If you are a runner, or have any runner friends, you have likely heard the latest news about the strange-looking, glove-like FiveFingers shoes. These shoes, sold by parent company Vibram, were all the rage in the running world just a few years ago. Said to emulate the effects of "barefoot running", these shoes were embraced by 70 million Americans due to claims that using the shoes would support foot health by strengthening muscles and improving range of motion, balance and posture while running. Sounds good, right? Too good to be true, unfortunately.
A $3.75 million settlement was recently announced in a class action lawsuit against Vibram. Plaintiffs claimed unfair and deceptive trade practices were used to sell FiveFingers since the proposed health benefits were not based on scientific research. While not necessarily financially substantial considering the number of potential class members, the settlement was successful in prohibiting Vibram from making any future claims about the health benefits of the FiveFingers shoes without "competent and reliable scientific evidence".
This case is the latest in a series of shoe related class action suits. In 2012, Sketchers paid a $40 million settlement related to unfounded claims related to their "Shape-Up" shoe line. Reebok reached a $25 million settlement in 2011 for deceptively advertising a similar "toning shoe" product. In a news release about the Reebok case David Vladeck, Director of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said, "The FTC wants national advertisers to understand that they must exercise some responsibility and ensure that their claims for fitness gear are supported by sound science."
The purpose of these types of cases is not to get rich, but rather to modify corporate behavior through legal action. It is the responsibility of citizens, and those in the legal community, to hold corporations accountable to consumer protection laws. Regulations differ by state, but in North Carolina, the Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practice Act provides for a company to be fined up to $5,000 per misrepresentation.
When making purchasing decision, especially for health/fitness related products, you should carefully evaluate advertising claims. Check out these Tips for Buying Exercise Equipment from the FTC that can help you recognize claims you should watch for.
Brian Kinsley is the Mass Tort/Products Liability Practice Group Leader at Crumley Roberts. He is a Massachusetts native but now calls Winston-Salem, North Carolina home. When not at work, he enjoys cooking and spending time outdoors with his family.Free Initial Consultation