Class Action Complaint Alleging Failure to Disclose Type of Sweetener used in Diet Drink Improperly Granted Class Action Treatment because Definition of Class Included Millions of Uninjured Individuals and Class Definition could not be Permissibly Limited Missouri Supreme Court Holds
Plaintiff filed a putative class action lawsuit in Missouri state court against Coca-Cola alleging that it “made affirmative misrepresentations and omitted material information regarding the types of artificial sweeteners used in fountain Diet Coke” in violation of state law; Specifically, the class action alleged that Coca-Cola “misled consumers into believing that fountain Diet Coke is the same product as bottled Diet Coke,” when in point of fact the fountain Diet Coke is sweetened with aspartame and saccharin while bottled Diet Coke is sweetened only with aspartame. State ex rel. The Coca-Cola Company v. The Honorable W. Stephen Nixon, ___ S.W.3d ___ (Mo. April 15, 2008) [Slip Opn., at 3]. According to the allegations underlying the class action, plaintiff and other putative class members would not have purchased the fountain drink if they had known that it was made with saccharin. Id. Plaintiff filed a motion requesting that the trial court certify the litigation as a class action; she proposed to define the class as “All individuals who purchased for consumption and not resale fountain diet Coke in the State of Missouri after March 24, 1999 through the date of this order.” Id. Defense attorneys opposed the motion on the grounds that the proposed class was overly broad and indefinite, id. Despite the fact that plaintiff provided no estimate of the size of the class, the trial court accepted the proposed definition and granted class action treatment. Id. Ultimately, defense attorneys filed a petition for writ of prohibition with the Missouri Supreme Court, arguing that the trial court abused its discretion in granting class action certification; the Court reversed. Id.
After rejecting plaintiff’s claim that interlocutory relief should not be considered, see Coca-Cola, at 3-4, and after noting that the standard of review was abuse of discretion, id., at 4, the Missouri Supreme Court turned to the merits. It noted that “the underlying question in any class action certification is whether the class action device provides the most efficient and just method to resolve the controversy at hand, all things considered,” id., at 4, and that implicit in the statutory scheme governing certification of class actions is the requirement that the class definition be proper, id., at 4-5 (citations omitted). In fact, the Supreme Court stated that the first task facing a court in ruling on a motion for class certification is “‘to determine whether the class exists and is capable of legal definition.’” Id., at 5 (citation omitted). The Court explained at page 5, “A class definition that encompasses more than a relatively small number of uninjured putative members is overly broad and improper.” (Citations omitted.) And while it was permissible to certify a class action such that the putative class “initially include[s] members who could not have brought the underlying action in their own name,” the definition ultimately must be capable of being modified so as to “remove the uninjured putative members.” Id. (citations omitted). This requires that only “a relatively small number of uninjured putative members remain,” because the trial court may then “easily resolve individual questions after the common questions have been answered.” Id. If it will not be possible to modify the class definition in this manner, then “the putative class is impermissibly overbroad.” Id.
According to plaintiff, if Coca-Cola had disclosed to consumers that it used saccharin in its fountain Diet Coke, they would not have purchased it. Coca-Cola, at 5. But her class definition includes “an extremely large number of uninjured class members, that is, those who did not care if the Diet Coke they purchased contained saccharin.” Id. It also includes individuals who “had no choice of the brand of fountain diet cola they purchased at any given location, let alone the particular type of sweetener used in one brand, Diet Coke.” Id. Even plaintiff’s expert believed that only 20% of the putative class members would stop drinking fountain Diet Coke if they knew that it contained saccharin, id., at 5-6. Thus, “eighty percent of the putative class suffered no injury.” Id., at 6 (italics in original). The Supreme Court rejected plaintiff’s request to “imply irreparable harm” to each member of the putative class, id., at 6. The class action would require, therefore, an inquiry into the state of mind of each putative class member – “a ‘Sisyphean task,’ requiring ‘mini-hearings’ to determine whether each potential class member had the requisite state of mind to be a member of the class, undermining judicial economy and efficiency.” Id., at 5 (citation omitted). Moreover, the only way to limit the class definition would be to tie membership to the injury allegedly suffered, which “would contain an impermissible merit determination” making it impossible to know who was in the class “until after the completion of the litigation.” Id., at 6.
Finally, the Supreme Court held that the definition of the class could not be amended so as to be workable: under any definition, the individuals included as members of the class action would include “[a] sizable number of uninjured putative class members” and therefore would be “impermissibly overbroad.” Coca-Cola, at 6. Accordingly, the trial court abused its discretion in granting class action treatment, id., at 6-7.