(New York Times) Over the years, if you’ve ever had Poland Spring water, you probably made the reasonable assumption that you were drinking water that was, in fact, from a spring.
You might have even imagined a spring in Maine much like the one flowing through a green hillside on the familiar logo of the country’s largest bottled spring water brand.
But that is not so, according to allegations in a lawsuit that a judge mostly allowed to move forward on Thursday.
Instead, the class-action lawsuit contends that Nestlé Waters’s marketing and sales of what it advertises as “100% Natural Spring Water” has been “a colossal fraud perpetrated against American consumers.”
“Not one drop” of Poland Spring water actually qualifies as spring water, the lawsuit says. It is common groundwater that has been illegally mislabeled in order to “reap massive undue sales.” The result is that Poland Spring water has become “the dominant brand in a market in which it does not even belong,” the suit says.
On Friday, a spokeswoman for Nestlé Waters North America said it was aware of the court’s decision but had not yet had a chance to thoroughly review it.
The company insists that its product is 100 percent natural spring water, citing what it called an independent investigation last year by a law firm that “confirmed that Poland Spring Brand spring water sources meet all F.D.A. regulations defining spring water.”
The 325-page lawsuit, filed in United States District Court in Connecticut, seeks an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages as well as a permanent injunction preventing Nestlé Waters from continuing the alleged fraud.
It also makes a number of allegations that might surprise even the most jaded bottled water consumer.
The suit contends that the famous Poland Spring in Maine, which the company claims is a source of the water, effectively ran dry nearly 50 years ago.
It claims that the company built and maintained six “phony, man-made ‘springs’” to comply with the law. It also alleges that one or more of the company’s wells are near a present or former human waste dump, landfill or other similar site.
Put another way, those famous Poland Spring images of water on a verdant hillside are misleading and deceptive, the lawsuit said.
“Water is going to be one of the most important issues in the world,” said Steve Williams, a lawyer for the 12 plaintiffs from various northeastern states. “It’s vitally important to consumers to be told the truth.”
In its own court documents, Nestlé Waters said that various state regulators had already determined that Poland Spring water complies with the Food and Drug Administration’s so-called identity standard and has authorized the labeling and sale of the water as spring water. On those grounds, the company asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit, or at least dismiss it in deference to the F.D.A.
The brand’s sales in the United States were approximately $400 million in 2007 and have been between $300 million and $900 million annually for each of the past 11 years, the class-action lawsuit said. At least 13 million consumers nationwide buy Poland Spring water, it added.
Nestlé Waters has faced other allegations of false advertising related to Poland Spring water. In recent years, the company has faced scrutiny as it sought to continue taking millions of gallons of water for its Arrowhead brand from a national forest in California, even as the state recovered from a prolonged drought.
The plaintiffs in the most recent Poland Spring lawsuit filed their first complaint in August 2017, which Judge Jeffrey Alker Meyer dismissed in May 2018 on the grounds that their claims, as framed at the time, were all pre-empted by federal law.
But in the order Judge Meyer handed down on Thursday, he said that the plaintiffs had reframed their claims under an amended complaint in July 2018. The judge granted Nestlé’s motion to dismiss claims related to Vermont law, but he denied the company’s other motions to dismiss the lawsuit.
Nestlé Waters remained insistent on Friday. “We remain highly confident in our legal position and will continue to defend our Poland Spring Brand vigorously against this meritless lawsuit,” the company’s statement said. “Consumers can be confident in the accuracy of the labels on every bottle of Poland Spring, and that Poland Spring Brand natural spring water is just what it says it is — 100 percent natural spring water.”
(Reporting by Matt Stevens)