The Coca-Cola Company has failed in its attempt to strike out 13 consolidated lawsuits alleging that Simply Orange Juice and Minute Maid products were falsely advertised as natural, but says it will fight what it claims is a 'meritless case'.
Coke filed a motion to dismiss the cases pending before the US District Court, Western District of Missouri, Western Division, claiming that from at least March 2006 to the present, the company falsely advertised its products as natural.
False Simply Orange brand claims, the plaintiffs allege in their complaint filed on December 21 2012, include ‘100% pure squeezed’, ‘not from concentrate’, ‘Simply Orange’, ‘pure’ and ‘natural’.
The class action – brought by consumers living in Alabama, California, Florida, Illinois, Missouri and New Jersey – also complains that similar descriptors used on Minute Maid Pure Squeezed and Pure Premium products are false.
Although Coke's dismissal motion failed, public affairs and communications spokeswoman, Susan Stribling, told BeverageDaily.com: “This ruling is not a decision on the merits, but merely allows the plaintiff the opportunity to try to prove the allegations in their complaint.
"Simply and Minute Maid juices are great-tasting, 100% juices and, like all our products, are properly labeled in full accordance with FDA [Food and Drug Administration] regulations. This is a meritless case against which we will continue to vigorously defend ourselves.”
The suit alleges that the products are in fact heavily processed, pasteurized, deaerated and flavored, and claims that FDA standards require that labeling declare that these products are processed above levels of “incidental additives", with orange oil, orange essence, and other volatile and chemically engineered compounds.
Alleged ‘false’ consumer belief in Minute Maid purity
Minute Maid Premium also lacked labeling denoting that it is dewatered and frozen, the suit added, and was then reconstituted by melting frozen concentrated orange juice and mixing it with water.
“Plaintiffs state that due in part to consumers’ false belief in the purity and freshness of each product, consumers have been paying a premium price for the orange juice that they otherwise would not have paid.”
Coke argued (1) that plaintiffs’ complaints under state law were expressly pre-empted by federal law (the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act) and provisions on juice production, naming and labeling.
Secondly, it said that safe harbor doctrines recognize that private parties cannot ask a judge/jury to find that a practice expressly permitted by law is unlawful.
‘Non-actionable commercial puffery’: Coke
Thirdly, Coke argued that pre-emption and safe harbor doctrines extended to non-label advertising (TV and print ads) while plaintiffs shouldn't be able to challenge adverts they didn’t allege they saw.
Pre-empted claims aside, Coke said it was clear that the remaining allegations related to indisputably true statements or, in the court’s words, “non-actionable commercial puffery”.
Fifthly, the beverage giant alleged that plaintiffs had not suffered any injury by alleging that purchases had caused economic loss.
But rejecting Coke’s arguments, US chief district judge, Fernando Gaitan Jr. said the lawsuit would proceed, and ordered both parties to submit a joint discovery plan before April 1 2013, to determine whether the juices contained synthetic flavors or orange pulp, oil or essence “at levels significantly in excess of those found in raw processed orange juice or otherwise permitted by FDA regulations”.
The plan will also determine whether Coke adds water-soluble constituents of orange essence to their not-from-concentrate orange juice products.