In September of 2019, Charles Wilcoxen fell seriously ill after vaping cannabis oil from a cartridge. Just days after he began experiencing symptoms he was hospitalized and later diagnosed with lipoid pneumonia, the mysterious lung illness now known as EVALI associated with the 2019 vape crisis.
Wilcoxen spent three days in the hospital and ever since he was diagnosed, he has been unable to exercise, return to work full time or even play with his daughter. Attorneys for Herrmann Law Group representing Wilcoxen filed a product liability lawsuit, Wilcoxen v. Canna Brand Solutions, LLC, et al., in Washington State Court, naming six cannabis companies as defendants: Canna Brand Solutions, Conscious Cannabis, Rainbow’s Aloft, Leafwerx, MFused and Janes Garden.
Canna Brand Solutions, the primary defendant named in the complaint, is a packaging supplier and distributor for CCELL vaping products (heating elements, pens and batteries) in the state of Washington. The complaint alleges that Wilcoxen believes he used a CCELL vape. CCELL is a Chinese company, which makes it notoriously difficult to pursue legal action against them, hence why Canna Brand Solutions was listed as a defendant instead.
On August 31, 2020, Judge Michael Schwartz dismissed all claims against Canna Brand Solutions. “All claims asserted by Plaintiff against Canna Brand in the above-mentioned matter shall be voluntarily dismissed without prejudice and without costs or fees to any of the parties to this litigation,” Judge Schwartz says in the dismissal. Judge Schwartz dismissed the case without prejudice, meaning it could be brought to the court again should the plaintiff’s attorneys decide to do so.
With the allegations against Canna Brand Solutions focusing on CCELL products, it seems that the case was dismissed largely due to a lack of evidence connecting exactly which product resulted in the illness, as well as the lack of culpability for a distributor of products they did not manufacture.
Daniel Allen, founder and president of Canna Brands Solutions, claims that the product mentioned in the complaint did not come from his company. “We stand by our high quality and customizable CCELL vaporization products,” says Allen. “We feel vindicated in this case by the judge’s decision, which shows the claims against our company and products were completely unfounded from the beginning.”
He also added that the quality and safety of the products they distribute is their highest priority. “The product in question involved in this case did not come from Canna Brand Solutions,” says Allen.
Wilcoxen’s illness and subsequent long-term lung injury is extremely unfortunate. Thousands of people have been hospitalized and 68 deaths have been confirmed by the CDC. The CDC is still calling the illness EVALI (e-cigarette, or vaping, product use-associated lung injury). According to the CDC, there is no real known cause of EVALI, but they have found that vitamin E acetate is “strongly linked” to the outbreak. Knowing that, it is entirely possible that Mr. Wilcoxen’s illness was a result of one of the cannabis products he consumed, just most likely not anything that came from Canna Brand Solutions. A closer look at the contents with an independent lab test of the THC oil he consumed could shed some more light on what exactly caused the illness.
I would venture to guess that one of the products he consumed did have vitamin E acetate. Because the case was dismissed without prejudice, it could be brought to the court again if, say, Mr. Wilcoxen’s attorneys were to obtain more evidence, such as an independent lab report showing vitamin E acetate in the contents of one of the products he consumed. If Mr. Wilcoxen’s attorneys can figure out which product actually contained vitamin E acetate, perhaps the lawsuit could get a second shot and Mr. Wilcoxen could have a greater chance at getting some long-overdue and much-deserved restitution.
Over the past year, more and more consumer class actions have been filed against manufacturers and distributors of CBD-infused products. These actions typically assert claims based on how the product is marketed, such as whether it (i) contained the advertised amount of CBD, (ii) contained more THC than it should have or (iii) has the ability to provide the therapeutic benefits touted. The marketing of these products is subject to regulation by FDA, which has yet to issue pertinent regulations that have been expected since passage of the 2018 Farm Bill legalizing hemp and CBD products derived therefrom. Thus, in recent months, a number of federal courts have stopped these class actions in their tracks pending further guidance from FDA as to how CBD-infused products should be regulated. This growing body of precedent should be welcome news for the CBD supply chain, as it may provide a disincentive to the plaintiffs’ bar to expend their resources on similar actions until the regulatory framework is clear.
The first case that was put on hold until the “FDA completes its rulemaking regarding the marketing, including labeling, of hemp-derived ingestible products” was Snyder v. Green Roads of Florida, a case about the content of CBD in Green Roads’ products pendingin the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. Then, in May, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California took the same approach, deciding to stay the case of Colette v. CV Sciences, Inc., also on account of the lack of FDA regulations. Less than one month later, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, relying on the rulings in Snyder and Colette, stayed Glass v. Global Widget, LLC, also under the primary jurisdiction—a doctrine implicated where the claims involve a federal agency’s expertise concerning a regulated product.
On August 11, 2020, two federal judges became the most recent to stay putative class actions involving the sale of CBD products under the primary jurisdiction doctrine: Pfister v. Charlotte’s Web Holdings, Inc., in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, and Ahumada v. Global Widget LLC, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. Both were stayed on account of a lack of regulatory direction from FDA.
A trend appears to be developing, but not all courts faced with the option to stay the proceedings pursuant to the primary jurisdiction doctrine have chosen to put their respective cases on hold. In March, the judge overseeing Potter v. Diamond CBD (pending in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida) declined to stay the proceedings despite the absence of FDA regulations concerning ingestible CBD products. Despite the defendant’s objection, the court declined to stay the proceedings, finding that to the extent FDA regulations were forthcoming, they would be unlikely to change the food labeling requirements which were at issue in that case.
The stays of federal court cases involving CBD products highlight the need for FDA to issue regulations that cover the marketing of them. They also may provide the CBD product supply chain with a break in the number of consumer class actions filed until such regulations are issued.
By David J. Apfel, Nilda M. Isidro, Brendan Radke, Emily Notini, Zoe Bellars No Comments
Consumer demand for products containing cannabidiol (CBD) is on the rise across the country, with industry experts estimating that the market for CBD products will reach $20 billion by 2024. This boom in consumer demand has outpaced the regulatory framework surrounding these products. While the 2018 Farm Bill decriminalized hemp, it left much up to individual states and preserved the FDA’s jurisdiction over dietary supplements, foods and cosmetics. The FDA has not yet issued any specific rulemaking for CBD products.
Against this background, it is not surprising that consumer class actions regarding hemp-derived CBD products are flourishing. Over the past year alone, the plaintiffs’ bar has filed approximately twenty putative class action lawsuits against manufacturers of hemp-derived CBD products. The cases are primarily in federal court in California and Florida, with additional cases in Illinois and Massachusetts. Plaintiffs challenge the marketing and advertising of a variety of CBD products, including oils, gummies, capsules, creams, pet products and more.
The cases so far follow a familiar pattern seen in prior consumer class actions, especially in the food and beverage industry. Read on to learn what plaintiffs have claimed in the CBD lawsuits, how companies are defending their products, and how best to position your hemp-derived CBD products in light of lessons learned from past litigation.
What These Lawsuits Are Claiming, and How Companies Are Defending Their Products
In most of the recent CBD lawsuits, plaintiffs claim either that: 1) product labels over- or understate the amount of CBD in the products; and/or 2) the sale of CBD products is inherently misleading to consumers because the products are purportedly illegal under federal law. Regardless of which theory underlies the claims, plaintiffs typically frame their claims as consumer fraud, false advertising, breach of warranty, unjust enrichment, and/or deceptive trade practices.
In most cases, defendants have filed motions to dismiss seeking to have the cases thrown out. In these motions, defendants argue that plaintiffs’ claims are “preempted” by the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), and that only the federal government can enforce the FDCA. Some defendants have additionally argued that if the court is not prepared to dismiss the claims as preempted, the doctrine of “primary jurisdiction” applies. This means that the issues raised regarding CBD are for the FDA to decide, and the cases should be stayed until the FDA finalizes and issues rules on products containing hemp-derived CBD. Many defendants have also advanced dismissal arguments for lack of standing, claiming that the individuals bringing the lawsuits are trying to sue for conduct that never harmed them personally (e.g., because they never purchased a particular product), or will not harm them in the future (e.g., because plaintiffs have stated they will not buy the product again). The standing arguments often apply to particular claims or products within the lawsuit, rather than to the lawsuit as a whole.
Current Status of the Cases
Of the approximately twenty consumer class actions filed over the last year, about half remain pending:
Five have been stayed pursuant to motions filed by defendants;
Two have motions to dismiss pending;
One has a pending motion to vacate a default judgment against defendants;
One was filed earlier this month, and defendant’s deadline to respond has not yet elapsed.
To date, none of the cases (currently pending or otherwise) has proceeded to discovery, and no class has yet been certified. That means that no court has yet determined that these cases are appropriate to bring as class action lawsuits, rather than as separate claims on behalf of each individual member of the putative class. This is significant, because plaintiffs’ ability to achieve class certification will likely influence whether these CBD lawsuits will continue to be filed. Consumer fraud cases like these typically do not claim any physical injury, and the monetary damages per individual plaintiff are relatively low. As such, the cases often are not worth pursuing if they cannot proceed as class actions.
Of the cases that are no longer pending, all but two were voluntarily dismissed by plaintiffs. While the motivation behind these dismissals is not always announced, approximately half of the voluntary dismissals came after defendants filed a motion to dismiss, but before the court had ruled on it. One Florida case was mediated and settled after the court denied defendant’s motion to dismiss.1 A California court spontaneously dismissed one matter (without the defendant having filed any motion) due to a procedural defect in the complaint, which plaintiffs failed to correct by the court-imposed deadline.2
Early Outcomes on Motions to Dismiss
Of the thirteen motions to dismiss filed to date, only five have been decided. So far:
No court has dismissed a case based on federal preemption grounds. Courts have either deferred ruling on preemption, or denied it without prejudice to re-raising it at a later time.
Four courts have stayed cases based on primary jurisdiction.3
Only one court has denied the primary jurisdiction argument.4
Standing arguments have been successful in three cases,5 and deferred or denied without prejudice to later re-raising in the other two cases.6 However, the standing arguments applied only to certain products/claims, and were not dispositive of all claims in any case.
These rulings show a clear trend towards staying the cases pursuant to primary jurisdiction. In granting these stays, courts have noted that regulatory oversight of CBD ingestible products, including labeling, is currently the subject of FDA rulemaking, and that FDA is “under considerable pressure from Congress” to expedite the publication of regulations and guidance.7
Plaintiffs may be recognizing the trend towards primary jurisdiction as well, since there is now at least one case where plaintiffs agreed to a stay after defendant filed a motion to dismiss asserting, among other things, primary jurisdiction.8 But some plaintiffs are still resisting. For example, in the first case to have been stayed plaintiffs have since filed a motion to lift the stay. The motion—which was filed after the case was reassigned to a different judge—argues that primary jurisdiction does not apply, and that the FDA’s recent report to Congress suggests no CBD-specific rulemaking is forthcoming.9 The motion is pending.
Lessons Learned From Food Industry Consumer Class Actions
The motions to dismiss that have been filed to date in CBD-related class actions follow a tried and true playbook that has been developed by defense counsel in other food and beverage industry class actions. For example, the primary jurisdiction arguments that have been gaining traction in the CBD consumer class actions are very similar to primary jurisdiction arguments that were successful years earlier in cases involving the term “natural” and other food labeling matters.10
Similarly, the standing arguments that have succeeded in the early motions to dismiss CBD consumer class actions followed similar standing arguments made years earlier in food and beverage class actions.11
The preemption arguments that have largely been deferred in CBD consumer class actions to date could become a powerful argument if and when the FDA completes its CBD rulemaking. The preemption defense has been particularly effective when the preemption arguments focus on state law claims that require defendants to omit or add language to their federally approved or mandated product labeling, or where plaintiffs otherwise seek to require something different from what federal standards mandate.12 These arguments could be particularly compelling once the FDA issues its long-anticipated rulemaking with respect to CBD products.
Until then, primary jurisdiction will likely continue to gain traction. The FDA’s comprehensive regulatory scheme over food, dietary supplement, drug, and cosmetic products, combined with the FDA’s frequently-expressed intention to issue rulemaking with respect to CBD-products, and a need for national uniformity in how such rulemaking will interface with state requirements, converge to make primary jurisdiction especially appropriate for CBD-related class actions.13
How to Best Position Your Products
Until the FDA issues its long-awaited rulemaking regarding CBD products, companies can take the following steps to best position their products to avoid litigation and/or succeed in the event litigation arises:
Work with reputable labs to ensure the amount of CBD stated on product labeling and advertising is accurate;
Ensure that the product is manufactured according to appropriate current Good Manufacturing Processes (cGMPs);
Ensure that any claims made on product labeling and/or in advertising are consistent with FDCA requirements and applicable FDA guidance to date – for example, if the product is a dietary supplement, avoid making express or implied claims that it can cure or prevent disease;
Maintain a file with appropriate substantiation to support any claims stated in product labeling and advertising;
Work with legal counsel to stay abreast of developments in federal and state laws applicable to hemp-derived CBD products, and how any changes might impact potential class action defenses; and
If a lawsuit arises, work with legal counsel to develop a strategy that not only resolves the current litigation as efficiently as possible, but also positions the company strategically for any future consumer claims that may arise.
Final Mediation Report, Potter v. Potnetwork Holdings, Inc., 1:19-cv-24017-RNS, (S.D. Fla. July 30, 2020).
Court Order, Davis v. Redwood Wellness, LLC, 2:20-cv-03273-PA-JEM (C.D. Cal. Apr. 10, 2020).
Electronic Order, Ahumada v. Global Widget LLC, 1:19-cv-12005-ADB (D. Mass. Aug, 11, 2020); Memorandum and Order, Glass v. Global Widget, LLC, 2:19-cv-01906-MCE-KJN (E.D. Cal. June 15, 2020); Order Granting in Part Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss and Staying Remaining Causes of Action, Colette et al. v. CV Sciences Inc., 2:19-cv-10227-VAP-JEM (C.D. Cal. May 22, 2020); Order on Motion to Dismiss, Snyder v. Green Roads of Florida LLC, 0:19-cv-62342-AHS (S.D. Fla. Jan. 3, 2020).
Order on Motion to Dismiss, Potter v. Potnetwork Holdings, Inc., 1:19-cv-24017-RNS, (S.D. Fla. Mar. 30, 2020).
Order Granting in Part Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss and Staying Remaining Causes of Action, Colette et al. v. CV Sciences Inc., 2:19-cv-10227-VAP-JEM (C.D. Cal. May 22, 2020); Order on Motion to Dismiss, Potter v. Potnetwork Holdings, Inc., 1:19-cv-24017-RNS, (S.D. Fla. Mar. 30, 2020); Order on Motion to Dismiss, Snyder v. Green Roads of Florida LLC, 0:19-cv-62342-AHS (S.D. Fla. Jan. 3, 2020).
Electronic Order, Ahumada v. Global Widget LLC, 1:19-cv-12005-ADB (D. Mass. Aug, 11, 2020); Memorandum and Order, Glass v. Global Widget, LLC, 2:19-cv-01906-MCE-KJN (E.D. Cal. June 15, 2020).
Order on Motion to Dismiss at 12, Snyder v. Green Roads of Florida LLC, 0:19-cv-62342-AHS (S.D. Fla. Jan. 3, 2020).
Minute Entry, Pfister v. Charlotte’s Web Holdings, Inc., 1:20-cv-00418 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 11, 2020).
Plaintiff’s Motion to Lift Stay, Snyder v. Green Roads of Florida LLC, 0:19-cv-62342-AHS (S.D. Fla. July 13, 2020).
See, e.g., Astiana v. Hain Celestial Grp., Inc., 905 F. Supp. 2d 1013 (N.D. Cal. 2012), rev’d on other grounds, 783 F.3d 753 (9th Cir. 2015); Taradejna v. Gen. Mills, Inc., 909 F. Supp. 2d 1128 (D. Minn. 2012).
See Miller v. Ghirardelli, 912 F. Supp. 2d 861, 869 (N.D. Cal. 2012) (holding that the named plaintiff lacked standing where the products purchased by the putative class members were not “substantially similar” enough to those purchased by the named plaintiff); Colucci v. ZonePerfect Nutrition Co., No. 12-2907-SC, 2012 WL 6737800 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 28, 2012) (finding one of two named plaintiffs lacked standing because, even though the other named plaintiff (his fiancée) purchased the nutrition bars for him, he himself did not purchase any of the bars); Veal v. Citrus World, Inc., No. 2:12-CV-801-IPJ, 2013 WL 120761 (N.D. Ala. Jan. 8, 2013); Robinson v. Hornell Brewing Co., No. 11-2183 (JBS-JS), 2012 WL 6213777 (D.N.J. Dec. 13, 2012) (holding that there was no Article III standing because the named plaintiff had testified and stated in written discovery that he would not purchase the product in the future).
See, e.g., Turek v. Gen. Mills, Inc., 662 F.3d 423 (7th Cir. 2011); Lam v. Gen. Mills, Inc., 859 F. Supp. 2d 1097 (N.D. Cal. 2012); Veal v. Citrus World, Inc., No. 2:12-CV-801-IPJ, 2013 WL 120761, at *9-10 (N.D. Ala. Jan. 8, 2013).
See, e.g., Astiana v. Hain Celestial Grp., Inc., 905 F. Supp. 2d 1013 (N.D. Cal. 2012), rev’d on other grounds, 783 F.3d 753 (9th Cir. 2015); Taradejna v. Gen. Mills, Inc., 909 F. Supp. 2d 1128 (D. Minn. 2012).
Pennsylvania’s medical cannabis program may be young, but the industry in that state is off to a burgeoning start. Back in 2016, the state legalized medical cannabis. In 2017, the PA Department of Health began accepting applications for licenses and announced the first 12 winning applications. On February 15th, 2018, medical cannabis became available for more than 17,000 patients that registered in the program.
In March of this year, Governor Tom Wolf announced two more dispensaries were approved to operate as well as another grower/processor licensee. At that time, the press release indicated more than 21,000 patients have registered to participate in the medical cannabis program.
Then in April, Governor Wolf announced Phase Two of their medical cannabis program, allowing the industry to grow even more. That allowed for 13 new grower/processor permits and 23 new primary dispensary permits, according to a press release, which moved the total up to 25 grower/processors licensees and 50 dispensary licensees.
On May 15th, Governor Wolf approved eight universities to participate in a groundbreaking program, allowing Pennsylvania to take the first steps towards clinical research for medical cannabis. This research program would be the first of its kind in the country, allowing research institutions to explore the drug. The excitement was put on hold, however, when a Pennsylvania judge halted the program with an injunction. A handful of growers and dispensary owners in PA filed suit to stop the program on grounds that it violated the original intent of the law. State Representative Kathy Watson from Bucks County, the author of the research program, called the suit “pathetic because it’s all about the money.” We’ll follow closely with any new developments as they come.
Steven Schain, Esq., senior attorney at Hoban Law Group, a global cannabis law firm, represents multiple cannabis-related businesses in Pennsylvania. He says the program’s roll out has been fast with solid growth. “Within two years of the legislation’s enactment, Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program has exceeded expectations with controlled, sustainable and quality growth,” says Schain. “The Pennsylvania Department of Health established ambitious goals, which they met timely and created a statewide program servicing over 10,000 patients in record time. Looming ahead is New Jersey’s adult use program, the anticipated robustness of which could undermine vigorous sales in southeastern Pennsylvania’s marijuana-related businesses.”
On May 30th, Philadelphia welcomed their first medical cannabis dispensary, with a location opening up their doors to patients in Fishtown. Now reports are coming in that say more than 37,000 patients have registered to date, with over 16,000 who have received their ID cards and medical cannabis at a dispensary.
Even though the research program might be on hold for now, Pennsylvania’s medical cannabis program is growing at a fast pace. The market there has blossomed in just a few short months to a whopping 37,000-registered patients, according to a press release form Governor Wolf’s office. Some say an additional 200,000 patients could qualify. With the second phase in sight, it seems Pennsylvania is on track to become a hotbed for business and research, developing into a massive medical cannabis marketplace soon. Stay tuned for more updates.
Willamette Week, a Portland-based publication, is hosting the 2017 Cultivation Classic with Farma, Cascadia Labs, Phylos Bioscience and the Resource Innovation Institute on May 12th. The event is a benefit for the Ethical Cannabis Alliance, an organization that promotes sustainability, labor standards and education surrounding the integrity and ethics of growing cannabis. Cultivation Classic is a competition for pesticide-free cannabis grown in Oregon, according to a press release.
While the event’s focus is on the competition, it is just as much a celebration of the craft cannabis community in Oregon. This year’s competition incorporates scientific collaboration like genetic sequencing for the winners by Phylos Bioscience and carbon accounting for all competitors. Keynote speakers include Ethan Russo, medical director of PHYTECS and Dr. Adie Po, co-founder of Habu Health. Congressman Earl Blumenauer, a prominent cannabis legalization advocate in Oregon, will also be speaking at the awards ceremony. You can check out the full schedule and speaker lineup here.
Raymond Bowser, breeder at Home Grown Natural Wonders, is a judge for this year’s Cultivation Classic. He speaks at cannabis conferences around the country and his business created a number of different strains, so he has experience with a myriad of growers and strains. “This time around everyone has really stepped up their game,” says Bowser. “The entries are noticeably better than last year.” When looking at the different samples sent to him, he sees a few key factors as most important in judging the quality. “What I am looking for is simple; a nice smell and a decent look, generally speaking,” says Bowser. “Aesthetics can tell you a lot about how it was grown, temperature changes and the overall care taken in cultivating and curing the flower.” For him, flavor, smell and aesthetics are the big variables to consider.
Those are factors that his company holds to high standards in their work, so he judges the samples based on the same variables. “It is what we strive for in our gardens and so far the samples I have tried are fantastic in that regard,” says Bowser. In other competitions that Bowser has judged in the past, they sent him between 40 and 60 strains to judge in seven days. “That is not conducive to a fair evaluation,” says Bowser. “Here, we are getting fourteen or so different strains, so we can sample one strain a day which is how I personally like to do it.”
Bowser is supportive of Cultivation Classic because of their emphasis on the craft industry. “We talk about craft cannabis and breeding craft cultivars at conferences around the country,” says Bowser. “With the rec industry growing so much, we see so many people cutting corners to save money, that it is refreshing to see growers take pride in the craft.” He also stresses the need for good lab testing and sound science in the trade. “I am big on lab testing; it is very important to get all the right analytics when creating strains,” says Bowser. “Cascadia is a solid choice for the competition; they have been a very good, consistent lab.” Emphasizing the local, sustainability-oriented culture surrounding the craft market, Bowser is pleased that this competition supports that same message. “We need to stay true to our Oregon roots and continue to be a clean, green, granola-eating state.”
Cascadia Labs is conducting the pesticide and cannabinoid analytics for all submissions and Phylos Bioscience will perform testing for the winners. According to Julie Austin, operations manager at Cascadia Labs, pesticide testing for the Oregon list of analytes was of course a requirement. “Some of the samples submitted had previous tests from us or from other accredited labs, but if they didn’t have those results we did offer a comprehensive pesticide test,” says Austin. The competition’s fee for submission includes the potency and terpenes analysis.
Jeremy Sackett, director of operations at Cascadia Labs, says they test for 11 cannabinoids and 21 terpenes. The samples are divided into groups of THC-dominant samples, CBD-dominant samples and samples with a 1:1 ratio of the two. “The actual potency data will be withheld from judges and competitors until the day of the event,” says Sackett. “We are data driven scientists, but this time we want to have a little fun and bring the heart of this competition back to the good old days: when quality cannabis was gauged by an experience of the senses, not the highest potency number.” The event will take place on May 12th at Revolution Hall in Portland, Oregon. Click here to get tickets to the event.
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