Summary

Following the trial of a tobacco false advertising case dating back to 1997, a California court found that, although the defendant misrepresented to consumers the health benefits of its Marlboro Lights cigarettes, the Plaintiffs were entitled to no relief as they failed to prove entitlement to any of the limited remedies available under California’s Unfair Competition Law.

The court in Brown v. The American Tobacco Co., Inc., et al., Case No. 711400 (San Diego Superior Court Sept. 24, 2013) emphasized and underscored that restitution under California  law does not allow plaintiffs to recover “benefit of the bargain damages.”  Brown, at 11.  Instead, restitution reimburses consumers only for the difference between the value paid and the actual value of the product received.  Id.  Plaintiffs failed to show their entitlement to restitution under California law because, among other reasons, their proffered evidence improperly focused on consumers’ perceived value of the misrepresented health attributes without considering the actual market value of the entire product absent the misrepresented attribute, i.e., the product plaintiffs received.   Id.

The court held that the evidence showed the price paid for Marlboro Lights cigarettes was not in excess of the actual market value of the product plaintiffs received (without any health benefit).  Id. at 16-17.  Thus, the restitution value was zero.  Id. at 17.  The court emphasized that:  (1) consumer purchases of Marlboro Lights did not substantially change relative to Marlboro Reds despite significant corrective actions taken by the defendant to communicate to consumers that Marlboro Lights offered no health benefits compared to Marlboro Reds; and (2) Marlboro Lights and Marlboro Reds sold for the same price during the time period of the defendant’s corrective actions.  Id. at 16-17. 

The court also found that plaintiffs were not entitled to injunctive relief.  Id. at 18-21.  Specfically, the court held that: (1) plaintiffs presented no specific evidence concerning injunctive relief; (2) it is unlikely that the misrepresentations will recur due to defendant’s marketing changes, a federal statute, and an injunction in a different case; (3) injunctive relief would be redundant because information plaintiffs desire to provide consumers has already been disseminated; (4) tobacco advertising and packaging is preempted; and (5) plaintiffs waived injunctive relief in the Master Settlement Agreement reached with numerous state attorneys general.  Id

Significance

The Brown decision illustrates and reinforces the structure of California’s UCL.  While the UCL broadly proscribes a wide swath of conduct, the remedies available are limited.  The decision also serves as a reminder to businesses that defense of UCL actions should focus on both liability and the plaintiffs’ entitlement to available remedies, or the lack thereof.

Even assuming a product’s attributes have been misrepresented to consumers, to obtain monetary relief in the form of restitution plaintiffs must still show that they paid more than the actual market value of the product they received without the misrepresented attribute.  As shown in Brown, this will undoubtedly be difficult if not impossible for plaintiffs where the defendant can show that:  (1) the challenged product sells for the same price as other products without the misrepresented attribute; and (2) consumers did not alter their behavior following any change in advertising as to the allegedly misrepresented attribute.

Businesses should also consider the applicable law governing a particular case.  State consumer protection laws and the law of restitution often vary state to state.  The court in fact noted that plaintiffs’ expert improperly relied on the same form of analysis in a case governed by Missouri law where, the court stated, unlike California, “benefit of the bargain” damages applied.  Id. at 11.