A California federal judge on Monday refused to toss a proposed class action lawsuit accusing Twinnings North America Inc. of making unlawful nutrient content and health benefit claims about its Green, Black and White teas, saying the plaintiff may be able to prove injury once she obtains Twinnings’ financial records and pricing information, which she says could prove the Twinnings Tea products were marked up based on the allegedly unfair practices.
This is the second time that Twinnings has lost a bid to have the case dismissed.
In a class action lawsuit filed in 2012, plaintiff Nancy Lanovaz says she paid a premium price for Twinings Tea products and would not have purchased them without the allegedly unlawful labeling that the tea is a “natural source of antioxidants.”
Lanovas does not dispute that the teas contain flavonoids, a type of antioxidant, but argues that the Food and Drug Administration does not allow nutrient content claims about flavonoids because the FDA has not established a recommended daily intake for flavonoids. Therefore, Lavonaz argues that Twinnings’ labels and websites are deceptive, misleading, and unlawful even if they are technically true.
Twinnings sought to dismiss the false labeling class action lawsuit, arguing that Lanovaz did not rely on the allegedly misleading statements in her purchasing decisions and could not establish that Twinnings made unlawful claims about the teas’ nutrient content and health claims.
While agreeing with the company that website content and labeling regarding sources of antioxidants is not an “illegal health claim,” Judge Ronald M. Whyte was otherwise unpersuaded by the motion to summarily dismiss the Twinnings Tea class action lawsuit.
Lanovaz had said both in the class action lawsuit and subsequent deposition that she was a long-time buyer of Twinnings Tea Earl Grey Blend Tea for roughly two decades, but roughly seven years ago, she also began buying the brand’s Green Tea for its purported health benefits. When deposed, she said that she believed the labeling information meant “that it’s a major source – a natural source of antioxidants,” compared to the label which states that the product is “[a] natural source of protective antioxidants.”
Judge Whyte noted in his Jan. 6 decision to deny summary judgment that regulations regarding food and beverage labeling are designed to minimize confusion and that the mentions of antioxidants were not puffery.
In addition, while Lanovaz does not allege in the putative class action lawsuit that she bought all of the more than 50 Twinings Tea products included in the complaint, Judge Whyte noted that they all contained the same key ingredient: extracts of the camellia sinensis plant.
While the company had sought to dismiss the class action lawsuit because of the minimal damages the plaintiff suffered, the decision noted that similar cases had been allowed to proceed regardless of the amount of economic harm suffered. If the plaintiff could demonstrate that she paid more than was necessary, that would satisfy the pleading requirement.
Further, that may be confirmed by efforts in discovery to ascertain whether the false labeling reportedly accompanied a change in pricing based on the fact that consumers are willing to pay more for products that are more healthy than competing options.
However, Judge Whyte did trim claims of reliance on website content, noting that in her own testimony, Lanovaz did not take into account statements regarding antioxidants she read online for complaints regarding black and white tea as compared to green tea variants.
Lanovaz is represented by class action attorney Ben F. Pierce Gore of Pratt & Associates.
The Twinings Tea False Labeling Class Action Lawsuit is Nancy Lanovaz v. Twinings North America Inc., Case No. 12-cv-02646, in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California.
UPDATE: A federal judge certified the Twinings tea class action lawsuit on April 24, 2014.
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