Plaintiffs can no longer base Missouri Merchandising Practices Act (“MMPA”) claims on sales “puffery”—i.e., exaggerated statements upon which no reasonable consumer would rely, or vague or highly subjective claims of product superiority.

Purple_balloon_(3635567740)That’s the message from Hurst v. Nissan N. Am., Inc., No. WD 78665, 2016 WL 1128297 (Mo. Ct. App. Mar. 22, 2016). In Hurst, Plaintiffs alleged that Nissan violated the MMPA by making representations that “tended to create a false impression” about the quality of its “FX” sport utility vehicles, some of which developed dashboard bubbling from heat and humidity. Id. at *3. In particular, the FX’s marketing materials displayed FX dashboards and stated that the FX contained “premium automotive machinery” and “room for everything except compromise” and that the FX was “a superior product representing excellent value,” “uncompromising,” and “premium.” Id. at *4.

The trial court certified a class of 326 Missourians who purchased Infiniti’s FX35 and FX45 sport utility vehicles in Missouri, and the jury returned a verdict of $2,000 per class member. Id. at *1. The trial court then denied Nissan’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict based on the fact that the alleged statements were inactionable puffery. Id.

The Missouri Court of Appeals reversed. The Court held that, although the MMPA bars “assertion[s] not in accord with the facts” and deceptions in advertising that “create a false impression,” “[t]o be actionable, [a] statement must be a ‘specific and measurable claim, capable of being proved false or of being reasonably interpreted as a statement of objective fact.’” Id. at *9. In other words, what courts often call “puffery”—exaggerations, sales propaganda, and expressions of opinion—are not actionable misrepresentations under the MMPA. Id.

Until Hurst, no Missouri state court had decided whether the puffery doctrine applied to MMPA cases. Indeed, Plaintiffs argued that the Court should not apply the puffery doctrine to MMPA claims because Missouri law defined puffery as “exaggerated statements of bluster or boast upon which no reasonable consumer would rely,” and the MMPA does not require reliance. Id. (emphasis added). But the Court rejected this argument, reasoning that even though MMPA plaintiffs need not show individualized reliance, they “cannot base their claims on alleged misrepresentations upon which no reasonable consumer would rely”:

It is unnecessary for this court to declare that the puffery doctrine applies in all MMPA cases. We are confident that in this case the statements made by Nissan are not actionable under the MMPA. The Missouri Supreme Court has declared that “[p]uffing of wares, sales propaganda, and other expressions of opinion are common, are permitted and should be expected.” Clark, 726 S.W.2d at 720. All of the statement made by Nissan in this case are vague and highly subjective claims of product superiority and are not representations that are not in accord with the facts regarding the quality of the vehicle and are not representations that tend to create a false impression regarding the quality of the vehicle. Indeed, to hold Nissan liable in this case under the MMPA would result in Nissan being liable to consumers because the consumers deemed their expectations unmet and would essentially obviate Nissan’s limited warranty because basically everything would be guaranteed forever.

Hurst v. Nissan N. Am., Inc., No. WD 78665, 2016 WL 1128297, at *9 (Mo. Ct. App. Mar. 22, 2016) (emphasis added).

In sum, although the Court did not explicitly extend the puffery doctrine to all cases under the MMPA, going forward, plaintiffs will face significant if not insurmountable hurdles if they bring MMPA claims based on vague or subjective claims of product superiority.

 

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