Not Your Mall's Food Court: Attorneys Find Ingredients for Consumer Lawsuits

A lawsuit against the Coca-Cola Co. over allegations that the soft drink manufacturer didn’t properly label its product makes it the latest in a wave of class-action litigation against food companies.

Little Rock attorney Thomas Thrash of the Thrash Law Firm P.A. is seeking class-action status for his client, Mary Rankin of Pulaski County, who allegedly was deceived into thinking “that Coca-Cola was natural and healthy when in fact it contained artificial flavoring and chemical preservatives,” he said in a lawsuit filed Dec. 2 in U.S. District Court in Little Rock.

Thrash told Arkansas Business last week that several food producers have misbranded products, “and Coke’s one of them.”

The number of consumer fraud class-action lawsuits filed against food and beverage companies in federal courts nationwide has jumped from about 20 in 2008 to more than 100 in 2012, according to an October report by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, which is an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Thrash said that he plans to file lawsuits against other food producers, but declined to name the companies.

The trend of lawsuits has caused concerns for the Chamber Institute. Plaintiffs’ attorneys are bringing “lawsuits alleging trivial violations of federal regulations and to seek millions of dollars where no reasonable consumer was deceived,” the report said.

Food-related lawsuits generally allege that a product was advertised as “natural” when it contained synthetic or artificial ingredients, such as preservatives or high-fructose corn syrup, the Chamber Institute’s report said. Other lawsuits involve a product’s advertising that includes unsubstantiated claims about the health benefits of the product or that misled consumers into believing the product was healthier than it was, the report said.

One of the cases that might have started the food-lawsuit trend was that involving Dannon, the report said. The yogurt company paid $35 million in 2009 to settle a class-action lawsuit involving allegations that it made false claims about the benefits of its Activia probiotic yogurt.

Some plaintiffs’ attorneys are filing food cases because they see a defendant with “deep pockets,” according to the Chamber Institute.

Thrash told Arkansas Business the food companies make that allegation “as opposed to explaining why they misbranded the product, and why they say there’s no artificial flavoring when there is.”

Coke, of Atlanta, didn’t return a call for comment and hadn’t filed its answer in the case as of last week. Coca-Cola Refreshments USA Inc. of Atlanta, which manufactures, distributes and sells Coke, was also named as a defendant.

‘Falsely Labeled’

Within the past five years, Rankin, who is at least 60 years old, bought more than $25 worth of Coke products in Arkansas, according to the lawsuit. Citing attorney/client privilege, Thrash wouldn’t say how Rankin became his client.

The lawsuit said the only reason Rankin bought the drinks was because she relied on the labels and advertising that said, Coke had “no artificial flavors” “no preservatives added,” “since 1886,” and it was the “original formula.”

But the lawsuit said Coke contains both artificial flavoring and chemical preservatives. The alleged false statements violate both federal and Arkansas law, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit claims that behind the alleged false labels and advertising was Coke’s marketing plan to boost its sliding market share in an attempt to “mislead consumers into thinking that Coca-Cola is natural and healthy, when in fact it is neither.”

Thrash told Arkansas Business that “reasonable consumers” were deceived. To “a lot of people, it’s important that there’s no preservatives, no chemicals, no artificial flavors,” he said. Thrash wants his case certified as a class action and is seeking an unspecified amount of damages.

He said the goal of his lawsuit is to “get the food producers to properly describe and brand their products.”