On several instances, we have written regarding consumer fraud PFAS class action lawsuits filed in several states. The number of product types targeted for these lawsuits are growing and diverse in terms of the industries targeted. While there has been at least one significant settlement in these lawsuits to date, recently two of the lawsuits that we previously reported on related to PFAS consumer fraud allegations were dismissed by separate courts.
On October 30, 2023, a new PFAS consumer fraud lawsuit was filed in New York – this time against Only What You Want, a manufacturer of protein shakes and powders. Despite some recent dismissals, the new lawsuit shows that the number of consumer fraud lawsuits likely to continue increasing for the time being, and consumer goods industries, insurers, and investment companies interested in the consumer goods vertical must pay careful attention to these lawsuits.
Consumer Fraud PFAS Lawsuits – Overview
The consumer fraud PFAS lawsuits filed to date follow a very similar pattern: various plaintiffs bringing suit on behalf of a proposed class allege that companies market consumer goods as safe, healthy, environmentally friendly, etc., or that the companies themselves market their corporate practices as such, yet it is allegedly discovered that certain products marketed with these buzzwords contain PFAS. The lawsuits allege that since certain PFAS may be harmful to human health and PFAS are biopersistent (and therefore environmentally unfriendly), the companies making the good engaged in fraud against consumers to entice them to purchase the products in question.
In the Complaints, plaintiffs typically allege the following counts:
- Violation of state consumer protection laws and the federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act
- Violations of various state consumer protection laws
- Breach of warranty
- Constructive fraud
- Unjust enrichment
The plaintiffs seek certification of nationwide class action lawsuits, with a subclass defined as consumers in the state in which the lawsuits are filed. In addition, the lawsuits seeks damages, fees, costs, and a jury trial. Representative industries and cases that have recently been filed include:
- Cosmetics industry:
- Brown v. Cover Girl, New York (April 1, 2022)
- Anderson v. Almay, New York (April 1, 2022)
- Rebecca Vega v. L’Oreal, New Jersey (April 8, 2022)
- Spindel v. Burt’s Bees, California (March 25, 2022)
- Hicks and Vargas v. L’Oreal, New York (March 9, 2022)
- Davenport v. L’Oreal, California (February 22, 2022)
- Food packaging industry:
- Richburg v. Conagra Brands, Illinois (May 6, 2022)
- Ruiz v. Conagra Brands, Illinois (May 6, 2022)
- Hamman v. Cava Group, California (April 27, 2022)
- Azman Hussain v. Burger King, California (April 11, 2022)
- Little v. NatureStar, California (April 8, 2022)
- Larry Clark v. McDonald’s, Illinois (March 28, 2022)
- Food and drink products:
- Bedson v. Biosteel, New York (January 27, 2023)
- Lorenz v. Coca-Cola, New York (December 28, 2022)
- Toribio v. Kraft Heinz, Illinois (November 29, 2022)
- Apparel products:
- Krakauer v. REI, Washington (October 28, 2022)
- Hygiene products:
- Esquibel v. Colgate-Palmolive Co., New York (January 27, 2023)
- Dalewitz v. Proctor & Gamble, New York (August 26, 2022)
- Feminine hygiene products:
- Gemma Rivera v. Knix Wear Inc., California (April 4, 2022)
- Blenis v. Thinx, Inc., Massachusetts (June 18, 2021)
- Destini Canan v. Thinx Inc., California (November 12, 2020)
New PFAS Consumer Fraud Case
In Julian v. Only What You Need, Inc., the plaintiff alleges that from January 2023 until July 2023, he purchased various protein supplement products manufactured by Only What You Need. The products, plaintiffs argue, were marketed as all natural products and the name of the manufacturer alone suggested to plaintiff that the products were free from chemicals. Upon testing, several, of the company’s products were found to have various types of PFAS. Plaintiff alleges that he was therefore deceived by Only What You Need, and never would have purchased the products if he knew that they contained PFAS. Plaintiff seeks a class certification of all purchasers of the products in question for the time period in question, with a subclass of all purchasers of the products from New York.
Recent Rulings In Consumer Fraud PFAS Cases
In California, the Yeraldinne Solis v. CoverGirl Cosmetics et al. case made allegations that cosmetics were marketed as safe and sustainable, yet were found to contain PFAS. The defendants in the lawsuit filed a Motion to Dismiss, arguing in relevant part that the plaintiff had no standing to file the lawsuit because she did not sufficiently allege that she suffered any economic harm from purchasing the product. The plaintiff put forth two theories to counter this argument: (1) the “benefit of the bargain” theory, under which the plaintiff alleged that she bargained for a product that was “safe”, but received the opposite. The court dismissed this argument because the product packaging did not market the product as safe, and the ingredient list explicitly named the type of PFAS found in testing; and (2) an overpayment theory, under which plaintiff alleged that if she knew the product contained PFAS, she would not have paid as much for it as she did. The Court dismissed this argument because the product packaging specifically listed the type of PFAS at issue in the case.
In Illinois, the Richburg v. Conagra Brands, Inc. alleged that popcorn packaging was marketed as containing “only real ingredients” and ingredients from “natural sources”, yet the popcorn contained PFAS (likely from the packaging itself), which was allegedly false and misleading to consumers. The defendant moved to dismiss the lawsuit on several grounds and the Court found in defendant’s favor on one important ground. The Court held that the statements on the popcorn packaging would not mislead an ordinary and reasonable consumer because a consumer would understand “ingredients” to mean those items that are required to be disclosed by the FDA and not materials that may have migrated to the food from the product packaging. In fact, the Court ruled that the FDA “exempts substances migrating to food from equipment or packaging;” and those “do not need to be included in the ingredients list.” The defendant argued that reasonable consumers would not consider PFAS to be an “ingredient” under this regime. In other words, whether or not PFAS migrated into the popcorn, the representations that the popcorn contained “only real ingredients” and “100% ingredients from natural sources” were “correct as a matter of law.” The court dismissed plaintiffs claims on this basis.
Several major companies now find themselves embroiled in litigation focused on PFAS false advertising, consumer protection violations, and deceptive statements made in marketing and ESG reports. The lawsuits may well serve as test cases for plaintiffs’ bar to determine whether similar lawsuits will be successful in any (or all) of the fifty states in this country. Companies must consider the possibility of needing to defend lawsuits involving plaintiffs in all fifty states for products that contain PFAS. It should be noted that these lawsuits would only touch on the marketing, advertising, ESG reporting, and consumer protection type of issues. Separate products lawsuits could follow that take direct aim at obtaining damages for personal injury for plaintiffs from consumer products. In addition, environmental pollution lawsuits could seek damage for diminution of property value, cleanup costs, and PFAS filtration systems if drinking water cleanup is required.
While the above rulings are encouraging for companies facing consumer fraud PFAS lawsuits, it is far too early to tell if the trend will continue nationally. As the recent New York case shows, plaintiffs continue to file PFAS consumer fraud cases despite the recent dismissals. Different courts apply legal standards differently and these cases are very fact specific, which could lead to differing results.
It is of the utmost importance that businesses along the whole supply chain in the consumer products industry evaluate their PFAS risk. Public health and environmental groups urge legislators to regulate PFAS at an ever-increasing pace. Similarly, state level EPA enforcement action is increasing at a several-fold rate every year. Now, the first wave of lawsuits take direct aim at the consumer products industry. Companies that did not manufacture PFAS, but merely utilized PFAS in their manufacturing processes, are therefore becoming targets of costly enforcement actions at rates that continue to multiply year over year. Lawsuits are also filed monthly by citizens or municipalities against companies that are increasingly not PFAS chemical manufacturers.