing to challenge every transaction, and how could Proposition 64 be seen as a new restriction on standing? Loss of money is not the same as any economic injury. Lost money or property is a subset, one form of, economic injury. Not all economic injuries include lost money as the statute uses the term; the majority effectively rendered one of the two statutory requirements redundant and a nullity.
By delving into the subjective motivation of the plaintiff ("labels matter"), the court ignored the focus of the statute not on subjective intent of the buyer, but objective proof of actual loss of property versus no such loss.
In focusing on the fact that the plaintiffs paid for the items, the majority ignored the fact that plaintiffs received the locksets in return, which were not alleged to be overpriced or otherwise defective. Aside from paying the purchase price of the locksets, plaintiffs have not alleged they actually “lost” any money or property. The majority simply concluded there was a loss of real dollars, but there was no such allegation of such a loss here, where plaintiffs simply paid the purchase price for the mislabeled but otherwise fully functional locksets. Plaintiffs did not allege that the locksets were worth less or were of lesser quality or were defective, and the majority's holding apparently does not require that plaintiffs allege any price differential.