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Coca-Cola, Minute Maid Must Defend False Advertising Lawsuit

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KANSAS CITYA lawsuit that alleges The Coca-Cola Company falsely advertised its orange juice products are natural is not barred by federal law and can proceed with limited discovery, a federal judge in Missouri has ruled.

Fernando J. Gaitan, Jr., Chief U.S. District Judge, denied Coca-Cola's motion to toss the complaint, which includes 13 cases that relate to Simply Orange Juice, Minute Maid Pure Squeezed and Minute Maid Premium.

Coca-Cola, the world's largest beverage company, must continue to defend itself from allegations that its juice products are not natural, rendering false such adverting claims as "100% pure squeezed", "never from concentrate" and "100% orange juice". The combined complaint includes plaintiffs from Alabama, California, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey and New York, Bloomberg reported.

In a motion to dismiss the complaint, Coca-Cola argued the plaintiffs' claims were preempted by the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) and separately barred by a doctrine that prevents parties from asking for a ruling from a judge or jury that a practice is deceptive or unlawful if it is expressly permitted by law.

Coca-Cola also declared the lawsuit should be dismissed because the plaintiffs didn't allege they saw the advertisements and didn't suffer "injury in fact". The beverage giant further argued certain statements were protected because they were "indisputably true or non-actionable commercial puffery."

The judge rejected Coca-Cola's arguments. Although he acknowledged federal law preempts states from imposing any requirement for foods subject to a standard of identity that is different from U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations, Gaitan said state requirements are not preempted if they are identical to FDA's standard of identity.

"In this case, the claims which Plaintiffs assert either seek to enforce state laws that impose requirements identical to those imposed by the FDCA and the NLEA [Nutrition Labeling and Education Act] or cover matters not directly within the scope of those laws," the judge wrote. "Accordingly, Plaintiffs' claims are not preempted."

Gaitan rejected the premise that plaintiffs needed to rely on the advertisements in order to bring their claims against Coca-Cola because he said reliance is not necessary "where misrepresentations and false statements are part of an extensive and long-term advertising campaign".

The parties were ordered to submit a joint proposed discovery plan by April 1.

In his order, Gaitan stated discovery was limited to the following: "whether Defendants' products contain synthetic flavors or orange pulp, oil, or essence at levels significantly in excess of those found in raw processed orange juice or otherwise permitted by FDA regulations and whether Defendants add to their not-from-concentrate orange juice products any water-soluble constituents of orange essence."

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