Federal Court Denies Request to Consolidate Nationwide Baby Food Heavy Metal Cases

By: Amy Wong

Key Takeaway: Courts are reluctant to centralize industry-wide cases involving competitors as it rarely promotes judicial efficiency and complicates discovery. For now, the baby food cases will proceed in their respective forums.

The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) has denied a motion to centralize and consolidate 38 lawsuits pending in 10 districts against baby food companies alleging that the companies knowingly sold baby food products containing heavy metals (arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury), and falsely marketed these products as healthy and as not containing harmful ingredients.  In re Baby Food Marketing, Sales Practices and Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 2997, 2021 WL 2369296 (JPML, decided June 7, 2021).

The JPML notes that while the lawsuits are generally similar (companies manufactured and advertised harmful baby food), centralization is not necessary nor warranted because the discovery and pretrial practice will be defendant-specific. Each defendant “manufactures, markets, and distributes its own baby food products subject to different manufacturing processes, suppliers, and quality control procedures.” Id. at 2. “The claims against each defendant thus are likely to rise or fall on facts specific to that defendant, such as the amount of heavy metals in its products, the results of its internal testing, if any, and its marketing strategies.” Id.

The Panel emphasized caution against industry-wide centralization, particularly when the defendants are competitors, and the asserted claims require unique discovery and pre-trial practice. According to the Panel, of the 13 multi-defendant baby food actions, two are personal injury actions and two assert civil RICO claims. Id. These types of claims require different discovery and involve factual disputes that make them not suitable for a centralized action. Moreover, plaintiffs in many other similar actions opposed centralization. Id. “Given the relatively minimal number of common factual questions, the potential for a multi-defendant MDL to introduce added complexity to this litigation, and the strong opposition of numerous plaintiffs and defendants, we are not persuaded that industry-wide centralization is appropriate.” Id.

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