Have you ever had to buy two items packaged together when you only wanted one? Does your perfume or cologne spray too much at a time? Are you paying extra to put air in your tires when you only need a few seconds at the pump? Can you sue someone for this waste?
Innovative lawyers have come up with many creative ways to squeeze money from successful businesses, particularly with product liability class-action suits for very small individual claims which, when aggregated, can provide a large pool of nuisance settlement money to share with the class. One such case is now before a federal appeals court, raising the question whether prescription eye drop medications are administered with an eye dropper whose tip is too big. The theory is that the eye droppers dispense more medication than is really needed, depleting the bottle sooner and making the customer buy more medication.
That’s a little like saying you’re selling me a bigger adhesive bandage than I need because not all cuts are the size of the bandages in the box. It doesn’t hurt me to use a bigger bandage, but why should I pay more for the extra material that I don’t need?
The trial court dismissed this case, saying the alleged injury was too speculative. Undaunted, the plaintiffs appealed, and the Manufacturers’ Center for Legal Action stepped in to support the court’s ruling. We argued that federal law prohibits changing the packaging without approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and even if the court could require smaller eye droppers, the company could price its medication by the number of doses without changing the total price to the consumer.
The case is Cottrell v. Alcon Laboratories, Inc. (3d Cir.). We argued that the plaintiffs received what they were promised: effective, FDA-approved prescription medications, and different packaging would not have guaranteed they would have paid less. But the biggest problem with this case is not that the claim is so speculative, but that product sellers have to hire a team of lawyers to defend it, including expensive appeals that can drag on for years. At risk is virtually any business practice that can be portrayed as inefficient, and the costs of fighting these claims are ultimately borne by customers, employees and investors. The waste alleged in this suit pales in comparison to the waste arising from the prosecution of lawsuits like this in the courts.
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