“safe harbor” defense

Last month, the Court of Appeal of California, Second Appellate District, Division Four, issued an opinion in Charles v. Sutter Home Winery, Inc. (2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 418*; 2018 WL 2126987). The court considered the Plaintiffs’ appeal of their dismissed putative class action complaint brought under the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, commonly known as Proposition 65. The appeal challenged the adequacy of the warning label that the Defendants, a group of wine suppliers, provided on wines that contained allegedly unsafe levels of inorganic arsenic, a chemical listed by the State of California as a carcinogen and a reproductive toxicant (a “listed chemical”). In a win for the wine industry, the Court of Appeal upheld the dismissal of the case.

Proposition 65 requires that any person who knowingly and intentionally exposes another person to a “listed chemical” in the course of doing business must provide a “clear and reasonable” warning before the exposure. California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), the lead agency responsible for implementing Proposition 65, has adopted several “safe harbor” warning provisions deemed to satisfy Proposition 65’s requirements, including a safe harbor warning for general consumer products and one for alcohol beverages, specifically.
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On February 5, 2018, the US District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri issued an opinion in one of the many false advertising class actions brought against the industry in the past five years.

Penrose v. Buffalo Trace Distillery, E.D. Mo. 4:17-cv-00294-HEA, involves the labeling of Old Charter bourbon. For years, Old Charter sold an 8-year-old version and a 12-year-old version, with their labels very prominently displaying “8” and “12” (respectively) in several places. According to the complaint, in January 2014 Old Charter “8” was re-formulated to use less-aged bourbon, described by the court as “non-age stated” or “NAS” bourbon. The labels, however, continue to prominently display the number “8” in the same manner as the prior label. In addition, while the label previously stated “aged 8 years,” the NAS bourbon’s label states “gently matured for eight seasons.” The court’s opinion catalogues a number of alleged complaints by consumers that they were deceived into purchasing the NAS product on the mistaken belief that the bourbon was still aged for eight years. Significantly, the complaint alleges that the price for Old Charter “8” remained the same after the reformulation.
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