On Monday, a California federal judge rejected Coca-Cola’s motion for summary judgment in a putative class action over the allegedly misleading marketing of its Minute Maid Enhanced Pomegranate Blueberry juice blend. The court’s ruling was based, in part, on the Supreme Court’s 8-0 ruling last year in POM Wonderful v. Coca-Cola. As that case highlighted, despite the name of the product and the label’s display of pomegranates and blueberries (along with raspberries), those fruits made up only 0.6% of the juice’s content. Coca-Cola discontinued this product sometime over the past year.
The class action lawsuit was filed in 2009 but was stayed for approximately four years as POM Wonderful v. Coca-Cola made its way through the appeals process. The key allegations from the lawsuit are the following:
By characterizing this product as “Pomegranate Blueberry” on the front and back label, including the prominent display of a pomegranate and blueberries on the front label, emphasizing the “antioxidants” which will help defend against “free radicals” on the back label, and creating an artificially darkened juice, Coca-Cola misled Plaintiff and other consumers, who reasonably expected that the juice product was an antioxidant-rich product consisting primarily of pomegranate and blueberry juices when they purchased the product.
Plaintiff’s state law claims are aimed at the features of the naming and labeling which are voluntary, and not required by the FDA regulations, which Coca-Cola selected in order to maximize the label’s deceptive impact upon Plaintiff and other members of the Class.
In its motion for summary judgment, Coca- Cola correctly pointed out that the express preemption provision of the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act’s (“FDCA”) was not at issue in POM Wonderful because that case involved Lanham Act claims under federal law. That provision provides that “no State or political subdivision of a State may directly or indirectly establish under any authority or continue in effect as to any food in interstate commerce . . . any requirement for the labeling of food of the type required by” various sections of the FDCA “that is not identical to the requirement of such section . . . .” Coca-Cola asserted that the Plaintiff’s state law claims were preempted because the labeling rules Plaintiff argues should apply have not been adopted by the FDA and therefore any resulting violation of state law could not possibly constitute “identical” obligations to the FDCA.
The Court, however, rejected that argument in light of recent district court cases finding that the FDCA’s proscription of statements that are “false or misleading in any particular” is broad enough that it is effectively identical to similar proscriptions in state law. In this regard, the Court stated:
Further, the Supreme Court’s later opinion in POM Wonderful, though addressing the issue of preclusion rather than preemption, explicitly rejected the “[assumption] that the FDCA and its regulations are at least in some circumstances a ceiling on the regulation of food and beverage labeling.”
Accordingly, the Court denied Coca-Cola’s argument that the state law claims were expressly preempted by the FDCA.
Needless to say, this case, along with the recent precedent it cites, suggests a new path exists for class action plaintiffs to assert state law claims amenable to class action status while avoiding the express preemption provision of the FDCA.