slack-fill lawsuit

Ice Ice (Baby)

** Purported Class Action Attempts to Sink Starbucks with claims over allegedly misleadingly frozen water **                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

danger thin ice - warning sign by a lake

Last week, a disgruntled Starbucks patron in Chicago filed a putative class action against the coffee icon in the Northern District of Illinois claiming that consumers like her have been defrauded over the past ten years by big plastic cups of ice.  Pincus v. Starbucks Corporation, 1:16-cv-04705 (N.D. Ill. April 27, 2016) (Dkt. No. 1).  Granted, all of the drinks that are part of the lawsuit are called “Iced Something-Or-Other,” but according to the Plaintiff that doesn’t justify Starbucks putting ice in the beverages.  Okay, that’s overstating it a bit.

The lawsuit hinges on Starbucks’ use of the acronym for fluid ounce (“fl. oz.”) on its menus and in other advertising.  Plaintiff contends that “fl. oz.” means just that – an ounce of fluid – and the actual fluid ounces in Starbucks iced drinks are less than those claimed in its advertising.  It is only by putting pre-measured scoops of ice in the drinks that the nefarious Starbucks baristas are able to completely fill those ubiquitous transparent cups.  Starbucks, of course, is behind the whole scheme supplying the baristas with beverage cups with fill-lines printed on them (product/water or lemonade/ice) as well as different size ice scoopers (Tall/Grande/Venti).  Plaintiff claims that she, and millions of other Starbucks aficionados across the United States, relied on the Company’s representations about the number of fluid ounces in their drinks and “Plaintiff would not have paid as much, if anything for the Cold Drinks had she known that it [sic] contained less, and in many cases, nearly half as many, fluid ounces than claimed by Starbucks.”

“Ounce” is Middle English from the Anglo-French “unce” and is a unit of mass equal to 1/16 of an avoirdupois pound and 1/12 of the troy pound favored by precious metal dealers.  More importantly, an ounce is 0.666682 of a jigger of Jim Beam.  Accordingly, any class certified in this case must certainly exclude gold investors and may need to be limited to hard core drinkers who know what an ounce looks (and feels) like.  But while the public may have some difficulty visually identifying an ounce, they certainly know the difference between a Grande and a Venti, which is, after all, what they’re buying.

Plaintiff’s class definition is “[a]ll persons in the United States of America who purchased one or more of Defendant’s Cold Drinks at any time between April 27, 2006 and the present.”  “Cold Drinks”  include, but are not limited to, “iced coffee, shaken iced tea, shaken iced tea lemonade, Refreshers®, and Fizzio™ handcrafted sodas” (which, as an aside, are sadly not available at all Starbucks locations – but for those in the right locale, our pro tip is the Golden Ginger Ale).  Although both cold and a drink, the Frappuccino® is not included.  And that’s the whole problem with this case, isn’t it?

The Frappuccino® contains plenty of ice.  But because the ice is blended with the flavored ingredients, it apparently qualifies as a liquid even though it’s really tiny shards of ice.  Which raises the questions:  If the ice melts in a Starbucks Iced Coffee before the purchaser finishes drinking it, is the purchaser getting the advertised number of fluid ounces?  What if the purchaser is an ice chomper?  Plaintiff’s complaint shrewdly anticipates these defenses.  First, Starbucks uses “large pieces of ice” that “take up more space and thus when melted, will yield fewer measured ‘fluid’ ounces of coffee or tea . . . .”  (Starbucks is skimping on the water!)  More broadly, Plaintiff declares that “a reasonable consumer does not wait for the ice in a Cold Drink to melt before consuming the Cold Drink.”  This point, of course, will require survey evidence to establish — or perhaps the class can be limited to purchasers of Starbucks Cold Beverages who are not sippers or chompers.  (Ascertainability might be a problem here.)

Starbucks suffers from its transparency (which is the opposite of the problem it faced in a now dismissed slack fill case against it filed in New York).  Anyone who purchases an iced beverage for the first time – particularly a shaken iced tea, a Refresher® or a Fizzio™  – is startled when the barista pours such a small amount of the flavored stuff in the bottom of one of those big plastic cups and then tops it off with water (or lemonade) and finally, a huge mound of ice.  A Diet Coke from the McDonald’s drive-thru window retains its mystery.  How much syrup?  How much ice?  But for those who love Starbucks, the beverages are consistently great – a treat to be savored slowly . . . while the triple-filtered ice melts.

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Pepper Purchaser Problems

**Spice Maker McCormack Moves the Multi-District Panel to Consolidate From Around the Country its Black Pepper “Slack-Fill” Lawsuits ** . . .                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

A “slack-fill” lawsuit is the term given to a consumer action alleging that a company is using empty space in non-transparent containers in a misleading or otherwise illegal manner, i.e. to confuse consumers as to volume or amount of the actual product they are buying.  U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations contain a deeming provision that claimants typically rely on: “[a] container that does not allow the consumer to fully view its contents shall be considered to be filled as to be misleading if it contains nonfunctional slack-fill.”  21 C.F.R. § 100.100 (emphasis added).  McCormick & Company is the newest target of nonfunctional “slack-fill” plaintiffs – the company has been sued in multiple states not just by consumer plaintiffs but also by in a competitor action under the Lanham Act.

The first to file was Watkins Inc., who  sell spices and herbs in direct competition with McCormick.  Watkins’ complaint filed on June 15, 2015, alleges that McCormick responded to a recent increase in black pepper prices by using misleading slack fill.  Watkins Inc., v. McCormick and Co., Inc., 0:15-cv-02688-DSD-BRT (D. Minn.).  Watkins alleges that McCormick’s (and other manufacturers) sell pepper in almost identical sized tins that traditionally have held 2, 4 or 8 ounces respectively – without slack fill.  But Watkins alleges that in early 2015, due to a sharp rise in international black pepper prices, McCormick began filling these same pepper tins with approximately 25% less ground pepper without changing the size and shape of the tin and without changing the price.  Because the tins were not transparent, the complaint alleges that consumers could not see that they were “slack-filled.”  Watkins avers that McCormick has violated the Lanham Act and various state consumer laws .

Consumer-driven “copycat” suits were quickly filed around the country.  Dupler v. McCormick & Company, Inc., No. 2:15- cv-3454-SJF-AKT (E.D.N.Y.); Bunting et al. v. McCormick & Company, Inc., No. 3:15-cv- 1648-BAS-BGS (S.D. Cal.); Marsh v. McCormick & Company, Inc., No. 2:15-cv-1625-MCEEFB (E.D. Cal.); Esparza v. McCormick & Company, Inc., No. 2:15-cv-5823-JFW-E (C.D. Cal.); Bittle v. McCormick & Company, Inc., No. 3:15-cv-989 (S.D. Ill.); Ferreri v. McCormick & Company, Inc., 7:15-cv-6760-KMK (S.D.N.Y.); Linker v. McCormick & Company, Inc., 4:15-cv-01340-CDP (E.D. Mo.).  On August 10, 2015, McCormick moved to have the cases consolidated.  Case MDL No. 2665.

This case is one to watch.  McCormick’s principal defense is straightforward – i.e., whatever plaintiffs’ claims may be about what volume they thought they were buying based on the traditional size of the container, the tins clearly and unambiguously stated the correct volume.  It is also one to watch because of the unusual interplay between competitor and consumer lawsuits.  Arguments at the MDL Panel currently are focused, not on the merits, but on whether the cases should be consolidated, and if so, where.

This McCormick case is just the latest in a string of slack-fill suits.  In March, 2015, Starbucks® faced a lawsuit alleging that it covered the neck of otherwise transparent glass bottles containing   Frappuccino® and Iced Coffee with opaque wrapping that concealed non-functional slack-fill.  Lee et al v. Starbucks Corporation 1:15-cv-01634-CBA-VMS (E.D.N.Y).  The practice alleged by plaintiff is that Starbucks misled consumers as to how much liquid was in the bottles. The plaintiffs seek class action status, alleging that consumers across the country were injured by Starbucks’ alleged slack-fill practices.  This case is another one to watch.  There are many legitimate reasons a company will use slack-fill in its products, such as protecting the contents and accommodating tamper-resistant devices, or that the space is caused by product settling during shipping and handling.  (A listing of legitimate reasons for slack-fill in food product containers as identified by the FDA can be found at 21 C.F.R. § 100.100).  It is not clear at present which defense Starbucks will take.

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