The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, in an opinion by Chief Judge Riley, found that plaintiffs seeking to represent a class of purchasers of Hebrew National meat products did not have Article III standing because the named plaintiffs failed to allege that the products they themselves purchased were defective.

Eleven named plaintiffs filed suit in Minnesota state court, alleging that Hebrew National, a ConAgra company, falsely advertises its meat products (primarily hot dogs) as kosher.  Plaintiffs based their conclusion that the products were not all kosher on alleged business practices of ConAgra, namely, that employees are pressured to meet a 70% quota for kosher meat, resulting in the inspection process becoming “defective and unreliable,” which causes some “meat from cows that should not qualify for kosher certification…being marked kosher and used in Hebrew National products.”

After removing the case to federal court, ConAgra successfully moved to dismiss the case on the grounds of subject matter jurisdiction because the district court believed that “the determination of whether a product is in fact ‘kosher[]’ [is] intrinsically religious in nature,” and that adjudicating the case “would necessarily intrude upon rabbinical religious autonomy.”

The Eighth Circuit vacated the district court’s order, and remanded it to the district court with instructions to return the case to Minnesota state court for lack of federal jurisdiction.  The Court found that the district court decided the wrong question – what it dubbed as a “difficult First Amendment question of first impression in this circuit.”  The more appropriate question, the Court of Appeals held, was whether or not plaintiffs satisfied the threshold requirement of Article III standing.  The Court found they did not.

In its decision, the Court ruled that even though plaintiffs alleged ConAgra’s business practices caused it to sell meat falsely identified as kosher, these allegations did not establish that all or even most of the Hebrew National products were not kosher.  As a result, plaintiffs could not establish that the particular products they purchased were defective, therefore failing to allege injury in a “personal and individual way.”  The Court went on to note that it was “not enough for a plaintiff to allege that a product line contains a defect or that a product is at risk for manifesting this defect; rather, the plaintiffs must allege that their product actually exhibited the alleged defect.”

This decision seriously undercuts the ability of plaintiffs to bring federal class actions based on allegations that products generally are defective or falsely advertised, absent showing plaintiffs themselves have purchased a defective product.  Unless these plaintiffs can establish they have been injured (above mere speculation), per this decision, they cannot establish an injury-in-fact sufficient to confer Article III standing.