Don Barrett, a Mississippi lawyer, took in hundreds of millions of dollars a decade ago after suing Big Tobacco and winning record settlements from R. J. Reynolds, Philip Morris and other cigarette makers. So did Walter Umphrey, Dewitt M. Lovelace and Stuart and Carol Nelkin.
Ever since, the lawyers have been searching for big paydays in business, scoring more modest wins against car companies, drug makers, defective medical devices, brokerage firms and insurers. Now, they have found the next target: food manufacturers.
More than a dozen lawyers who took on the tobacco companies have filed 25 cases against industry players like ConAgra Foods, PepsiCo, Heinz, General Mills and Chobani that stock pantry shelves and refrigerators across America.
The suits, filed over the last four months, assert that food makers are misleading consumers and violating federal regulations by wrongly labeling products and ingredients. While there has been a barrage of litigation against the industry in recent years, the tobacco lawyers are moving particularly aggressively. They are asking a federal court in California to halt ConAgra’s sales of Pam cooking spray, Swiss Miss cocoa products and some Hunt’s canned tomatoes.
The food companies counter that the suits are without merit, another example of litigation gone wild and driven largely by the lawyers’ financial motivations. Mr. Barrett said his group could seek damages amounting to four years of sales of mislabeled products — which could total many billions of dollars.
“It’s difficult to take some of these claims seriously, for instance, that a consumer was deceived into believing that a chocolate hazelnut spread for bread was healthy for children,” said Kristen E. Polovoy, an industry lawyer at Montgomery McCracken, referring to a lawsuit that two mothers brought against the maker of Nutella. “I think the courts are starting to look at the implausibility of some of these suits.”