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Phelps v. Coca-Cola: Orange Juice Misbranding “Copycat” Suit Finds Its Way Into State Court

Copycat lawsuits appear to be increasing in food labeling cases. The Coca-Cola Company (“Coca-Cola”) is the latest company to be targeted with a copycat suit in California. A putative class action, Phelps v. The Coca-Cola Co., No. BC547592, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on June 3, 2014, alleges that Coca-Cola misleadingly promoted its Simply Orange brand juices as “fresh,” “100% Orange Juice,” and “100% Pure Squeezed,” when, according to the plaintiff, those juices are actually the product of a complex engineering process and use artificial flavoring.

More specifically, the named plaintiff, Gwen Phelps, alleges that Simply Orange juices are “engineered from multiple batches of oranges and orange products eight months to a year old with algorithms and flavor packs, concocted via an unnatural process.” Plaintiff claims that this process involves stripping the juice of its color and flavor, and then “adding back into the juice natural flavors and fragrances captured during squeezing,” along with “flavor packs” created by fragrance companies. She accuses Coca-Cola of concealing its use of this process and of misleading her and others into purchasing Simply Orange products. Plaintiff has asserted claims for intentional misrepresentation, negligent misrepresentation, fraud, and violation of California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL), False Advertising Law (FAL), and Consumers Legal Remedies Act (CLRA) on behalf of a class of all California residents that purchased Simply Orange products in the last ten years.

More than a dozen similar cases were filed against Coca-Cola in federal courts around the country in 2012, and later consolidated in a multidistrict litigation proceeding in the Western District of Missouri, In re Simply Orange Orange Juice Marketing & Sales Practices Litigation, No. 12-md-02361 (W.D. Mo.).  Indeed, the Phelps complaint appears to largely duplicate the allegations made by these federal plaintiffs. This copycat suit was likely spurred by Coca-Cola’s unsuccessful attempt to dismiss the consolidated complaint in the Multidistrict Litigation (MDL).  There, Judge Fernando J. Gaitan denied Coca-Cola’s arguments that: (1) the claims were non-actionable puffery; (2) the plaintiffs failed to allege “injury-in-fact”; and (3) the claims were preempted by existing FDA food labeling regulations.

Phelps falls in line with a recent wave of food misbranding lawsuits filed in California state courts which are largely duplicative, if not identical, to cases already pending in federal courts.  This trend may stem from the view that California law is more favorable to consumer class actions.  And plaintiffs are catching on that, win or lose the first time around, another forum often provides another chance.