Federal Judge Grants Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment in “All Natural” Lawsuit

April 10, 2013

 By Riëtte van Laack

On March 28, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Seeborg of the Northern District of California entered summary judgment for the defendants in a 2010 class-action lawsuit which had alleged that defendants misrepresented AriZona Iced Tea beverages containing “man-made” citric acid and high fructose corn syrup (“HFCS”) as “all-natural.” 

Plaintiffs filed an action alleging six California state law claims.  Plaintiffs challenged an “Arizona” brand beverage natural claim arguing that the HFCS and citric acid in the beverage were man-made and therefore artificial.  However, they did not introduce evidence to support their claims.  Judge Seeborg rejected their belated argument that “HFCS is not natural because patents have been issued for the process of producing it” and “that if HFCS were a naturally occurring substance such as ‘a new mineral discovered in the earth or a new plant found in the wild’ it would not be patentable.” The judge considered this argument “merely an extension of [plaintiffs’] rhetoric that HFCS is artificial because it ‘cannot be grown in a garden or field, it cannot be plucked from a tree, and it cannot be found in the oceans or seas of this planet.'” He ruled that such rhetoric is no substitute for evidence.  Similarly, he ruled that to prevail on a claim that a statement is misleading, plaintiffs had to show more than that the statement could be misleading; plaintiffs had to demonstrate by extrinsic evidence that the challenged statement tends to mislead consumers.

While defendants produced evidence to counter the claims of the lawsuit, such as an expert witness report that HFCS and citric acid are natural and declarations from its suppliers that the ingredients are natural, plaintiffs did not introduce conflicting evidence and the Court did not need to address defendants’ evidence. 

The decision should serve as a reminder that in private litigation under state consumer protection acts, plaintiffs cannot merely assert that an ingredient is artificial or that a claim is misleading and demand that the defendant prove them wrong.