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.


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The Limited Scope Of Inventors’ and Creators’ Rights Under Copyright, Trademark, and Patent Infringement Law

The business lawsuits actually filed, and defamation lawsuit not filed, surrounding Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook have inspired some of my more popular posts. But there is one litigious part of the Facebook story that I did not cover,

Insurance-Funded Congressional Representatives Again Try To Deny Justice For Patients Injured By Medical Malpractice

Some bad ideas just will not go away. A few days ago The Pop Tort noted that the new, anti-patient Congress was holding hearings on medical malpractice liability. If they had listened to the excellent testimony of Joanne Doroshow, Executive Director of the Center for Justice & Democracy, they would have realized that injured patients need more, not less, legal protection.

But the “hearings” were a sham anyway, and a few days later the insurance-backed members of Congress introduced a new plan to strip away the rights of medical malpractice victims.

Phil Gingrey (R-GA11) ran unopposed last election, but that did not stop health services companies, HMOs, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, medical device companies, and insurance companies from contributing nearly $500,000 to his “campaign.”

It seems like he is ready to pay them back. As his press release trumpets:

Senior Health Subcommittee Member Phil Gingrey, M.D. (R-Ga.), House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), and Congressman David Scott (D-Ga.) today introduced The HEALTH Act (H.R. 5), a bill that includes meaningful medical liability reforms to lower the cost of health care while strengthening the doctor-patient relationship.

The press release has little by way of facts, except for this whopper: “According to the Harvard School of Public Health, 40% of malpractice suits filed in the U.S. are ‘without merit.’”

That’s funny, since I actually read the Harvard study on medical malpractice, and it said:

The researchers analyzed past malpractice claims to judge the volume of meritless lawsuits and determine their outcomes. Their findings suggest that portraits of a malpractice system riddled with frivolous lawsuits are overblown. Although nearly one third of claims lacked clear-cut evidence of medical error, most of these suits did not receive compensation. In fact, the number of meritorious claims that did not get paid was actually larger than the group of meritless claims that were paid. …

“Some critics have suggested that the malpractice system is inundated with groundless lawsuits, and that whether a plaintiff recovers money is like a random ‘lottery,’ virtually unrelated to whether the claim has merit,” said lead author David Studdert, associate professor of law and public health at HSPH. “These findings cast doubt on that view by showing that most malpractice claims involve medical error and serious injury, and that claims with merit are far more likely to be paid than claims without merit.”

Most claims (72%) that did not involve error did not receive compensation. When they did, the payments were lower, on average, than payments for claims that did involve error ($313,205 vs. $521,560). Among claims that involved error, 73% received compensation.Overall, the malpractice system appears to be getting it right about three quarters of the time,” said Studdert. “That’s far from a perfect record, but it’s not bad, especially considering that questions of error and negligence can be complex.” The 27% of cases with outcomes that didn’t match their merit included claims that went unpaid even though the injury was caused by an error (16%); claims that were paid but did not involve error (10%); and claims that were paid but did not appear to involve a treatment-related injury (0.4%).

The title of the study’s own press release was “Study Casts Doubt on Claims That the Medical Malpractice System Is Plagued By Frivolous Lawsuits.” Who are you going to believe, a paid-for Congressman or your lying eyes?

The study did not find that 40% of medical malpractice lawsuits were without merit. The study found that one-quarter of medical malpractice victims did not recover compensation, while, at most, only one-tenth of successful claims involved injures not caused by medical malpractice — and the plaintiffs in those cases received far less than the plaintiffs who had injures which even a panel of doctors thought were caused by medical malpractice.

The system works imperfectly, but so does every system — including our medical system, which costs the economy a minimum of $20 billion just in treating medical (iatrogenic) injuries. When you recognize that our entire medical malpractice liability system costs under $5 billion a year, you realize that, all in all, our medical malpractice liability system is downright cheap, and is compensating victims of medical negligence for only a fraction of their damages.

Even if we put aside the fact that, for every dollar spent on compensating the victims of medical negligence, more than $5 dollars in damage was caused by medical negligence, it bears repeating that the overall costs of compensating injured patients is so small that it the medical malpractice liability system does not restrict access to health care. Similarly, malpractice lawsuits have not been shown to change of physician behavior — so-called “defense medicine” — even in high-risk, high-liability cases like obstetricians’ decisions to perform c-sections when the baby shows signs of fetal distress.

I could go on — like how Gingrey’s proposal of “non-economic caps” would slam the courthouse doors shut on all but a few injured patients, and even then only those patients who were earning high incomes when they were injured or died — but I think the burden of proof here should lie with the people, like Gingrey, saying there’s a “medical malpractice crisis.” So far, he can’t muster anything more than a lie about the Harvard study.


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I’ve posted many times before about the economic realities of medical malpractice liability. Via The Pop Tort, a new study commissioned by the the Society of Actuaries has revealed the economic cost of medical malpractice in America:

SCHAUMBURG, Ill., (Aug. 9, 2010)–Findings from a new study released today estimate that measurable medical errors cost the U.S. economy $19.5 billion in 2008. Commissioned by the Society of Actuaries (SOA) and completed by consultants with Milliman, Inc., the report used claims data to provide an actuarially sound measurement of costs for avoidable medical injuries. Of the approximately $80 billion in costs associated with medical injuries, around 25 percent were the result of avoidable medical errors.

"This report highlights a singular opportunity for both improving the overall quality of care and reducing healthcare costs in this country," says Jim Toole, FSA, CERA, MAAA and managing director of MBA Actuaries, Inc. "Of the $19.5 billion in total costs, approximately $17 billion was the result of providing inpatient, outpatient and prescription drug services to individuals who were affected by medical errors. While this cost is staggering, it also highlights the need to reduce errors and improve quality and efficiency in American healthcare."

Medical errors are a significant source of lost healthcare funds every year. For example, the study found that $1.1 billion was from lost productivity due to related short-term disability claims, and $1.4 billion was lost from increased death rates among individuals who experienced medical errors. According to a recent SOA survey, which identified ways to bend the national healthcare cost curve, 87 percent of actuaries believe that reducing medical errors is an effective way to control healthcare cost trends for the commercial population, and 88 percent believe this to be true for the Medicare population.

"We used a conservative methodology and still found 1.5 million measureable medical errors occurred in 2008," says Jonathan Shreve, FSA, MAAA, consulting actuary for Milliman and co-author of the report. "This number includes only the errors that we could identify through claims data, so the total economic impact of medical errors is in fact greater than what we have reported."

(Emphases added.)

Compare that nearly $20 billion cost — a conservative estimate limited to the ascertainable economic harm, excluding any pain, suffering, embarrassment, humiliation, or mental anguish, caused by avoidable medical errors — to the mere $4.694 billion paid out to medical malpractice plaintiffs in 2008 (see Exhibit D).

That is to say, payouts to malpractice victims amount to less than one-quarter of the economic damage caused by the malpractice itself.

If someone told you that oil companies only paid twenty-three cents for every dollar of damage they negligently caused through avoidable oil spills, what would you say?

If someone told you that car, airplane or boat companies only paid twenty-three cents for every dollar of damage they negligently caused through defective designs and manufacturing, what would you say?

If someone told you that fast food companies only paid twenty-three cents for every dollar of damage they negligently caused through avoidable food poisoning, what would you say?

If someone told you that consumer appliance companies only paid twenty-three cents for every dollar of damage they negligently caused through electric shorts that caused fires, what would you say?

Would you say there was a liability "crisis" caused by an "explosion" of "frivolous" litigation?

Or would you say those companies weren’t living up to their responsibilities?


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[UPDATE: The WSJ Law Blog has copies of the letters submitted to the Delaware Chancery Court. Professor Hazard is undoubtedly one of the pre-eminent experts in the field, and he makes a compelling argument that Cravath violated the Rules of Professional Conduct. Yet, showing a violation of the Rules is not enough — to disqualify counsel under Chancellor Chandler’s standard, Airgas will have to show the violation will "materially advance" Air Product’s position or undermine the fair and efficient administration of justice. So far, I haven’t seen anything demonstrating that. The vague references made so far to Cravath’s insider knowledge of Airgas’s finances isn’t enough, since a firewall within Cravath can likely cure that problem.

UPDATE II: As predicted, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania declined to enter an injunction against Cravath, and the Delaware Chancery Court did not disqualify them.]

As has been reported all over the legal media,

Industrial gas producer Airgas filed suit against Cravath, Swaine & Moore on Friday over the firm’s role as legal adviser to rival Air Products on that company’s $5.1 billion bid for Airgas.

… Air Products filed a complaint on Thursday in Delaware’s Chancery Court against Airgas, claiming that the smaller company improperly blocked its board of directors from considering previous Air Products takeover offers. Cravath litigation partners Francis Barron, David Marriott and Gary Bornstein are representing Air Products in the Delaware litigation along with local counsel Kenneth Nachbar (he of sports gambling notoriety) and Jon Abramczyk from Morris, Nichols, Arsht & Tunnell. (Click here for the Chancery Court complaint, courtesy of The Times‘ Dealbook.)

Airgas responded by retaining Cozen O’Connor chairman Stephen Cozen, litigation chair Jeffrey Weil and litigation partner Thomas Wilkinson Jr., for a civil suit against Cravath in state court in Pennsylvania. In the suit, Airgas claims that Cravath has a conflict of interest and breached its fiduciary duty by representing Air Products because it previously advised Airgas on several financings. According to Airgas’ complaint against Cravath, the company has had a client relationship with the firm for 10 years and has paid Cravath about $2 million, including a $320,000 payment last October.

There’s an obvious question dangling over the Pennsylvania suit filed by Airgas: what basis — or power — does a state court in Pennsylvania have to preclude a New York law firm from representing a Delaware-registered company in Delaware state court litigation against another Delaware-registered company?

Unsurprisingly, that’s just what Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas (Commerce Court) Judge Albert Sheppard Jr. wondered before denying Airgas’ petition for a temporary restraining order:

In essence, I would be saying to a lawyer you can’t go to Delaware and represent your client. I find that difficult. I don’t want to do that.

Judge Sheppard only had it for two weeks, though, since Cravath, like virtually every out-of-state defendant, promptly removed the case to Federal court, i.e. the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, where it was assigned to Judge Eduardo Robreno (whose work in the Philadelphia Inquirer bankruptcy I’ve covered before).

Cravath (represented by a team at Conrad O’Brien*) has responded to the suit and has asked Judge Robreno to abstain from hearing the case at all:

First, whatever this Court may ultimately decide with respect to Airgas’s claim for money damages, Airgas’s request for a preliminary injunction is the functional equivalent of a motion to disqualify Cravath from appearing before the Delaware Chancery Court. With all due respect, Cravath submits that a motion precluding counsel from appearing in Delaware Chancery Court is more appropriately decided by Chancellor William B. Chandler III, who presides over the firstfiled Delaware litigation. Just as this Court has full authority over proceedings here, judicial comity warrants according Chancellor Chandler due authority over proceedings in his courtroom. …

Second, the Delaware Chancery Court is aptly suited to decide the key issue presented by Airgas’s petition to this Court—whether Cravath should be disqualified. Indeed, the dispute concerning Cravath’s ability to represent Air Products is intertwined with the merits of the (firstfiled) Delaware litigation. …

Third, whereas this Court’s ruling on Airgas’s petition for preliminary relief would be, by definition, provisional, the Delaware Chancery Court’s ruling on the question of whether Cravath should be disqualified will be a final decision on the merits.

(From Cravath’s brief, available on RECAP.)

It’s hard to argue with that; whatever the merits of the conflict-of-interest allegations, it seems they all relate to the Delaware litigation and so should be decided there.

Of course, there’s a reason Cravath wants the case decided in Delaware’s Chancery Court (and why Airgas wants it decided elsewhere). As Francis G.X. Pileggi notes:

[Airgas’] separate suit alleging a conflict was filed in Philadelphia. One might speculate that the suit was not filed in Delaware and it was not filed as a motion to disqualify, because the Delaware decisions recently have not granted many motions to disqualify. See, e.g., cases summarized on this blog here.

Indeed, one might speculate that. More on that in a moment.

Back in Delaware, it seems a war of correspondence has broken out:

Airgas (which has retained Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz) began the exchange of correspondence Monday, when it sent a letter to Chancellor William Chandler at Delaware’s Court of Chancery … In its Monday letter to Chandler, Airgas argues that a Pennsylvania courtroom is the proper place for the Cravath hearing. In response, Air Products and local counsel Kenneth Nachbar of Morris, Nichols, Arsht & Tunnell drafted their own letter to Chandler, urging him to decide on Cravath’s fate in Delaware and accusing Airgas of trying to "circumvent" Chandler’s authority by suing in Pennsylvania.

Airgas also has enlisted a legal ethics expert who has issued an opinion letter in which he claims Cravath was working under "a clear and serious conflict of interest" while it was helping Air Products formulate its takeover bid last fall, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Am Law Daily. In his letter, Geoffrey Hazard Jr., a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, says Cravath … violated the so-called "hot potato" rule, which holds that a firm cannot get out of a conflict simply by dropping one client on short notice, Hazard wrote.

Like I wrote before, the hot potato rule lives. Here’s a recent recitation of the rule:

Courts that have considered the issue have held that a firm will not be allowed to drop a client in order to shift resolution of the conflicts question from Rule 1.7 dealing with current clients, to the more lenient standard in Rule 1.9 dealing with former clients.

El Camino Res., LTD. v. Huntington Nat’l Bank, No. 1:07-cv-598, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 67813, at *39–40 (W.D. Mich. Sept. 13, 2007).

On the surface, that’s not good for Cravath — if Chancellor Chandler applies a similar analysis, then Cravath will be evaluated as if it was simultaneously representing Airgas and Air Products on both sides of the litigation, which is expressly prohibited by the Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York rules.

But the final analysis is a practical one:

The finding of an ethical violation, however, does not automatically require disqualification. The court should order disqualification only where some specifically identifiable impropriety has actually occurred and the balance of relevant factors requires vindication of the integrity of the legal profession over defendant’s interest in retaining counsel of its choice.

Id.

Returning again to why Cravath wants the issue decided in Delaware by Chancellor Chandler, it bears mention here that Chancellor Chandler took a strongly disqualification-unfriendly view in a similar case a year ago, in which Dow Chemical attempted to disqualify Wachtell from representing Rohm and Haas:

I am not persuaded that Wachtell’s access to this information will materially advance Rohm and Haas’s position or undermine the fair and efficient administration of justice. Dow’s defense to specific performance is that conditions in the market and within Dow have changed significantly since December 2008 and that it is no longer feasible for the merger to close. Dow has failed to convince me that the information Wachtell had access to regarding Dow’s strategies and asset values in 2006 and 2007 will substantially advance the interest of Rohm and Haas in this litigation. Additionally, Wachtell has assured the Court that its attorneys who obtained confidential Dow information have not and will not share Dow’s client confidences with the Wachtell attorneys working on this matter. While Dow is correct that the ethical rules impute knowledge of one attorney to other attorneys in the firm, the issue before the Court is not whether there was a violation of the ethical rules. To justify disqualification, the Court must find that allowing the representation to continue would threaten the fair and efficient administration of justice, a threat that is greatly reduced by a credible representation to the Court that the firm will ensure that the attorneys working on this matter do not have access to Dow’s client confidences. Dow has failed to point to information or confidences obtained by Wachtell in its 2006-2007 work for Dow that will have a material influence on the proceedings before me today.

Rohm and Haas Co. v. Dow Chem. Co., No. 4309-CC, 2009 WL 445609, at *3 (Del. Ch. Feb. 12, 2009)(also courtesy of Pileggi).

Truth be told, there’s not much distinguishing the Rohm and Haas v. Dow situation from the present case with Cravath, except for the "hot potato" rule aspect, given how Cravath’s work for Airgas was much more recent than Wachtell’s work was for Dow. Indeed, it seems Cravath’s work for Airgas unambiguously overlapped its work for Air Products.

As noted above, though, a mere violation of the rules isn’t enough; the question is what prejudice the former client will suffer and if that prejudice can be avoided. Cravath’s work for Airgas was comparatively small, and if Cravath sets up an ethical firewall that keeps the former Airgas attorneys away from the Air Products lawsuit, that will likely be enough to satisfy Chancellor Chandler.


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Fred Wilson links to his partner Brad Burnham’s post, "We need an independent invention defense to minimize the damage of aggressive patent trolls:"

I know of no case where the engineers in one of our companies were aware of the patents that are now being used to attack them. The moral rightness of this