Companies that may face consumer fraud claims in West Coast courts will want to take a close look at the Ninth Circuit’s decision this month in McGinity v. Procter & Gamble Co., __ F.4th __, 2023 WL 3911531 (9th Cir. June 9, 2023). The Ninth Circuit provided some much-needed clarity on how lower courts within its jurisdiction should reconcile two seemingly conflicting precedents on how to apply the “reasonable consumer” test to seemingly fanciful claims brought under California’s consumer fraud laws.
Seven years ago, in the pro-defense Ebner v. Fresh, Inc., 838 F.3d 958 (9th Cir. 2016), the Ninth Circuit upheld the dismissal of claims that the weight indicator on a tube of lip balm was misleading because some of the balm sits in the tube’s screw mechanism and thus is basically unusable. In the legalese equivalent of “give me a break,” the Ninth Circuit noted California state appellate precedent holding that consumer fraud claims must be dismissed if it is improbable “that a significant portion of the general consuming public or of targeted consumers, acting reasonably in the circumstances, could be misled” by the challenged practice or language, and called the plaintiff’s lip balm claims “not plausible.” Id. at 965. The Ebner decision basically counseled district judges to be on the lookout for, and be ready to dismiss, a plaintiff’s allegations that reflect, at best, the reading “an insignificant and unrepresentative segment” of purchasers might give to a challenged advertisement or language on packaging. Id. at 966.