SAN DIEGO (CN) — Dole, one of the world’s largest fruit and vegetable corporations, faced off in a downtown San Diego courtroom Friday against customers who claim the company misrepresented its “sustainable” and “worker empowerment” practices to get people to buy more of its products.
Dole touts those standards on food packaging and in online campaigns, when in reality, plaintiffs argued in a Superior Court class action, the company has harmful environmental practices and violates state labor laws. The plaintiffs' attorney on Friday accused the company of not protecting human rights and participating in deforestation.
Tarifa Laddon, Dole’s attorney, argued Friday to dismiss the suit. She said she couldn't speak for every single aspect of the company's business, but claimed it's working to improve its impact on the environment and on regenerative agriculture practices.
“I don’t even know what that means,” San Diego Superior Court Judge Matthew Braner admitted in response.
The customers in the class action, led by named plaintiff Rebecca Ortiz, aren’t accusing Dole of being involved in any sort of toxic “Erin Brockovich” situation, their attorney from Sullivan and Yaeckel Law Group said in court Friday morning. But they say the company has been misleading consumers about the sustainable and worker-friendly practices it advertises.
While Laddon acknowledged that the company claiming to farm and ship its produce in the “most sustainable way possible” is “puffery,” a commercial law term that amounts to exaggerating a product in order to sell it, she argued the claims are not trickery.
Judge Braner agreed, adding that while the terms used in the company’s packaging and advertising are vague, they don't meet the bar for being misleading to customers. The company uses terms like “sustainable” and “sustainability,” which the judge noted are buzzwords used frequently by businesses.
The judge's consideration meandered into the (dubiously factual) notion of movie trailers including very short frames of subliminal messages to entice audience members to buy popcorn and soda at the theater’s concession stands. He asked Laddon if that idea is similar to Dole’s use of “sustainable” and “sustainability” in its own advertising.
Laddon said it is not.
After a lawyer for the plaintiffs characterized those as terms of art, with Dole acting deliberately, Braner disagreed, saying he doesn’t think Dole violated California’s consumer protection laws.
“I think this is a difficult area, and I think you need to be more specific,” Braner told the plaintiffs. He did not rule from the bench on Dole's motion to dismiss, but asked the plaintiffs to file an amended complaint.
The plaintiffs are asking the court to order Dole to correct its advertising. and for punitive damages and monetary relief.
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