Vitaminwater Labeling Lawsuit Can Continue, But Plaintiffs Probably Won’t Be Able To Seek Damages

It’s been more than four years since the Center for Science in the Public Interest and others filed its lawsuit against Coca-Cola for allegedly overstating the health benefits of vitaminwater and the case has still not been resolved. It has, however, inched closer to trial after a federal magistrate recommended that the case go forward as a class-action suit with regard to the products’ labeling, but that the plaintiffs could not sue for damages as a group.

The plaintiffs in the case took issue with several of vitaminwater’s labeling, branding, and marketing practices. The beverage company, acquired by Coca-Cola in 2007, gave names like “defense,” “rescue,” and “endurance” to its drinks. To the CSPI and others, this implied some sort of health benefit.

Vitaminwater also has brands with flavors labeled dragonfruit, kiwi-strawberry, and acai-blueberry-pomegranate, but the plaintiffs say that these often contain less than half a percent of actual juice per serving.

In 2010, Coca-Cola sought to have the suit dismissed, but instead a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the plaintiffs “sufficiently state a claim that defendants have violated FDA regulations by making health claims about vitaminwater even though it does not meet required minimum nutritional thresholds,” and allowed the case to proceed.

The recent decision of the U.S. Magistrate Judge [PDF] is a double-edged sword for the plaintiffs.

While the magistrate agreed that the plaintiffs had standing to sue based on their claims of being misled into believing that vitaminwater offered unsubstantiated health benefits or was somehow healthier than other sugary beverages, he also found that the nature of bottled beverage purchases made it impossible to figure damages for the entire class.

First, the amount of damages that would be paid to each claimant would likely be tiny. Second, customers pay a wide range of prices for vitaminwater products, based on where the items are purchased and which size is bought. Thus, even though the plaintiffs may have been misled as a group, the judge felt they had “not presented a class-wide damages model that can be used based on common proof, or a reliable method of distributing damages to putative class members.”

The magistrate’s recommendations will now be handed off to the U.S. District Court judge overseeing the case, who will likely agree.

Coca-Cola is pleased as punch that it may not have to pay any damages if it ultimately loses the case, but still maintains that the allegations are “without merit and will ultimately be rejected.”

In spite of the recommendation that the plaintiffs not be able to seek damages as a class, the CSPI appears to be unfazed.

“The marketing of vitaminwater will go down in history as one of the boldest and brashest attempts ever to affix a healthy halo to what is essentially a junk food, a non-carbonated soda,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “Vitaminwater, like Coca-Cola itself, promotes weight gain, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cannot deliver on any of the dishonest claims it has made over the years.”