The Eighth Circuit, in Melvin Wallace, et al. v. ConAgra Foods, Inc., No. 13-1485, April 4, 2014, recently addressed the requirements of adequately pleading an actual injury in fact sufficient to maintain standing in federal court in the context of an allegedly defective product – in this case, kosher hot dogs. The plaintiffs are consumers who claim that some of the hot dogs they purchased from Hebrew National are not 100% kosher, as the label reads. These individuals sued Hebrew National’s parent company, ConAgra Foods, Inc., in Minnesota state court, seeking to represent a class consisting of all Hebrew National buyers in the country over a multi-year period.
Perhaps counterintuitively, the plaintiffs did not allege they suffered any religious based harm from eating allegedly non-kosher hot dogs. Instead, they argue that by claiming the hot dogs are 100% kosher, Hebrew National is really representing the hot dogs to be a higher quality of hot dog from their competitors, one that is free of artificial ingredients. Plaintiffs claim that in reliance on these representations, they paid a premium price for the ostensibly kosher dogs – but their expectations were frustrated because at least some of the hot dogs they purchased likely weren’t 100% kosher after all. Plaintiffs alleged that a manufacturing defect existed in the manufacturing process at ConAgra’s suppliers, which resulted in some meat being certified as kosher when it should not have been.
ConAgra removed the case to federal court and then moved to dismiss, arguing, among other things, that the plaintiffs lacked Article III standing. The district court didn’t address standing, but decided that the First Amendment prohibited the courts from adjudicating the consumers’ claims and dismissed with prejudice.
On appeal, the Eighth Circuit focused squarely on the Article III standing issue, explaining that it requires an injury to be “concrete, particularized, and actual or imminent.” Mere speculation that an injury did or might occur is not sufficient. The Eighth Circuit held that the plaintiff consumers failed to meet this burden. At most, the plaintiffs alleged an apparent defect in the manufacturing process that might (or might not) have affected the products the plaintiffs actually purchased. As the Eighth Circuit explained, “[t]he consumers’ allegations fail to show that any of the particular packages of Hebrew National beef they personally purchased contained non-kosher beef.” Indeed – the plaintiffs conceded that “it is impossible for any reasonable consumer to defect” whether or not the meat was kosher. In the context of defective products, it is not enough for a plaintiff to allege that a product line contains a defect or that the product is at risk for manifesting this defect. Instead, a plaintiff must specifically allege that their product actually was defective.
Unfortunately for ConAgra, its victory might prove pyrrhic. The Eighth Circuit held that the federal district court erred in dismissing the plaintiffs’ case with prejudice, holding instead the case was required to be remanded back to state court under 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c).