WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - Class actions filed against the world’s largest spice distributor over allegedly misleading pepper packaging will be consolidated in a District of Columbia federal court.

The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation issued a transfer order Dec. 8.

The four-member panel selected the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to handle the lawsuits against McCormick & Co., saying the federal court will serve the “convenience of the parties and witnesses and promote the just and efficient conduct of the litigation.”

“These actions share factual questions about the propriety of McCormick’s pricing and packaging of its pepper products under various federal and state laws,” wrote Sarah Vance, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana and chair of the MDL panel.

“Plaintiffs allege that, although the weights of the product were accurately disclosed on the product labels, McCormick has wrongfully ‘slack-filled’ its black pepper containers and that consumers have either been confused or deceived into believing that they have bought more pepper than they have actually received.”

Rhonda Dupler was one of the first to file a lawsuit against the company. Dupler’s lawsuit, filed in June in a New York federal court, claims the volume of pepper in McCormick’s tins has fallen.

Dupler alleges the company, due to the rising costs of black pepper, decreased the volume of the pepper shipped by 25 percent.

“McCormick deceptively continued selling its ground black pepper product in its traditional-sized tins -- which are now substantially underfilled -- rather than shrinking the size of the tins to a new size that reflects the reduced fill,” the lawsuit states.

Using the same tins deceives its customers into thinking they are getting the same amount of black pepper that they normally purchase, Dupler claims.

The lawsuit acknowledges that the new weight is printed on the bottom of the tins, but otherwise consumers are not informed of the new changes.

A similar lawsuit was filed against McCormick soon after, in July.

According to the MDL panel’s order, the litigation consists of four actions pending in four districts. The panel said it has been notified of nine additional actions filed in various districts.

Vance said in the order that the District of Columbia federal court is the most “appropriate” venue for the litigation.

“McCormick is based near Baltimore, Maryland, so relevant documents and witnesses likely will be found there,” the panel chair wrote in the four-page order.

“The District of District of Columbia, where a potential tag along action is pending, offers a relatively convenient and accessible transferee forum for all parties.”

Vance called Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle, who will oversee the MDL, a judge “well-versed in the nuances of complex and multidistrict litigation.”

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

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