Can a named plaintiff in a class action bring suit over products she didn’t buy? This issue has been heavily litigated in the recent wave of food misbranding cases. (See prior blog post here.) Last week, a federal judge in the Northern District of California denied class certification on just this ground, finding that the named plaintiff was not “typical” of other class members because she brought suit over products she didn’t buy, rendering the class definition overly broad. Major v. Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc., 2013 WL 2558125 (N.D. Cal. June 10, 2013). Because the case has significant implications for companies defending against similar claims, the court’s analysis is worth teasing out.
Plaintiff Sues over Entire Ocean Spray Product Lines
Plaintiff sued Ocean Spray alleging that she bought several Ocean Spray drinks that were “unlawfully labeled ‘No Sugar Added’ or bearing improper nutrient content claims, or false representations that the products are free from artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.” She alleges that she purchased five drinks: Blueberry Juice Cocktail, 100% Juice Cranberry & Pomegranate, Diet Sparkling Pomegranate Blueberry, Light Cranberry, and Ruby Cherry. Plaintiff contends that these drinks, as well as others, are misbranded under the FDCA. On this basis, she alleged violations of California’s consumer protection laws, unjust enrichment, and breach of warranty.
Despite purchasing only five Ocean Spray drinks, Plaintiff sought certification of a broad putative class—California purchasers who bought any products from the following product lines: (1) 100% Juice; (2) Juice Drinks; (3) Sparkling; and (4) Cherry.
Typicality Not Met Because Plaintiff Did Not Buy All Products
The court denied Plaintiff’s motion for class certification, holding that she was not “typical” because the “proposed classes are so broad and indefinite that they encompass products that she herself did not purchase.” The court further explained that:
“[t]he putative classes Plaintiff seeks to certify would include purchases of these products, but would also encompass a whole host of other products that Plaintiff has nothing to do with.”
The court’s decision was also based on the fact that the labels and nutrition claims on each of Ocean Spray’s products appeared to be unique to the product itself.
The Ocean Spray decision sends a strong message to plaintiff’s counsel seeking to certify overly broad classes. It should also serve to reinvigorate defense counsel’s arguments (both at the motion to dismiss phase and later, at class certification) that a named plaintiff cannot properly seek relief based on products she never purchased.