Earlier this month, a California federal court dismissed a class action lawsuit seeking to recover damages from the makers of Jim Bean, claiming that the company violated state consumer protection laws by labeling some of its whiskey and bourbon products as “handcrafted.” Dating back to the 1820s, bourbon is a type of whiskey. The term bourbon reached pervasive usage during the 1870s. Today, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association reports that roughly 95 percent of the world’s supply of bourbon is produced in Kentucky.
In Welk v. Beam Suntory Import Co., the plaintiffs’ complaint asserted claims under California’s consumer protection laws, including the False Advertising Law (FAL) and the Unfair Competition Law (UCL). In response to the complaint, the defendant filed a motion to dismiss, claiming that under the state’s safe harbor doctrine, the company is insulated from state law claims due to its compliance with federal labeling laws. The company also alleged that the plaintiffs failed to state a claim because the plaintiffs did not allege any facts showing that a reasonable consumer would find the label misleading. Also, the defendant contended that the economic loss doctrine prevented the plaintiffs from pursuing the claim for negligent misrepresentation.
The plaintiffs contended that a reasonable consumer would interpret the label’s claim that the bourbon was handcrafted as literal, arguing that consumers have habitually interpreted statements like “handcrafted” or “crafted by hand” to invoke notions of superior quality or craftsmanship. The crux of the plaintiffs’ allegations on this point focused on the defendant’s manufacturing process, which uses a mechanized or automated process for part of the production of the bourbon.
According to California’s consumer protection laws, the plaintiffs needed to “show that members of the public are likely to be deceived.” Reasonable consumers include individuals who are acting reasonably in light of the circumstances, and who are not experienced or versed when it comes to judging or inspecting a product. Additionally, California courts have held that unspecified and vague assertions about a product constitute puffery, which are statements upon which reasonable consumers cannot rely.
Ultimately, the California District Court concluded that the plaintiffs’ interpretation of the word “handcrafted” was not suitable for the bourbon making process, which involves heating mashed grains, adding yeast, and allowing the mixture to ferment before distillation. The processes of fermentation, distillation, and aging are required according to federal regulations governing bourbon production, and they must be followed in order for a producer to label a product as bourbon. Additionally, the court noted that machinery, like stills and heating implements, have been part of the bourbon making process since its inception.
As a result, the court concluded that a reasonable consumer would not interpret the use of the word “handcrafted” on the bourbon’s label to mean that the product was entirely and literally “crafted by a hand process rather than by a machine.” The court dismissed the suit with prejudice, stating that no amendment could resolve the plaintiffs’ inability to allege appropriately that the use of the term “handcrafted” was misleading.
If you or someone you know has suffered injuries due to a false or misleading product label, warning, or advertisement, you may be entitled to compensation. The product liability lawyers at Moll Law Group have represented many victims throughout the nation, including in California, Texas, and New York. We can fight aggressively for your rights and ensure that you are represented along every step of the way. Call us now at 312-462-1700 or contact us online to set up your free consultation.