California’s controversial Prop. 65 has created a cottage industry for plaintiffs’ lawyers looking to cash in by filing frivolous lawsuits. The law requires businesses to put warning labels on products to let customers know they may be exposed to chemicals that could cause cancer. It is so broad that even Disneyland has a cancer warning label. Over the years, businesses of all sizes have found themselves on the receiving end of Prop. 65 lawsuits.
Most recently, plaintiffs’ lawyers brewed up a lawsuit against 90 coffee companies, accusing them of violating the law because coffee contains acrylamide. It’s a naturally occurring chemical, and organizations like the National Cancer Institute have suggested there is no evidence that exposure to acrylamide in foods is a cancer risk. In 2020, a judge threw out the coffee lawsuit for good.
This was a major victory for coffee producers (and those who enjoy a hot cup of joe). But trial lawyers were still able to use Prop 65 to rake in millions of dollars through lawsuits over acrylamide in food. To protect businesses against more frivolous lawsuits, the California Chamber of Commerce filed suit to block the trial bar from continuing to abuse Prop 65 for their financial gain. In April, a federal judge granted a temporary injunction, citing the “unresolved scientific debate” over acrylamide. In her ruling, Judge Kimberly Mueller stated, “…no other public health body has warned that acrylamide in food causes cancer in people or has even reached that conclusion.”
Prop 65 lawsuits like those over food-borne acrylamide might seem ridiculous, but there are real costs to frivolous lawsuits. A recent ILR study showed that small businesses shouldered $182 billion in commercial liability costs in 2018, which is a huge burden for those who need every dollar to stay afloat. No one knows this better than Chuck Jones, owner of Jones Coffee Roasters in Pasadena, California. Chuck was one of the 90 coffee companies sued in the Prop. 65 coffee labeling lawsuit. It took seven years and more than $150,000 for Chuck to fight back.
This issue is bigger than warning labels on coffee cups. Prop. 65 encourages plaintiffs’ lawyers to file lawsuits against businesses because quickly settling will be cheaper than going to court. California lawmakers should consider reforming the law, so it protects consumers and businesses.