By Lynn L. Bergeson, Christopher R. Bryant, and Margaret R. Graham
On March 28, 2018, the Superior Court of California, Los Angeles County, issued its Statement of Decision (Phase II) (Defendants’ Alternative Significant Risk Level (ASRL) Affirmative Defense) that found that the defendants failed to meet their burden of proof on their ASRL affirmative defense. Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT) v. Starbucks Corporation (Starbucks), No. BC435759 (L.A. Super. Ct., filed April 13, 2010). CERT’s (plaintiff) complaint alleged that Starbucks, along with 18 other defendants (the total later reached 91 defendants when a second action was filed (now consolidated)), that sell ready-to-drink coffee failed to provide warnings to consumers that the coffee sold contained high levels of acrylamide, a carcinogenic chemical, in violation of Proposition 65 (Prop 65). The defendants denied the material allegations and asserted various affirmative defenses, violation of the First Amendment, and federal preemption. According to the order, the parties did not dispute that acrylamide, listed as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and under Prop 65 since 1990, is listed by the State of California as a chemical believed to cause cancer; or that they failed to provide warnings to consumers that the ready to drink coffee they sold contained high levels of acrylamide.
In Phase I of the trial, the court came to a similar conclusion, that defendants failed to meet their burden of proof by preponderance of evidence on their affirmative defenses of “no significant risk level,” First Amendment, and federal preemption to avoid the requirement of cancer warning labels as to the existence of acrylamide in brewed coffee. The trial on Phase II of the case ran from September 2017 to November 2017 and post-trial briefs were filed in December 2017 and January 2018. The order states that to have prevailed on their ASRL defense, defendants needed prove all of the below, which they failed to do:
- Establish that acrylamide is created by cooking or processing necessary to render the coffee safe or palatable (defendants only argued that acrylamide levels in coffee cannot be reduced at all without negatively affecting safety and palatability);
- Demonstrate that “sound considerations of public health” justify applying an alternative (less strict) risk level (defendants did not counter plaintiffs evidence that consumption of coffee increases harm to the fetus, infants, children, and adults; and the court found their proffered evidence that coffee itself confers some benefit to human health to be unpersuasive); and
- Present persuasive evidence of what would be an appropriate alternative risk level, taking into account the identified public health considerations (defendants did not conduct a quantitative risk assessment of the risk of cancer from exposure to acrylamide in coffee, necessary to prove an alternative risk level for acrylamide in coffee).
The ASRL affirmative defense is grounded on an exemption to the cancer hazard warning requirement under Prop 65, but as the defendants were not able to prevail on this defense, they will now be required to provide the Prop 65 warning language on their ready-to-drink coffee products, but the order does not specify any details regarding this. The decision also exposes the defendants to liability in terms of millions in fines. The defendants have until April 10, 2018, to file objections to the decision.