Nestle Loses Bulk of Summary Judgment in Spring Water Fraud Case

On Wednesday, District Judge Jeffrey Alker Meyer of the Connecticut District Court denied Nestle’s motion for summary judgment concerning legal claims brought by consumers who alleged that Nestle sold groundwater but labeled the bottles as containing spring water.

The class, led by Mark J. Patane, contains consumers in eight states (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island) who alleged that they paid more than they would otherwise for bottled water labeled as containing “spring water” but in fact contained groundwater. This, the plaintiffs averred, violated the corresponding laws in each state that prohibit the use of deceptive labeling in order to promote the sales of a product.

In the defendant’s brief accompanying a motion for summary judgment, Nestle made the same argument for each jurisdiction: Every state has a law preventing misleading and deceptive labeling that would not allow Nestle to fill bottles labeled to contain spring water with simple groundwater. However, the defendant further proffered, none of those state laws provide the aggrieved consumer with a private right of action. The alleged misleading labeling concern is required to be resolved by the state. Nestle supported this assertion with caselaw from every state that held that “when a private right of action exists…it is…created by express language.”

The judge ruled against Nestle, recognizing a private cause of action to inhibit the alleged misleading labeling at issue in each state. In the event of such a ruling, Nestle further argued that, despite the existence of a private cause of action for misleading labeling, the state unfair and deceptive practice laws do not apply due to each version of said law containing a safe harbor provision. Generally, the safe harbor provision in each state said that while the state statute may recognize the alleged mislabeling as deceptive or misleading, and thus unlawful, the courts could not stop the activity under said laws because the activity was permitted by another statute or regulatory scheme.

In this instance, the defendant argued that each state required a seller of bottled water to confirm that their water is spring water before being allowed to sell a bottle of water labeled as such within the state. As Nestle received permits to sell spring water in each state, the safe harbor exemption from the state laws should apply. The judge disagreed for every state, except Rhode Island, holding that a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether the states actually permitted Nestle to sell specifically spring water or just bottled water in general. Additionally, the judge held, a genuine issue of material fact also existed for whether any state, sans Rhode Island, even maintained a legal process to grant one a permit to sell bottled water labeled spring water after confirming the water inside was actually spring water.

In the end, the court allowed the plaintiffs to proceed with all claims for deceptive labeling in all states except Rhode Island. In Rhode Island, the judge concluded, the safe harbor exemption prevented the plaintiffs from proceeding under the state law governing mislabeling as there was a regulatory scheme in place. The scheme ensured that one must have a permit to not only sell bottled water in the state but to specifically sell bottled spring water. The state of Rhode Island additionally makes it overly clear, stated the judge, that all resolutions of purported mislabeling of bottled water must be resolved by the Rhode Island Department of Health, and not the courts.

As to the remaining claims, the plaintiffs seek an injunction preventing Nestle from selling Poland Spring Water as “spring water,” court costs, attorneys’ fees, and money damages. 

A spokesperson for Nestlé Waters North America provided the below statement:

We are disappointed in the Court’s decision largely to deny our motion for summary judgment. That motion, however, did not address the ultimate question whether Poland Spring® Brand spring water is spring water, nor did the Court’s decision. We are pleased that the Court noted substantial evidence that regulators in numerous states have recognized Poland Spring® Brand water as spring water even while finding the record incomplete. The Court cited no evidence that Poland Spring® Brand spring water is not what it claims to be. We remain confident in in our legal position, and we will continue to defend our Poland Spring® Brand vigorously against this meritless lawsuit.

Poland Spring® Brand spring water is 100 percent natural spring water. In fact, an independent investigation conducted in 2018 by the law firm DLA Piper confirmed that Poland Spring® Brand spring water sources meet all FDA regulations defining spring water. Consumers can be confident in the accuracy of the labels on every bottle of Poland Spring®, and that Poland Spring® Brand natural spring water is just what it says it is – 100 percent natural spring water.

The full DLA Piper report can be accessed here. More questions answered here.