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The Hazelnut is a Lie! First Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Class Action Coffee Lawsuit

Coffee in paper cup on wood
By Laura Temme, Esq. on August 30, 2019 10:56 AM

Kathy Dumont says she bought New England Coffee Company’s “Hazelnut Crème” coffee because she believed it contained real hazelnuts. But, there was just one problem - the coffee contained no hazelnut at all. Outraged, Dumont brought a putative class action against the company, alleging they had violated Massachusetts consumer protection laws.

After a rocky start in the First Circuit the case is headed back to the district courts, where a jury will decide whether this coffee’s label is…nuts. (I know. I’m sorry, I had to.)

A Nutty Procedural History

In September 2018, the district court dismissed Dumont’s complaint without leave to amend, finding she failed to provide enough detail to show the label was potentially misleading. However, on appeal, the First Circuit’s majority opinion found that the question of whether the coffee’s name deceived consumers is a question of fact – and reversed the dismissal.

What Would a Reasonable Shopper Do?

The majority of the First Circuit panel reasoned that someone might buy “Hazelnut Crème” coffee, thinking it contained nuts, without investigating the ingredient label. However, the opinion plays both sides of the fence a bit.

Two judges agreed that someone who cared whether their coffee included real hazelnuts would check the ingredient list, yet they also wrote that a reasonable consumer might see the product name as adequate assurance of what they were buying.

In her dissent, Judge Lynch argued that a reasonable consumer “plainly could not view” the Hazelnut Crème label and assume there were real hazelnuts present when the bag also says “100% Arabica Coffee.” The majority even concedes this conclusion is reasonable, saying that in their own lives, they would likely reach the same conclusion if they were “in the grocery aisle with some time to peruse the package.”

But if a reasonable person is mulling over a coffee purchase, isn’t that precisely what they would do? Someone with a nut allergy, for example, would sure as cream-and-sugar check the ingredients label. Now, it’s up to a jury to decide.

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