Starbucks must face a lawsuit arguing it has violated consumer protection laws by misleading customers into believing its popular “refresher” drinks contain all of the fruits in their names, a judge ruled last week, marking the latest lawsuit over food advertising techniques.
The class action lawsuit filed in New York District Court argues that Starbucks is able to charge more for its “refreshers”—a line of fruit drinks made with green coffee extract, water and fruit juice—because customers have been tricked into falsely thinking the Mango Dragonfruit, Strawberry Açaí and Pineapple Passionfruit drinks contain real mango, açaí and passion fruit (the drinks do contain real dragonfruit, strawberry and pineapple, though).
The plaintiffs say they “paid a premium price”—refreshers usually cost between $3.95 and $5.95—based on their reliance that the drinks contained what was in their name; plaintiff Joan Kominis, who initially sued last year, said she wouldn’t have purchased a refresher or would’ve paid less if she knew it only partially contained real fruit; the original lawsuit alleged at least $5 million in damages, according to Reuters.
Starbucks requested the case be dismissed by arguing in part that “no reasonable consumer would be misled by the products’ names into thinking that the products contain the missing fruit,” that the drink names described the flavors rather than the ingredients and that baristas could clear up confusion for customers.
U.S. District Judge John P. Cronan denied Starbucks’ request, determining the plaintiffs—Kominis and Jason McAllister of New York and California, respectively—adequately alleged that “a significant portion of the general consuming public could be misled by the names of the at-issue beverages,” according to the ruling.
He wrote that because some Starbucks drinks are named after what they actually contain—like an iced matcha latte containing matcha—it’s reasonable to assume the refreshers would contain the fruits in their names.
Cronan did dismiss two of the 11 claims brought by the plaintiffs: a fraud claim alleging Starbucks intended to defraud consumers and an unjust enrichment claim, which was dismissed because he said it was “entirely duplicative of [Plaintiffs’] other claims.”
In a statement to Forbes, a Starbucks spokesperson said, “The allegations in the complaint are inaccurate and without merit. We look forward to defending ourselves against these claims.”
This is not the first time a food company has faced a lawsuit over its advertising practices alleging it’s promising more than is delivered. Louis Tompros, a lecturer at Harvard Law School, said earlier this month that sometimes these cases keep advertisers honest and “serve an important purpose,” but they can also be opportunistic. Arby’s, McDonald’s, Wendy’s and more have all faced class action suits alleging that they falsely represented the size of their products or amount of meat included. In July, a lawsuit was filed against Taco Bell alleging false advertising over the amount of food in the Mexican Pizza and Crunchwrap Supreme, saying the amount of ingredients in advertisements was “at least double” what customers received. Last month, Burger King was told it would have to face a lawsuit alleging its Whoppers were too small after trying to get it dismissed, similar to Starbucks.
In 2017, an appeals court dismissed a class-action settlement between Subway and plaintiffs over claims that Subway was misleading customers by selling footlong sandwiches that were less than a foot long. A customer sued after ordering a footlong and receiving a sandwich he said was 11 inches, and Subway settled and agreed to adopt quality control measures. An appeals judge called the case “utterly worthless” due to its tiny payments to aggrieved customers, Reuters reported, and said a class action case that only seeks “worthless benefits for the class and yields only fees for class counsel” should be dismissed.
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