Reliance Not Required In Deceptive Trade Practices Class Action

In a recent March 25, 2011 opinion, an Eleventh Circuit panel vacated a district court’s order certifying a Florida consumer protection class action.  In Fitzpatrick v. General Mills, Inc., Case No. 10-11064 (11th Cir. March 25, 2011), the district court certified a class consisting of consumers who purchased YoPlus yogurt.  The products liability case alleged that General Mills violated the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act (FDUTPA) by making false and misleading claims about the digestive health benefits of its YoPlus yogurt through its advertising and marketing.  In the district court’s January 11, 2010 order certifying the class, the court specifically held that recovery under FDUTPA does not hinge on whether a particular plaintiff actually relied on General Mills’ claims about YoPlus’ alleged health benefits, but rather, whether the deceptive conduct would deceive an objective reasonable consumer.  Despite this finding, the district court went on to define the class as “all persons who purchased YoPlus in the State of Florida to obtain its claimed digestive health benefit.”

On appeal, although the Eleventh Circuit agreed with the district court’s legal analysis positing that individual, subjective reliance is not an element of a FDUTPA claim, the Court vacated the order certifying the class.  The Eleventh Circuit found that the class definition as certified by the district court was inconsistent with the district court’s sound legal analysis, by injecting individual reliance into the determination of class membership.  The Eleventh Circuit stated: “[t]he district court repeatedly stated that a plaintiff need not prove reliance on the allegedly false statement to recover damages under FDUTPA, but rather a plaintiff must simply prove that an objective reasonable person would be deceived.  And, this is correct.”  Notwithstanding this analysis, the district court defined the class as consisting of persons who purchased YoPlus “to obtain its claimed digestive health benefit.” The Eleventh Circuit found that this class definition limited the class too narrowly.

In Fitzpatrick, the Eleventh Circuit accordingly broadened the class definition as it found the appropriate class definition to be “all persons who purchased YoPlus in the State of Florida.”  This is undoubtedly a big win for the plaintiffs and for consumers in the Eleventh Circuit in general.