Proskauer on Advertising Law
Proskauer on Advertising Law

Tough Puffery: Court Closes Door on Ford False Advertising Suit

The Northern District of New York recently found that Ford Motor Company’s “Built Ford Tough” slogan was non-actionable puffery, and dismissed putative false advertising class action claims brought under New York law that centered on that slogan. The case is Kommer v. Ford Motor Company, No. 1:17-cv-296 in the Northern District of New York.

The case involved Ford’s F-150 pickup trucks, which were advertised as being “Ford Tough.”  Plaintiff Kommer purchased a 2015 Ford F-150 truck, but allegedly experienced issues with the truck’s doors and locks.  According to Kommer, when temperatures dropped below freezing, the doors would not latch closed and the electric locks would not open.  These door and lock issues were the subject of Technical Services Bulletins that Ford issued in 2015 and 2016.  Plaintiff Kommer alleged that the “Built Ford Tough” advertisement was false because it misled him and other consumers into believing that the doors of Ford’s F-150 pickup trucks would “operate correctly at temperatures at or below freezing.”

The court noted that the advertisements at issue made “no reference whatsoever to the quality of the vehicles’ door handles.”  Furthermore, the court determined, the phrase “Built Ford Tough” was mere puffery—an “exaggerated and generalized claim” that a reasonable consumer would not interpret as a factual statement on which he or she could rely.  The court’s determination accords with a 2010 District of Colorado case that also found Ford’s “Built Ford Tough” and “Quality is Job #1” slogans to be mere puffery, as well as a case regarding Chevrolet Suburbans that found the phrases “Like a Rock” and “most dependable, long-lasting trucks on the planet” to be mere puffery.

The court dismissed Kommer’s claims that “Built Ford Tough” was an affirmative misrepresentation, and denied leave to amend.  The court also showed Kommer the door on his second theory of liability—that Ford had violated New York law in failing to disclose the door and lock issues to consumers—because the court found that Kommer had not alleged any cognizable injury.  Kommer had not personally expended any money to repair his vehicle, the court wrote, nor had he alleged that he paid too much for what he received, because Ford provided a warranty for the free repair of the door issues of which Kommer complained.  However, the court did grant Kommer leave to amend his failure-to-disclose claims.

Kommer filed an amended complaint centering on his failure-to-disclose claims on August 28, 2017.  Watch this space for notable developments in this case and other false advertising matters.

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Want to talk advertising? We welcome your questions, ideas, and thoughts on our posts. Email or call us at lweinstein@proskauer.com /212-969-3240 or akaplan@proskauer.com /212-969-3671. We are editors of Proskauer on Advertising Law and partners in Proskauer’s False Advertising & Trademark practice.

Jury Tests the Limits in AndroGel False Ad Verdict

In late July, an Illinois jury came to a bizarre verdict in a case over an alleged link between heart attacks and AndroGel, a gel product used for treating low testosterone (or “low T”). The jury found that AbbVie, Inc., the drug company behind AndroGel, although not strictly liable or negligent in allegedly causing a user’s heart attack and owing $0 in compensatory damages, was nevertheless liable for fraudulent misrepresentation in its product advertising and was responsible for $150 million in punitive damages.

Over the past few years, roughly 6,000 individuals have filed lawsuits linked to testosterone gel products alleging health concerns, like heart attacks.  One of those lawsuits was brought by Jesse Mitchell in Illinois district court in 2014.  This July, Mitchell’s lawsuit became the first of these cases to reach a jury verdict, and could have an important impact on the vitality of the remaining lawsuits.

In Mitchell’s complaint, he alleged that he suffered a heart attack because of his use of AndroGel. To start, Mitchell asserted that AbbVie embarked on a “massive advertising campaign” to convince men that they suffer from low T, while promoting a product to treat the condition that was not safe for consumers.  Through its advertising campaign, the complaint alleged, AbbVie hoped to artificially boost the customer base for products used to treat low T.  In order to do so, AbbVie allegedly created unbranded websites containing questionnaires that attributed common symptoms of aging (like “listlessness” and “increased body fat”) to low T.  Mitchell further alleged that AbbVie was promoting a product that was not a safe and effective treatment for low T, and pointed to studies that associated the use of testosterone replacement gel with a number of health risks, like strokes and heart attacks.

At trial, AbbVie countered that AndroGel could not be linked to Mitchell’s heart attack.  First, AbbVie argued that Mitchell’s cited studies were flawed and did not show a risk of heart attack associated with the use of testosterone replacement gel in individuals of Mitchell’s age.  Further, AbbVie pointed to Mitchell’s own health conditions, noting that he was an overweight smoker who suffered from high blood pressure and cholesterol, and that he harbored a family history of heart disease.  According to AbbVie, these factors alone, without the use of AndroGel, could have caused Mitchell’s heart attack.

After hearing these arguments, the jury’s verdict was rather unorthodox.  The jury found that AbbVie was not liable for Mitchell’s heart attack, thus rejecting Mitchell’s claims for strict liability and negligence, but then determined that AbbVie was liable for fraudulent misrepresentation as a result of its advertising campaign.  The jury denied any compensatory damages sought by Mitchell, yet required that AbbVie pay $150 million in punitive damages.

A jury verdict awarding punitive damages in the absence of any compensatory damages is a highly unusual outcome, which seemingly will be overturned. Earlier this week, AbbVie filed a motion to strike the punitive damages award, citing, among other cases, the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Pileco v. Slurry Systems, in which it was “obvious” to Circuit Judge Posner that “punitive damages can’t lawfully be awarded when no compensatory damages are awarded.” 804 F.3d 889, 892 (7th Cir. 2015).  Regardless of the outcome of the motion to strike the punitive damages, the jury verdict was an outcome that neither party likely expected, and a peculiar one in the annals of false advertising law.

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Want to talk advertising? We welcome your questions, ideas, and thoughts on our posts. Email or call us at lweinstein@proskauer.com /212-969-3240 or akaplan@proskauer.com /212-969-3671. We are editors of Proskauer on Advertising Law and partners in Proskauer’s False Advertising & Trademark practice.

Truffle Kerfuffle: Truffle Lawsuit Not on the Menu for Plaintiffs

Truffles are renowned as one of the rarest delicacies in the world.  Perhaps not quite as rare, but still fairly uncommon, is the dismissal with prejudice of a false advertising class action without the plaintiffs being afforded even a single opportunity to amend their complaint.

We are pleased to report today on a victory that a Proskauer team, led by Larry Weinstein and Jeff Warshafsky, obtained on behalf of Monini North America, Inc., in the defense of a class action false advertising lawsuit in the Southern District of New York, before Senior District Judge Louis Stanton.  As discussed below, Judge Stanton’s decision confirms that under both New York and California law, food and beverage makers may describe their products as being “substance flavored,” even if the product does not contain the substance, so long as the product label clearly discloses the product’s ingredients.

In May 2017, plaintiffs Vinay Jessani and Wendy Burnett sued Monini alleging violations of New York and California consumer protection law, as well as claims for breach of warranty, fraud and negligent misrepresentation.  Their class action complaint alleged that Monini, the U.S. subsidiary of one of the largest Italian olive oil manufacturers, falsely advertised that its “White Truffle Flavored Extra Virgin Olive Oil” was flavored by actual white truffle when, in fact, it is flavored by a synthetic aroma and contains no actual white truffle.

Monini moved to dismiss, and briefing was completed three weeks ago.  Last week, Judge Stanton dismissed the complaint in its entirety with prejudice, holding that no reasonable consumer would understand the product’s label as meaning that it contains white truffle.

“Courts routinely conclude that where a product describes itself as substance-flavored despite not containing the actual substance, and the ingredient list truthfully reflects that fact, as a matter of law the product would not confuse a reasonable consumer acting reasonably under the circumstances, and thus does not sustain a consumer fraud claim,” Judge Stanton wrote.  Monini’s label claimed that the product tasted like white truffle, but nowhere did it state that it contained white truffle.  Further, the label’s ingredient list disclosed that the ingredients were “extra virgin olive oil 98%” and “aroma 2%”; white truffle was not listed as an ingredient.  Under these circumstances, Judge Stanton held, no reasonable consumer would be misled.

Plaintiffs’ warranty- and fraud-based claims fared no better because the label’s representation that the product is “white truffle flavored” was indisputably true; the complaint conceded that the product’s synthetic aroma gave it the taste and smell of white truffle.

As noted, Judge Stanton dismissed the complaint with prejudice.  Although this is an unusual step in a false advertising class action, this case turned on the plain meaning of the product label.  No amendment to the pleadings could change the fact that Monini’s product label accurately disclosed its contents.

While this lawsuit met a quick end, several other similar lawsuits filed by Plaintiffs’ counsel remain pending against other sellers of truffle-flavored olive oils.  One case, making nearly identical allegations against Trader Joe’s, was filed in the Southern District of New York the same day as the case against Monini.  Trader Joe’s was recently ordered to answer the complaint and to engage in discovery.  Two other similar cases, filed against Sabatino and Urbani, are under way in California.  Proskauer is not representing any of these other ‘truffle oil’ sellers, but we will keep an eye on these cases as they move forward.  Watch this space for developments.

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Want to talk advertising? We welcome your questions, ideas, and thoughts on our posts. Email or call us at lweinstein@proskauer.com /212-969-3240 or akaplan@proskauer.com /212-969-3671. We are editors of Proskauer on Advertising Law and partners in Proskauer’s False Advertising & Trademark practice.

Can Inflating Jury Verdicts and Settlements Injure More than Just Your Reputation? Kansas Law Firm Sues Competitor For False Advertising

It’s not every day that a law firm sues a competing firm for false advertising. Earlier this month, however, a Wichita, Kansas personal injury law firm did just that. Brave Law Firm sued rival firm Truck Accident Lawyer’s Group and allegedly related entities in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas, alleging violations of the Lanham Act and other causes of action. Continue Reading

Athletic Tape Maker Feels the Pain, Settles Misleading Advertising Suit

Proskauer’s sports law newsletter, Three Point Shot, recently covered a proposed $1.75 million settlement in a false advertising case involving athletic tape.  The case is Vuckovic v. KT Health Holdings, LLC, No. 15-cv-13696 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, and Proskauer’s coverage may be found here.

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Want to talk advertising? We welcome your questions, ideas, and thoughts on our posts. Email or call us at lweinstein@proskauer.com /212-969-3240 or akaplan@proskauer.com /212-969-3671. We are editors of Proskauer on Advertising Law and partners in Proskauer’s False Advertising & Trademark practice.

Game Over: Supreme Court Denies Plaintiff’s Class Certification Appeal after Voluntary Dismissal in Xbox 360 Lawsuit

Recently, the Supreme Court in Microsoft Corp. v. Baker, 137 S. Ct. 1702 (2017), held that the plaintiff in a putative class action involving Xbox 360 game consoles could not appeal from the District Court’s denial of class certification after plaintiff voluntarily dismissed his claims with prejudice.  While 28 U.S.C. § 1291 allows appeals from final decisions as a matter of right, the Supreme Court held that plaintiff’s voluntary dismissal did not qualify as an appealable final decision.  The Court determined that allowing such an appeal would undermine § 1291’s finality principle and subvert the discretionary nature of interlocutory class certification appeals under Rule 23(f).  Gamers, in other words, could not be allowed to hack § 1291 in this way. Continue Reading

Eleventh Circuit Does Not Skim Over First Amendment Concerns in Labeling Milk

Be careful not to skim over potential First Amendment challenges to commercial speech regulations in labeling cases. By ‘whey’ of example, the Eleventh Circuit recently found that the actions of the Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and the Chief of the Florida Bureau of Dairy Industry violated Ocheesee Creamery LLC’s First Amendment rights related to the labeling of its products. Ocheesee Creamery LLC v. Putnam, 851 F.3d 1228 (11th Cir. 2017). Continue Reading

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