Week Adjourned: 9.25.15 – Volkswagen, Chipotle, Hain Celestial

VW Bugged Volkswagen LawsuitTop Class Action Lawsuits

Car of the People? Uhh…Mmaybe Not. This time a few weeks ago, the general public had not even heard of a defeat device—but this week? Volkswagen got hit with multiple lawsuits this week, including a $1-billion consumer fraud class action lawsuit in Edmonton, Canada, stemming from the admission by the automaker that it sold vehicles that were designed to skirt emissions laws. How? A little something called a Defeat Device.

Volkswagen has revealed that it had installed defeat devices in 11 million vehicles worldwide. So, likely this wasn’t an accidental memo misread… The devices are designed to ensure the autos pass emissions tests, but revert to producing emissions vastly in excess of emission standards once the tests are over.

The VW lawsuit states that “by manufacturing, testing, distributing and selling affected vehicles with defeat devices that allowed for improper levels of emission, Volkswagen violated the common law and legislative standards, was negligent, defrauded its customers, and engaged in unfair competition.”

Furthermore, the lawsuit claims that had the plaintiffs known of the defeat device, “they would not have purchased or leased those vehicles, or would have paid substantially less for the vehicles than they did.”

The Volkswagen complaint criticizes the alleged fraudulent behavior as “high-handed and reckless, intentional, fraudulent or grossly negligent,” worthy of a penalty that “recognizes the purposes of class actions” while protecting consumers and punishing or deterring “wrongful corporate conduct.”

There is also concern regarding loss of value to the vehicles on resale, the trouble consumers will be put through in order to get their vehicles repaired so they meet Canadian emission standards (ditto for US volks—hello California??), and whether in fact the vehicles can even be repaired without significant loss to power and performance.

And that’s just the people who bought these cars. True, an institutional investor has already filed a Volkswagen securities lawsuit—but can you imagine what’s going on with Volkswagen dealers? Nothing like a lot full of VW’s that are basically unsalable. If I had to wager a bet, it’s on VW dealership lawsuits next…

The following Volkswagen models re named in the action:

2009-2015 Jetta
2009-2015 Beetle
2009-2015 VW Golf
2014-2015 Passat
2009-2015 Audi A3

Did Chipotle have your Back(ground)? Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc, has been given food for thought this week, after being served with a class action lawsuit alleging the restaurant chain violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) by obtaining employment background checks after burying the required disclosure in its application materials. Filed by a job applicant, named plaintiff Lorena Mejia, the nationwide lawsuit asserts Mejia filled out a standard Chipotle application that contained a provision allowing the company to conduct a background check. However, the forms failed to make clear that the application contained authorization for Chipotle to perform background checks, in violation of the FCRA’s standard.

Specifically, the complaint states that the background-check disclosure was surrounded by potentially distracting language such as a provision for at-will employment. Who decided this was necessary?

“Under the FCRA, it is unlawful to procure or cause to be procured, a consumer report or investigative consumer report for employment purposes, unless the disclosure is made in a document that consists solely of the disclosure and the consumer has authorized in writing the procurement of the report,” the complaint states. I should hope so.

Further, the lawsuit contends that employers have been warned by the Federal Trade Commission stating that applicants are entitled to receive the disclosure as a separate document, not embedded into an employment application.

Mejia asserts that Chipotle failed to provide her a written summary of her FCRA rights, despite a provision of the statute requiring Chipotle to do so. Additionally, the company violated California privacy laws because it didn’t offer applicants a box to check as an indication that they wanted to receive copies of their reports, the complaint states.

The plaintiff is seeking to represent a nationwide class of Chipotle applicants seeking damages under the FCRA, as well as a subclass of California applicants bringing state-law claims. The case is Mejia v. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. et al., case number 5:15-cv-01911, in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

Go get’em!

Top Settlements

Even the Crunchy Granolas have been at it… Hain Celestial Group Inc agreed a $7.5 million settlement this week, potentially ending a consumer fraud class action lawsuit alleging it falsely labeled products as organic. In addition to the cash payout, the company has agreed to provide up to $1.85 million in coupons.

So -who can you trust these days?

The lawsuit, filed by lead plaintiffs Rosminah Brown and Eric Lohela, claimed that the products failed to meet even minimum state requirements for being “organic.” Specifically, the organic components comprised less than 70 percent of the products’ ingredients, as required by the California Organic Products Act.

Hain Celestial, btw, is huge–their brands include many faves among all-natural and organic food shoppers. For example, they’ve got Arrowhead Mills, Casbah, Earth’s Best, Health Valley, MaraNatha, Rice Dream, Soy Dream, Mountain Sun, Boston’s, Garden of Eatin’, Bearitos, Sensible Portions, Terra Chips and Celestial Seasonings.

“The settlement provides substantial monetary relief for many thousands of purchasers of the challenged products who allegedly paid a premium over comparable personal care products that did not purport to be organic … [and] compensates class members for a significant portion of their alleged damages,” the plaintiffs stated. “The settlement accomplishes this while avoiding both the uncertainty and the delay that would be associated with further litigation.”

According to the reported terms of the Hain Celestial settlement, any class member who submits a valid claims form but does not have a receipt will be entitled to receive a cash refund equal to 50 percent of their Hain purchase up to $50 or a combination of cash and coupons for their claims. Those with a receipt for their purchases will receive a full refund.

The settlement needs final court approval and, if approved, all claims except one will be resolved. The remaining claim is concerns the water used in certain products – which Hain asserts is organic and which the plaintiffs state is not.

The settlement hearing is scheduled for October 8, 2015. The case is Rosminah Brown et al. v. Hain Celestial Group Inc., case number 3:11-cv-03082, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

Ok…That’s a wrap folks… See you at the Bar!

Week Adjourned: 9.18.15 – Best Buy, Actos, GM Ignitions

Best Buy logoTop Class Action Lawsuits

Is it Time to Clear the Air? Best Buy was hit with a consumer fraud class action this week, alleging it falsely advertised a line of Electrolux vacuum cleaners as having HEPA filters. Filed in Virginia federal court on behalf of lead plaintiff Christopher L. Early, the Best Buy lawsuit asserts that the Electrolux model EL4071A, which he purchased from a Glen Allen, VA., Best Buy in June, does not contain a certified HEPA filter as claimed by the advertising. Rather, the filters in these vacuums are described by Electrolux as an “allergen” filter. The lawsuit contends that Best Buy knew or should have known the vacuum filter did “not meet the standards of efficiency for a HEPA filter … and is a substantially inferior filtration system.”

Certified by the US Department of Energy, a high-efficiency particulate arrestance or HEPA filter is a type of air filter frequently used to help with asthma and indoor allergies. When used in a vacuum cleaner, the filter works to limit the amount of allergen and dust particles emitted into the air while it’s running, according to the complaint.

“Notwithstanding the material differences between a HEPA vacuum cleaner filter and a non-HEPA vacuum cleaner filter, Best Buy deliberately and willfully misrepresented in advertising and selling the Electrolux model EL4071A vacuum cleaner to consumers that such vacuums provided HEPA air filtration performance when, in fact, they did not,” the lawsuit states.

The advertising referred to in the complaint includes in-store signage, advertisements and online product descriptions and specifications for the vacuum. Specifically, the lawsuit states that the online description of the vacuum made numerous references to its HEPA filter. It was because of these claims that Early decided he would buy the vacuum “in reliance on the accuracy of the Best Buy online advertisement.”

The vacuum is described as a “HEPA bagless canister vacuum” on Best Buy’s website and sells for $199.99. According to the complaint, after buying the vacuum, Early reviewed the manual for information on the HEPA filter and could not find mention of a HEPA filter. So he called Electrolux and the manufacturer confirmed that in fact that model only has an allergen filter, not a HEPA certified filter.

The plaintiff is seeking class certification, damages and legal fees. He claims Best Buy is in breach of express and implied warranties, the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, the Virginia Consumer Protection Act and consumer protection laws of various states and is guilty of false advertising.

“Best Buy’s massive campaign to deceive U.S. consumers concerning the supposed health benefits of the Electrolux model EL4071A vacuum cleaner have caused harm to the plaintiff and the members of the proposed class and will continue to do so as long as Best Buy continues to make such representations and fails to notify its customers of its false representations,” the complaint states.

The case is Christopher L. Early v. Best Buy Co. Inc., case number 3:15-cv-00549, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Top Settlements

Actos Billion Dollar Settlement. A previously announced $2.4 billion settlement has been approved by enough plaintiffs in a mass tort against Takeda Pharmaceuticals, to enable the deal to proceed. The plaintiffs had filed Actos bladder cancer lawsuits, across the country, totaling over 8,000 product liability complaints. They alleged that Takeda withheld information about the side effects of its diabetes medication.

Actos (pioglitazone hydrochloride) is a member of a class of drugs known as thiazolidinediones, which have been linked to bladder cancer, liver disease and cardiovascular issues. Actos side effects include increased risk of congestive heart failure (CHF), increased risk of rare but serious liver problems, an increased risk of fractures, and an increased risk for bladder cancer. A black box warning exists for Actos and heart failure, however, an Actos whistleblower lawsuit suggests a previously known but downplayed link between Actos and myocardial infarction (Actos heart attack). Actos is used to treat type 2 diabetes. According to a company press release, 96% of all eligible claimaints have opted in to an Actos settlement program that was initially made public on April 28.

Under the terms of the agreement, the Actos settlement should provide an average award of about $296,000 per case, for plaintiffs diagnosed with bladder cancer. However, the individual awards may be reduced based on the user’s age, exposure to other cancer-causing toxins and smoking history. The amount is set to rise to $2.4 billion if 97% of all eligible claimants participate.

Guess They Just Couldn’t Deny it Any Longer….Acting in its own best interests, no doubt, General Motors (GM) has agreed to pay $900 million to bring closure to criminal charges brought against by the US government over allegations the automaker hid a handle lethal ignition switch defect, which has resulted in at least 124 deaths.

According to a report in Automotive News, GM admitted to failing to disclose the defect to both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the public. The defect prevents the deployment of airbags in some vehicles.

Additionally, GM has also admitted to misleading consumers about the safety of vehicles affected by the defect.

Under the terms of the three year agreement, GM must have its internal safety practices independently monitored as well as its ability to fix defects and recalls. If GM adheres to its obligations set out in the agreement, the criminal charges will be dropped.

Ok – That’s a wrap folks… See you at the Bar!

Week Adjourned: 9.11.15 – Facebook, E-Cigarettes, RV Refrigerators

facebook logoTop Class Action Lawsuits

Is Facebook Big Brother in Disguise? Maybe….A federal privacy class action lawsuit against Facebook has been filed by a man who is not a Facebook user alleges the ubiquitous social media site violates the law in the same manner as Big Brother would. How, you ask? By collecting facial recognition data from user-uploaded photos without first notifying and receiving informed written consent from the people in the photos, both users and “unwitting” non-users of the site.

Specifically, Illinois resident Frederick Gullen contends that Facebook has stored over a billion templates of faces, which can uniquely identify a person in the same way a fingerprint or voiceprint does. However, the site fails to provide a publicly available policy of its guidelines for retaining and destroying non-users’ public information, according to the lawsuit.

In 2010, FB released its tagging feature, which works by scanning for faces in user-uploaded photos. It then extracts geometric data from each face, which is used to create a template of that face, “[u]nbeknownst to the average consumer,” according to Gullen.

“If no match is found, the user is prompted to ‘tag’ (i.e., identify by name) a person to that face, at which point the face template and corresponding name identification are saved in Facebook’s face database,” Gullen states. “However, if a face template is generated that matches a face template already in Facebook’s face database, then Facebook suggests that the user ‘tag’ to that face the name already associated with that face.”

The lawsuit contends that there could be tens of thousands of Illinois residents who aren’t Facebook users who but have had their photos uploaded to the social network.

According to the lawsuit, in May Gullen was “tagged” in a photo uploaded to Facebook by someone else without his permission. The template created from his facial features was also used by Facebook to recognize his gender, age, race and location.

Think all this is paranoid? Well, Google your image—you may be surprised at what comes up.

The lawsuit seeks to represent a class of Illinois residents who aren’t Facebook users but have been tagged in photos on Facebook.The case is Gullen v. Facebook Inc., case number 1:15-cv-07681 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

E-Cigarettes are Bad for You? Apparently, yes they are, according to a consumer fraud class action lawsuit brought against RJ Reynolds Vapor this week. The lawsuit claims the company’s electronic cigarettes contain carcinogens, which consumers were not warned about. Yes, that would make sense.

According to the e-cigarette lawsuit, filed by named plaintiff Jerod Harris, the manufacturer markets Vuse electronic cigarettes in a way that fails to inform customers of the potential health risks incurred by using the products, specifically, inhalation of the carcinogens formaldehyde and acetaldehyde. This violates California state consumer protection and unfair competition laws.

The lawsuit contends that RJ Reynolds began selling e-cigarettes in California during a time when consumers believed the product to be a healthy alternative to traditional cigarettes. This was because e-cigarettes contain nicotine but no carcinogens, they believed. However, RJ Reynolds knew this was not true, Harris claims in the lawsuit.

“Defendant knew of this public misperception regarding the true nature of e-cigarettes, yet introduced the products without disclosing the carcinogenic exposures resulting from ordinary use thereof,” the complaint states.

E-cigarettes are battery-operated products. They work by converting nicotine and other chemicals into an aerosol which is inhaled. According to Harris, consumers incorrectly believe that they are only inhaling water vapor, not aerosol. The suit cites a study and independent testing that shows aerosol contains cancer-causing formaldehyde and acetaldehyde.

The lawsuit also asserts that contrary to the marketing of e-cigarettes, which suggest they are a safer alternative than traditional cigarette, there are several studies which show they pose health risks to users and have adverse effects on the health safety of children and teenagers.

The lawsuit accuses RJ Vapors of violating California’s Unfair Competition Law and the California Consumers Legal Remedies Act by omitting the fact that the e-cigarettes expose users to carcinogenic chemicals.

The lawsuit seeks to represent a class of all California residents that purchased Vuse products from July 1, 2013, to the present. The case is Harris v. R.J. Reynolds Vapor Co., case number 3:15-cv-04075, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

Top Settlements

They’ll be Driving Checks to the Bank…to the tune of $36 million—that’s the proposed settlement amount in a defective products class action lawsuit pending against Dyson-Kissner-Moran Corp, and two of its subsidiaries, who manufacture boat fridges.

In 2012, a lawsuit was filed alleging fridges intended for use in motor homes and boats (N1200, N6 and N8 models) had a defect that caused them to corrode, overheat and occasionally catch fire. That’s handy. A fridge that not only keeps food—it cooks it too. Nice touch.

Under the terms of the proposed settlement, the companies would pay $11 million a year for three years, with $3 million added in the third year.

Ok – That’s a wrap folks…Happy Labor Day – See you at the Bar!

Week Adjourned: 9.4.15 – Ashley Madison, Safeway, Schneider Drivers

ashley madisonTop Class Action Lawsuits

It Takes a Brave Man… A brave folk has manned up and filed a lawsuit against Ashley Madison in the US—this one in Alabama. The data breach class action, filed  in federal court, claims the site and its owners and operators failed to protect its customers’ data or promptly alert them of the data hack that occurred in July. You think? The cyber attack publicly exposed information on 37 million Ashley Madison members. Oh yeah baby—that’s bad.

The lead plaintiff, who filed under the pseudonym “John Doe,” is claiming that Toronto-based Avid Life Media Inc, the parent company of Ashley Madison, was negligent and violated Alabama state and federal laws by not implementing proper security measures to protect its customers’ information and by not deleting its members’ data even after they paid $19 to have their information taken off the website.

According to the Ashley Madison lawsuit, in 2012 the plaintiff created an account with Ashley Madison. At that time he was not in a relationship, currently he is engaged. He states he became aware his information had been made public on August 21, roughly the same time his friends, customers and neighbors alerted him they were aware of his account. Doe contends he and his fiancée have also received a number of embarrassing messages from friends and family through social media. Ok—that’s not nice.

“Plaintiff was not in a relationship at the time he accessed the site, however, he is now in a committed relationship with his soon to be wife, and they have suffered much embarrassment and emotional distress as a result of Ashley Madison’s failure to protect Plaintiff’s private information,” the complaint states.

Doe claims that by allegedly misrepresenting to him that it had protected his data and deleted his account information when it hadn’t, Ashley Madison has violated the Federal Stored Communications Act and Alabama’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

Doe is also asserting breach of implied contract, bailment, conversion, fraud and misrepresentation and seeks compensatory and punitive damages. The case is John Doe v. Avid Life Media, Inc. et al, case number 6:15-cv-01464, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama.

You know, the truth really is stranger than fiction—you just can’t make this stuff up.

Top Settlements

Would you Like Those Delivered? Hell yes! And make sure the check’s in with the groceries. A big win for consumers who purchased groceries for delivery from Safeway—a federal judge in California has ruled that Safeway must pay about $30 million in damages to named plaintiff Michael Rodman and class members, because the grocery chain has been found liable in a breach of contract consumer fraud class action lawsuit. The lawsuit was brought by Rodman and fellow customers who allege the grocery chain overcharged for groceries purchased for delivery: it has promised price parity with store bought merchandise.

In the ruling, U.S. District Judge Jon S. Tigar held that $30 million is roughly the sum of what Safeway made by concealing markup prices for groceries delivered to class members from April 2010 to December 2012.

However, Judge Tigar ruled that Safeway was not liable for customers who used its delivery service prior to 2006 when the service was run by a third-party vendor.

“Class members are entitled to recover the aggregate amount of the difference between the prices charged during the class period for items purchased in the online store as compared to the price customers would have been charged for those items in the physical store from which they were selected and delivered,” Judge Tigar ruled.

The case is Rodman v. Safeway Inc., case number 3:11-cv-03003, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

Truck Drivers Gettin’ a Break… Now here’s a result—to the tune of $28 million—a settlement has been reached in an employment class action lawsuit pending against Schneider National Carriers Inc. The lawsuit was brought by more than 6,000 California truck drivers who alleged the company had violated state wage-and-hour laws and failed to provide meal and rest breaks.

The plaintiffs are California-based truckers who worked for Schneider as intermodal, dedicated or regional drivers from November 2004 to the present.

As a class, they have asked the court to approve the settlement, thereby ending the litigation which began in 2008. A final hearing is scheduled for late September.

Under the proposed Schneider National Carrier settlement terms, 73 percent of the $28 million, or about $20.5 million, will be paid to settle claims made by the so-called dedicated and intermodal driver subclasses. The remaining $7.56 million would be used to settle the claims of the regional driver subclass.

“This settlement represents a substantial recovery for the class, and a well-crafted compromise of the divergent positions of the parties,” the motion states, and: “clearly meets, and exceeds, the standards for preliminary approval.”
The case is Morris Bickley et al. v. Schneider National Carriers Inc., case number 4:08-cv-05806, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

Ok—That’s a wrap folks…Happy Labor Day—See you at the Bar!