Legal Roundup: A Step Forward for Flint’s Water Crisis, Kit Kat Chocolate Up for Debate and More

The latest court cases and their impact on the risk management and insurance industry.
By: | August 4, 2020

White Kit Kat Doesn’t Need to Be White Chocolate After All

The Case: Americans might not know it, but there are more than 200 flavors of Kit Kat candy bars in Japan alone.

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From green tea to wasabi, the flavors are starkly different than the classic flavors seen on American store shelves since 1935.

As the brand broadened its American flavor offerings, it began selling Kit Kat White. But when one woman bit into the candy bar, she was expecting white chocolate, not milk chocolate.

She sued for being allegedly misled by the brand. 

A federal judge in New York’s Eastern District dismissed the proposed class action lawsuit.

Legal Newsline reports: “Hershey never claimed white Kit Kats are made with the amount of cocoa that defines what is white chocolate. Instead, the package only claims they are ‘white.’ ”

Judge Kiyo Matsumoto “turned to the Merriam-Webster dictionary to point out white is ‘the color of new snow or milk,’ ” and said, there is no dispute that the Kit Kat White is, as the modifying adjective suggests, white in color.”

Scorecard: Candy companies have been frequent targets of potential class actions for false or misleading claims. But those cases have yielded mixed results.

Tootsie Roll Industries was sued because consumers claimed that Junior Mints boxes were filled with approximately 40% air — but the case was dismissed because the weight is clearly marked on the box.

A judge fined Ghirardelli and Russell Stover $750,000 and forced them to change their packaging because the dead space in their packaging was seen as misleading.

Takeaway: There’s a sense of trust built between consumer and product manufacturer. But if that trust seems to be broken by alleged misleading information or false advertising, the manufacturer might be required to be held to a higher standard … and deal with a lawsuit.

Family of Fallen Health Care Worker Sues for Workers’ Comp Benefits

The Case: During the fight against COVID-19, James “Mike” Anderson worked at St. Mary Medical Center outside Philadelphia, changing air filters in patient rooms and assisting in other types of cleaning.

In April, he died of acute respiratory distress syndrome from COVID-19. Now, his family is suing for workers’ compensation benefits.

Kaiser Health News reports: “Anderson was exposed to the virus at work, the lawyer contends, making his family eligible for workers’ compensation death benefits paid by his employer’s insurer.” The employer denied all allegations.

Scorecard: The case has just recently been filed and has not yet come to a resolution.

Takeaway: There is a high chance families of fallen or sickened health care workers will sue for workers’ compensation or other benefits in the wake of the pandemic.

KHN reports that “health care workers including nurses’ aides, physician assistants and maintenance workers — have faced denials or long-shot odds of getting benefits paid,” because COVID-19 is treated like a cold or flu and isn’t covered in some states.

“Other states force workers to prove they caught the virus at work, rather than from a family member or in the community.”

But lawmakers are changing the paradigm, the publication reported. “In at least 16 states and Puerto Rico, officials have passed measures to make it easier for workers infected with the coronavirus to qualify for benefits for lost wages, hospital bills or death. Similar bills are pending in other states, but some face opposition from business groups over costs.”

Court Won’t Unseal Documents on Facebook Encryption

The Case: Should Facebook help police spy on people suspected of criminal offenses?

The Wiretap Act “requires phone companies to help police listen to calls” and “could be used to make Facebook break the end-to-end encryption that protects voice calls placed over Facebook Messenger,” according to Reuters.

After a court allowed Facebook to avoid wiretapping a criminal suspect, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others sued to unseal the ruling.

Scorecard: The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to direct the lower court to publish its ruling. 

Takeaway: As forms of communication evolve, so too will the way authorities use them to find evidence against potential suspects. Reviewing privacy protection laws is paramount in deciding what is just in such cases.

Flint Residents Allowed to Sue Public Officials Over Tainted Water

The Case: In 2014, Flint, Michigan began sending water from the Flint River into people’s homes.

The results were disastrous.

The water corroded old pipes, smelled foul and appeared brown or yellow in color. It led to health problems like high lead levels in children’s blood, hair falling out and skin rashes.

In response, a group of residents whose health and property were harmed by the incident sued public officials behind the scandal.

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Still, it was unclear if the case could proceed. The Associated Press reports: “The lawsuit names then-Gov. Rick Snyder, two former Flint government managers appointed by Snyder and public agencies that repeatedly assured the public that the water was safe.”

Scorecard: The Michigan Supreme Court ruled that the case could, indeed, proceed. The AP called it a “legal milestone,” allowing the residents to claim diminished property values.

“Residents also can argue that their right to bodily integrity was violated by the use of corrosive water from the Flint River.”

The article quoted Justice Richard Bernstein as saying, “plaintiffs in this case raise some of the most disturbing allegations of malfeasance by government actors in Michigan’s history.”

Takeaway: The case could bring some closure and resolution to a well-publicized public health crisis. It could also set a precedent for future cases regarding the transparency of decision-making by public officials. &

Jared Shelly is a journalist based in Philadelphia. He can be reached at [email protected]

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]