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California Court Dismisses Arsenic Lawsuit Against Wineries

The suit claiming 83 California wine brands contain dangerous levels of arsenic has been settled in wineries' favor, but plaintiffs' lawyers vow to fight on
The arsenic-in-wine case is over.
Photo by: Thinkstock
The arsenic-in-wine case is over.

Ben O'Donnell
Posted: March 23, 2016

For over a year now, some of California's biggest wine producers stood accused of "poisoning" consumers with excessive levels of arsenic in 83 wine brands. Today, a judge in California's Superior Court in Los Angeles dismissed the case.

The hearing was in response to the plaintiffs' supplemental filing alleging that the wineries were in violation of California labeling laws by not disclosing the presence of arsenic, per a series of regulations known as "Prop. 65." The wineries argued that their current labels, which warn about the dangers of alcohol, meet the law's requirements since there has been no government ruling that the trace levels of arsenic found in wine pose a health risk.

"The wine producers correctly argue that their existing Prop. 65 warnings comply with the Prop. 65 regulatory program," wrote Judge John Shepard Wiley in his decision.

"The well-being of our consumers has always been our top priority," Megghen Driscol, a representative for defendant Treasury Wine Estates, told Wine Spectator. "So we are delighted that the Los Angeles Superior Court has confirmed that the plaintiffs' claims of 'failure to warn of trace levels of arsenic in wine' have no legal merit and was—quite frankly—absurd."

The California Wine Institute issued a statement calling the suit "an unfounded claim that trace amounts of arsenic in wine pose a health threat to consumers."

Lawyers for the plaintiffs in Doris Charles et. al. vs. The Wine Group, Inc., et. al. filed the class-action suit on March 19, 2015, against TWG, Treasury Wine Estates, Trinchero, Fetzer Vineyards and Bronco. The complaint's allegations were based on claims by Beverage Grades, a Denver laboratory, that it found inorganic arsenic in 83 brands, including Franzia, Sutter Home, Beringer, Flipflop, Fetzer, Korbel, Trapiche, Cupcake, Smoking Loon and Charles Shaw, and that the levels were higher than what the EPA allows in drinking water. Wineries were "secretly poisoning wine consumers," argued the complaint.

But, Judge Wiley's decision noted, "[Doris] Charles does not sue for personal injury. She does not claim the arsenic was concentrated enough to have affected her health in some way, or that she has some physical ailment she attributes to the arsenic."

The plaintiffs' amended complaint, filed on Sept. 16, 2015, sought $2,500 per day for every bottle of wine distributed under those labels, damages that could have potentially totaled hundreds of millions of dollars.

On Dec. 15, 2015, the defendants filed a demurrer, a motion to have the case thrown out. The wine labels, they argued, supplied all the legally required information, using the exact suggested language provided by California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment deemed "clear and reasonable" for alcoholic beverages.

After hearing an hour of arguments on Wednesday, Judge Wiley agreed and upheld the demurrer.

The plaintiffs have vowed to fight on. "These defendants never once denied that their wines had extremely high levels of inorganic arsenic, so we plan to continue fighting to protect consumers and ensure that they get accurate information about the wine they’re consuming," said co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs Michael Burg in a statement.

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