Food lawsuits are always slightly surreal, but a case from California has revealed just how absurd edible litigation can actually become. In September 2017, Summer Sandoval caused a storm when she decided to file a class-action claim against popular sweet manufacturer YumEarth Inc. because she didn’t realise that their lollipops contained sugar. Even by the lofty standards of the food industry’s legal proceedings, the story that followed has got to rank among the most outrageous cases ever.
According to Sandoval’s suit, YumEarth Inc were guilty of engaging in willful deception and dirty marketing tactics by failing to include sugar on the list of ingredients for their “Organics Vitamin C Pops”. Sandoval stated in front of the United States District Court for the Central District of California that this had led her to mistakenly believe that the sweets were both healthy and sugar-free. Had she known about their true contents, she alleges, Sandoval would not have bought the product.
As daft as the case might sound on the surface, there may be a glimmer of truth to what Sandoval says. The confusion stems from the use of the term “evaporated cane juice” as a stand-in for sugar. While the FDA has ruled that “evaporated cane juice” and sugar are synonymous, the term is not widely used outside of the industry, which may explain how Sandoval became confused. However, it doesn’t answer the basic question of how anyone would think that sweets that aren’t labelled “sugar-free” don’t contain any sugar.
Unsurprisingly, YumEarth were quick to refute the claims. Branding the assertion that Sandoval did not know that candy contains sugar as “nonsensical”, the company penned a strongly worded rebuttal, claiming that, “(the plaintiff) contends that she bought YummyEarth’s fantastic lollipops because she read the term 'evaporated cane juice' in the ingredients, that this tricked her into believing that the lollipops somehow did not contain sugar and that, had she known that the candy contained sugar, she would not have purchased it or would have somehow paid less for it. Of course, the product listed the correct amount of 'sugars' on its label."
For a long time, it looked as though the two sides would remain locked in a legal stalemate. However, after a while, it emerged that there may be something more suspicious going on behind the scenes. It turns out that Sandoval’s lawyer, a Mr Ferrell, has previously been accused of paying “client(s) to serve as a class action plaintiff,” in several frivolous suits in an attempt to extort money. In this case, the defendants pointed out that "The allegation is frivolous and nonsensical in itself, but plaintiff then goes further to admit in her complaint that she only purchased the candy after defendant refused to pay her lawyer’s extortionate pre-suit demand." This makes the whole situation seem even more suspicious.
To make matters even worse for Sandoval, her case was thrown out of Federal Court after it became clear that any damages would not be significant enough to warrant a federal case. Judge Terry Hatter concluded that, “YummyEarth has not substantiated that Sandoval, or any other individual putative class members, purchased over 8,000 bags of lollipops,” which is the amount that would be required to make it a significant enough case for the most serious courts. The moral of the story seems to be that anyone considering legal action should make doubly sure that they have a compelling argument. If not, it can all end up looking extremely silly.