Earlier this month a federal court reaffirmed that a named class representative in a proposed consumer class action against Ghirardelli Chocolate Co. lacked standing to assert claims about products he never bought. See Miller v. Ghirardelli Chocolate Co., No. 12-04936 (N.D. Cal. 4/5/13). We have posted before about plaintiffs overreaching in consumer fraud class actions. If a tree falls and no one is there, does it make a sound? If you never bought and used a product, how can you bring a “consumer” claim?
Plaintiff Scott Miller allegedly bought a package of “Ghirardelli® Chocolate Premium Baking Chips –Classic White” and then, on behalf of himself and other consumers, sued the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company, complaining that defendant somehow deceived customers into thinking that this and four other products contained “artificial” or “imitation” ingredients, in violation of United States Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) and state regulations.
Readers may know that Ghirardelli is one of America’s longest continuously operating chocolate manufacturers (more than 150 years) and that it is one of very few American manufacturers that make chocolate starting from the cocoa bean through to finished products. Ghirardelli accepts only the highest-quality beans, rejecting as many as 30% of the beans that are offered it. Ghirardelli roasts the cocoa beans in-house to ensure the company’s signature flavor profile is consistently maintained in all chocolate products.
Miller filed suit in San Francisco County Superior Court, and Ghirardelli removed to federal court and moved to dismiss the complaint. The court initially agreed that Miller lacked standing for products he had not purchased. At oral argument, however, plaintiff argued that the branding on the label meant that – under the FDA regulations and standards – the alleged harm was identical across product lines, and that established standing as to products he never used. Miller filed an amended complaint and Ghirardelli again moved to dismiss.
Hard as it may be to believe, there are a few cases that suggest that a plaintiff who does not purchase a product nonetheless may have standing if the products and alleged misrepresentations were substantially similar. E.g., Astiana v. Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, Inc., No. C-11-2910 EMC, 2012 WL 2990766, at *11 (N.D. Cal. July 20, 2012). But certainly where the alleged misrepresentations or accused products are dissimilar, courts tend to dismiss claims to the extent they are based on products not purchased. E.g., Larsen v. Trader Joe’s Co., No. 11-cv-5188-SI (Docket No. 41) (N.D. Cal. June 14, 2012), the court found that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring claims based on products they did not purchase (wide range of Trader Joe’s products (cookies, apple juice, cinnamon rolls,biscuits, ricotta cheese, and crescent rolls). See also Stephenson v. Neutrogena, No. C-12-0426 PJH, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1005099, at *1 (N.D. Cal. Jul. 27, 2012) (plaintiff brought suit over six Neutrogena Naturals products but had only purchased the purifying facial cleanser).
Even under the Astiana approach, here the products were too different: they look different; they have different uses (baking chips, drink powders, and wafers); they have different labels and different representations on packaging, and they are marketed and sold differently in that, for example, some are sold alongside each other, and some are sold in commercial markets and others in consumer markets. The logo, which plaintiff put so much emphasis on, was relatively unimportant considering the varying products, packaging and representations, and markets. Logos cannot be dispositive of what a product is and that a consumer determines what a product or characterizing flavor is by reviewing the label. Finally, the identity of the commodity here under FDA regulations was “white chocolate,” not “chocolate” as in the logo. That in turn means that a determination of standing required an examination of the entire label, and again, the five products and the alleged misrepresentations were not sufficiently similar.