Starbucks Facing $5 Million Lawsuit Over 'Fruitless' Refresher Drinks

Starbucks Facing $5 Million Lawsuit Over 'Fruitless' Refresher Drinks
Starbucks Center, headquarters for the international coffee and coffeehouse chain, is seen in Seattle, Wash. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)
Katabella Roberts

Starbucks has failed in its efforts to end a consumer lawsuit claiming many of its "refresher" drinks do not actually contain fruit after a U.S. district court judge on Sept. 16 ruled nine causes of action can go ahead, according to a newly published legal filing.

The coffeehouse giant had moved to dismiss the lawsuit, filed in the New York District Court, arguing it misled customers into believing its popular "refresher" drinks contain all of the fruits in their names.

However, U.S. District Judge John P. Cronan last week denied Starbucks’ request, writing in his ruling that the plaintiffs have adequately alleged that "a significant portion of the general consuming public could be misled by the names of the at-issue beverages."

Furthermore, the judge noted that some Starbucks drinks are named after what they actually contain, such as an iced matcha latte containing matcha and a honey citrus mint tea, which contains honey and mint, meaning it is not unreasonable that customers may assume the refresher drinks also contain either actual fruit, fruit concentrate, fruit puree, or fruit essence of the fruit listed.

The judge did, however, dismiss two of the 11 claims brought by the plaintiffs including a fraud claim, after finding no proof that Starbucks intended to defraud consumers.

A second claim alleging unjust enrichment was also dismissed.

The lawsuit against Starbucks was initially filed in August last year by plaintiffs Joan Kominis, of the borough of Queens, in New York, and Jason McAllister, of Fairfield, California, and centers on the following Starbucks "fruit-based" drinks: Mango Dragonfruit Refresher, Mango Dragonfruit Lemonade Refresher, Pineapple Passionfruit, and Pineapple Passionfruit Lemonade, Refreshes, and Strawberry Açai, and Strawberry Açai Lemonade Refreshers.

'Missing Fruit Ingredients Are Important to Consumers'

Plaintiffs allege none of the drinks actually contained the fruit advertised in the name, despite being marketed with images showing "the presence of fruit in the products is central to the products’ identity" and that the coffeehouse chain engaged in false or deceptive marketing.

They further alleged that had they and other consumers been aware that the products were missing one of the named fruits, they "would not have purchased the products or would have paid significantly less for them."

This, the plaintiffs argued, violated their states' consumer protection laws.

The lawsuit states that the "missing fruit ingredients are important to consumers because they are premium ingredients, and consumers value them over the less nutritious and cheaper grape juice concentrate found in the products" at least in part because of "nutritional benefits from each of the respective fruits or their juices."

Starbucks "knew or should have known that the products falsely and deceptively represent to contain certain ingredients that they do not contain," and that consumers "would rely on [Starbucks’s] advertising" such that they would be "willing to pay more for the products based on the belief that the products contain mango, passionfruit, and açai," allowing Starbucks to charge higher prices than they otherwise would be able to charge, the lawsuit alleges.

Plaintiffs are seeking at least $5 million in damages.

Starbucks Moves to Dismiss Claims

In its bid to have the claims dismissed, the Seattle-based coffee chain has argued that "no reasonable consumer would be misled by the names" of the drinks at issue and that the names describe the flavor of the drinks as opposed to the actual ingredients.

It further argues that its menu boards across its chains accurately advertise those flavors.

"Starbucks does not even present images of açai, mango, or passionfruit on its menu boards. Instead, Starbucks simply lists the flavors of the Refreshers from which consumers may choose," the company wrote in a September legal finding.

The coffee chain further argued that customers who were unsure of the drinks could have simply asked baristas for clarification.

"Just as a consumer can inquire about and specify the kind of milk when ordering an espresso-based beverage at Starbucks, so too can a consumer inquire about the ingredients in the Refreshers," lawyers for Starbucks wrote.

"Thus, if a consumer were somehow confused by the Refreshers flavor names, any confusion can be 'sufficiently dispelled' by asking the Starbucks barista questions about the ingredients therein when placing an order."

However, Judge Cronan, in his ruling Tuesday, noted that unlike the term "vanilla," which has been the subject of multiple lawsuits in the past, "nothing before the court indicates that 'mango,' 'passionfruit,' and 'açaí' are terms that typically are understood to represent a flavor without also representing that ingredient."

In an emailed statement to The Epoch Times, a Starbucks spokesperson said: "The allegations in the complaint are inaccurate and without merit. We look forward to defending ourselves against these claims."

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