One of the great things about being a lawyer is that, like a sports fan watching a play unfold, you can foresee lawsuits before they’re even filed.
Nutella is delicious, creamy, and chocolaty, but one thing it is not: healthy. That didn’t stop Ferrero, the makers of Nutella, from starting up a healthy-for-kids advertising campaign last year in Europe, as profiled by the nutrition researchers at Obesity Panacea:
Although this may surprise some of our readers, I really like junk food. I eat far too much pizza, I love chicken wings, and Nutella, the original chocolate hazelnut spread, is one of my favourite breakfast condiments (it’s tasty on a bagel, but its unbeatable inside a fresh crepe with whipped cream and bananas). The interesting thing about Nutella is that its commercials seem to suggest that it is some sort of health food.
Now that commercial implies several things. First off, it implies that Nutella is a great source of energy, especially for kids. Well it should be a great source of energy – the first ingredient is sugar. In fact, in a 19 gram serving of Nutella, 11 grams are sugar. Of course that energy won’t last very long before an insulin spike kicks in and makes the kids lethargic, so they are likely to need something more substantial if they plan to "discover the world" for more than an hour or so.
The commercial also implies that Nutella is mainly hazelnuts and milk. However, hazelnuts only make up 13% of Nutella, and skimmed milk makes up less than 7%. …
Many Nutella ads, including those on their American website which can be found here, suggest that Nutella is not only a great source of energy, but is also a nutritious way to start your day. What type of nutrients? After sugar, the second most common ingredient in Nutella is palm oil. The same palm oil which is high in palmitic acid, a fatty acid which the World Health Organization claims is convincingly linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease (see the report here, and skip to page 98 for the info on palmitic acid). In fact, roughly half the calories in Nutella are from sugar, and the other half are from fat. Only about 4% of the calories are from protein. The Nutella website also suggests that Nutella is healthy because it "is made with hazelnuts which are a great source of vitamins." Note that they don’t say that Nutella is a great source of vitamins, because it’s not – a single serving has 0% of the recommended daily intake of Vitamins A and C, and just 10% of the recommended intake of Vitamin E.
It didn’t take long for the campaign to come to the United States. Sure enough, watching The Weather Channel one morning (admit it, that’s how you start the day, too), I saw one of these Nutella commercials, started laughing, and told my wife: "they’re going to get sued." Those sort of ridiculous claims are bread and butter — or should I say
hazelnuts and milk sugar and palm oil? — to consumer class action attorneys.
Sure enough, the consumer class action was just filed:
The maker of Nutella is the target of a consumer class action filed on Tuesday alleging the company falsely markets its hazelnut spread as healthy for children even though the product is loaded with saturated fat and processed sugar.
Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, the lawsuit alleges that Ferrero USA Inc. violates California consumer protection laws by representing that the spread is a healthy, nutritious and balanced breakfast for children. The name plaintiff, Athena Hohenberg, is the mother of a four-year-old child.
The lawsuit claims violations of California’s laws pertaining to unfair competition and false advertising. It also alleges breach of warranty and seeks injunctive relief and compensatory and punitive damages. The purported class comprises all consumers who purchased Nutella beginning in January 2000.
(The WSJ Law Blog also picks up on it here.)
The key word is California. A quick review of some consumer fraud class action cases over the past few years show them being dismissed, time and time again, for one reason: "justifiable reliance."
Like Hunt v. US Tobacco Co., 538 F.3d 217 (3d Cir. 2008):
We believe the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has effectively answered the question presented in this case. That Court has categorically and repeatedly stated that, due to the causation requirement in the Consumer Protection Law’s standing provision, 73 Pa. Cons.Stat. § 201-9.2(a) (permitting suit by private plaintiffs who suffer loss "as a result of" the defendant’s deception), a private plaintiff pursuing a claim under the statute must prove justifiable reliance. See, e.g., Schwartz v. Rockey, 593 Pa. 536, 932 A.2d 885, 897 n. 16 (2007) (stating that "the justifiable reliance criterion derives from the causation requirement which is express on the face of section 9.2[, the statute’s private-plaintiff standing provision]"); Toy, 928 A.2d at 202 ("[A] plaintiff alleging violations of the Consumer Protection Law must prove justifiable reliance."); Yocca v. Pittsburgh Steelers Sports, Inc., 578 Pa. 479, 854 A.2d 425, 438 (2004) ("To bring a private cause of action under the [Consumer Protection Law], a plaintiff must show that he justifiably relied on the defendant’s wrongful conduct or representation and that he suffered harm as a result of that reliance."). It has not recognized any exceptions, and has applied this rule in a variety of situations. These include, in Yocca, a claim— like Hunt’s claim here—under the post-1996 catch-all provision. See Plaintiffs[‘] Third Amended Class Action Complaint in Civil Action at 18-19, Yocca, No. GD XX-XXXXXX (Pa.Ct.C.P.2001) (accusing defendant of, inter alia, "[e]ngaging in any other fraudulent or deceptive conduct which creates a likelihood of confusion or of misunderstanding"). The Pennsylvania Superior Court has applied the Supreme 222*222 Court’s standing rule to the post-1996 catch-all provision, see Debbs v. Chrysler Corp., 810 A.2d 137, 156-58 (Pa.Super.Ct.2002); Sexton v. PNC Bank, 792 A.2d 602, 607-08 (Pa.Super.Ct.2002), and our Court has interpreted the rule to apply to all Consumer Protection Law subsections, see Santana Prods., Inc. v. Bobrick Washroom Equipment, Inc., 401 F.3d 123, 136 (3d Cir. 2005). Given this significant authority on statutory standing, we think the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would require justifiable reliance where a private plaintiff alleges deceptive conduct under the post-1996 catch-all provision.
That’s not a problem by itself, except that many courts have held that you simply can’t have a class action where the claims include justifiable reliance as an element. I think those rulings are crazy — of course you can show, by a preponderance of evidence, that members of a class relied on false advertising, it’s just a question of degree and thus a question for the jury — but it’s the law in a lot of places.
But not California, which has a lot of exceptions to the rule, including an exception that presumes consumers rely, to some extent, on written advertising. Hence the Nutella suit being brought in California first; California’s one of the best places to file it.
Which really makes you wonder about the quality of other state’s laws. Those state’s technically make false advertising illegal, but it’s a hollow remedy, since it’s never enforced. Without the ability to create a class action, no consumer class action lawyer would spend thousands of hours and dollars fighting a case worth no more than a single jar of Nutella.
Overlawyered links here, too. As I put in the comments there:
Two additional thoughts:
First, Nutella really walked themselves into this one with their new advertising campaign. Their defense is pretty obvious — "we only said it was part of a balanced breakfast, not that it was healthy per se" — but that just sets them up for another issue. If I was the plaintiffs’ attorney, I would listen to that response and then ask, "all right, so what part of the balance does Nutella add?" At that point, their defense crumbles.
Second, I think most consumers would be surprised to learn that the product is 75% sugar and palm oil. I never thought Nutella was healthy, but I thought it was primarily hazelnuts and milk products, which is how the advertisement describes it. But it’s not: it is almost entirely sugar and palm oil with a tiny amount of hazelnuts, milk product, and chocolate added for flavoring. That, to me, is disturbing in light of their advertising and labels touting those three as being the primary ingredients.