For some time, the plaintiffs’ bar has been looking for the next cash cow and the food industry seems to be it. Last year, a story on ABC laid out how the same guys who got rich by pummeling the tobacco industry have set their sights on a new target: those who make and sell food. That accusation that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is in the pocket of the food industry combined with the fact that more than a third of Americans are obese make for the perfect storm for trial lawyers. Dr. David Katz, Director of the Yale University prevention Research Center stated, “The three major detriments of all our ills are tobacco, poor diet and lack of physical activity.” He went on to add, “There is no question the problem of poor diet has been aided and abetted by those profiteering from the status quo.”
Fast forward nearly a year and what is happening? Trial lawyers are swooping in to make a profit of their own. Food companies are seeing a dramatic uptick in the number of consumer fraud lawsuits. The number of consumer fraud class actions brought in federal court against food and beverage companies has skyrocketed in the last 5 years. In 2008, there were roughly 19 cases. That number jumped to 102 in 2012. Where are the vast majority of these cases being filed? California!
From 2008 until 2012, 186 class actions were filed in California court, many of them in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Ironically, this court has been dubbed, the “Food Court.” This is compared to New Jersey, where there have been only 18 cases filed. Aided by political rhetoric and policy proposals from First Lady Michelle Obama and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the focus of plaintiffs’ attorneys has clearly shifted to health and safety concerns over food. One lawyer in Los Angeles, Matthew Kaplan, even predicted an increase in litigation from local government enforcement efforts. He even called it the “Bloomberg effect.” Perhaps we’ll need to change their moniker from “ambulance chasers” to “food truck chasers” soon.
As one lawyer said, we have seen this movie before. Ronald Levine stated, “Lawsuits come in waves, but eventually they peter out.” The question is whether the industry can weather the wave of litigation. Trial lawyers are for profit. They are always looking for the next big avenue for revenue and it appears that the food industry is it and California is ground zero.