NEW HAVEN, Conn. (Legal Newsline) - One of the leading bottled water brands has been accused of fraud, false advertising and violating consumer protection laws for allegedly selling ordinary groundwater as spring water, according to a proposed class action filed in federal court last month.

A group of plaintiffs filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut Aug. 15. The named defendant is Nestle Waters North America Inc., based in Stamford, Conn.

According to its website, Nestle Waters is the third largest non-alcoholic beverage company, with 28 bottled water facilities across the U.S. and annual revenues of $4.5 billion in 2016.

The plaintiffs contend Nestle Waters, a unit of the giant Swiss food and beverage conglomerate Nestle S.A., has mislabeled or otherwise misrepresented its Poland Spring brand “100% Natural Spring Water,” thereby “deceiving and misleading consumers into purchasing that product or paying more for it than they would if the product was accurately labeled.”

“For more than 20 years, Nestle Waters’ marketing and sales of Poland Spring Water has been a colossal fraud perpetrated against American consumers. To consumers, ‘spring water’ from a naturally occurring spring signifies purity and high quality and commands a premium price compared to Defendant’s non-spring drinking water products or filtered tap water,” the plaintiffs wrote in a 300-plus-page complaint.

“To illicitly capture that premium, Defendant, since it began selling the Poland Spring brand in 1993, has bottled common groundwater and illegally mislabeled it as ‘100% Natural Spring Water.’”

Not one drop of the Poland Spring Water emanates from a water source that complies with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s definition of “spring water,” according to the complaint.

“Each year Defendant misidentifies hundreds of millions of gallons of Poland Spring Water as ‘spring water,’ and for many years it has misrepresented on every Poland Spring Water label that the water in the bottle came from one or more of eight purported ‘natural springs’ in Maine,” the plaintiffs allege.

“Rather than being ‘100% Natural Spring Water’ as Defendant’s labels advertise, and rather than being collected from pristine mountain or forest springs as the images on those labels depict, Poland Spring Water products all contain ordinary groundwater that Defendant collects from wells it drilled in saturated plains or valleys where the water table is within a few feet of the earth’s surface.”

According to the complaint, FDA regulations require all bottled spring water to be collected either at the source of a naturally occurring spring or from a well that extracts water that could otherwise exit the earth’s surface from a natural spring if not drawn from the well.

“In hydrogeological parlance, all such well water must be ‘hydraulically connected’ to a genuine spring. All such well water also must have ‘the same’ physical and chemical characteristics as the water emerging from the spring,” the plaintiffs explained. “Not one ounce of Defendant’s Poland Spring Water complies with the law’s mandates.”

The lawsuit alleges Nestle Waters -- a self-described “leading Healthy Hydration Company” -- has built and maintains “phony, man-made ‘springs’” to feign compliance with FDA regulations.

“Defendant has created artificial springs (i) by causing well water to flow artificially through pipes or plastic tubes into wetlands that contain no genuine springs; (ii) by inserting small wells into the ground to tap the water table and artificially force groundwater to the surface; and (iii) by maintaining excavated pits in the ground that intercept the water table to form man-made pools,” the plaintiffs wrote.

But genuine springs, they explained, must have a “natural orifice” through which water “flows naturally” to the surface, without human assistance.

“By faking the existence of springs, Defendant is defrauding its consumers,” according to the complaint.

Not to mention, the plaintiffs allege, one or more wells at each of the company’s six largest volume groundwater collection sites in Maine are near a present or former human waste dump, refuse pit, landfill, ash pile, salt mound, farm where pesticides were previously used, fish hatchery or toxic petroleum dump site.

“Such areas are near all four of Defendant’s most productive well sites -- those in Poland Spring, Hollis, Poland and Fryeburg, from which Defendant collectively pumps 80 percent of its Poland Spring Water,” they wrote.

The plaintiffs contend Nestle Waters conceals the fact it is collecting ordinary groundwater by shielding its source wells and purported “springs” from public view -- behind trees or shrubs, locked fences and gates.

“Through its more than two decades-long pattern of deception, Defendant has built its Poland Spring Water brand into the country’s largest bottled spring water brand,” the lawsuit states. “Poland Spring Water’s market share exceeds 50 percent in its primary marketing region, the northeastern United States. Poland Spring Water sales in the U.S. were approximately $400 million in 2007 and have been between $300 million and $900 million annually for each of the past nine years.

“Currently, at least 13 million consumers nationwide buy Poland Spring Water under false and deceptive circumstances every year.”

The proposed class includes all consumers of Poland Spring Water nationwide who have purchased Poland Spring Water since Nov. 5, 2003, excluding Defendant’s own personnel and agents, as well as a sub-class of home and office consumers and eight sub-classes of PET, or retail, market consumers in the brand’s primary marketing territory consisting of the northeastern states of New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

The plaintiffs are seeking a judgment awarding compensatory and punitive damages, and permanent injunctive relief.

Judge Jeffrey A. Meyer is overseeing the case.

“For more than 170 years, Poland Spring® has delivered great tasting spring water from Maine to millions of people in the Northeast. The claims made in the lawsuit are without merit and an obvious attempt to manipulate the legal system for personal gain,” a spokesperson for Nestle Waters told Legal Newsline. “Poland Spring® is 100 percent spring water. It meets the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations defining spring water, all state regulations governing spring classification for standards of identity, as well as all federal and state regulations governing spring water collection, good manufacturing practices, product quality and labeling. 

“We remain highly confident in our legal position.”

Day Pitney LLP, in Stamford, is listed as counsel for the defendant. 

Meyer recently granted the company’s motion for extension of time, given it until Oct. 6 to respond to the plaintiffs’ complaint.

New York law firm Cotchett Pitre & McCarthy LLP, Los Angeles firm Susman Godfrey LLP, West Hartford, Conn., firm Izard Kindall & Raabe LLP and New Jersey attorney Alexander H. Schmidt are listed as counsel for the plaintiffs.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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