Class Action Defense Cases-Mills v. Giant: D.C. Circuit Upholds District Court Dismissal Of Class Action Against Sellers Of Milk For Failing To Warn That Some Purchasers May Be Lactose-Intolerant

Dec 4, 2007 | By: Michael J. Hassen

Class Action Alleging Milk Processors and Retailers Breached a Duty to Warn Purchasers that They may be Lactose Intolerant Failed to State a Tort Claim under D.C. law District of Columbia Circuit Holds

In what the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia charitably characterized as “an unusual class-action lawsuit,” plaintiffs filed a putative class action against nine sellers of milk – seven dairy processors and two grocery stores – alleging “that they consumed milk before they were aware of their lactose intolerance and, as a result, suffered temporary gas and stomach discomfort.” Mills v. Giant of Maryland, LLC, 508 F.3d 1, 2007 WL 3404447, *1 (D.C. Cir. 2007). The class action alleged that defendants owed a duty to warn consumers of this possible risk and “should have put warnings on the labels, informing consumers that some individuals might be intolerant of milk.” Id. Defendants attorneys moved to dismiss the class action complaint for failure to state a claim under District of Columbia law; the district court granted the motion and plaintiffs appealed. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the “novel claim” advanced by the putative class action “falls far short of what D.C. law requires.” Id.

The Circuit Court recognized that millions of people are lactose intolerant, Mills, at *1; however, “[t]he problem for plaintiffs is that a manufacturer’s or sellers duty of reasonable care does not entail a duty to warn of risks ‘that should be obvious to, or generally known by, foreseeable product users,’” id., at *2 (citations omitted). The Court cited numerous cases rejecting failure to warn claims based on “widely known risks of consuming certain foods.” Id., at *3 (citations omitted). Boiled down to its essentials, a seller is not required to warn purchasers that they may suffer from common allergies: “‘The seller may reasonably assume that those with common allergies, as for example to eggs or strawberries, will be aware of them, and he is not required to warn against them.’” Id. (citation omitted). Because this class action did not involve an “unknown ingredient” claim or an “unknown harm” claim, the district court properly dismissed the complaint. As the Circuit Court summarized at page *4, “We will not belabor the obvious. For purposes of tort law, the risk that milk will cause some people to experience temporary gas and related stomach discomfort is ‘widely known – even if lactose intolerance as the cause is not. As a result, the risk that milk will cause temporary gas and stomach discomfort to lactose-intolerant individuals who do not yet know of their condition cannot support a failure-to-warn tort claim under D.C. tort law.” (Footnote omitted.) Accordingly, the D.C. Circuit affirmed the judgment dismissing the class action complaint. Id.

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