Got some breaking (and unfortunate) news: Vibram is being sued in a class action lawsuit over “deceptive claims” associated with the sale of FiveFingers. The case is VALERIE BEZDEK, Individually and on Behalf of All Others Similarly Situated, Plaintiff, v. VIBRAM USA INC. and VIBRAM FIVEFINGERS LLC, Defendants.

The lawsuit.

You can see the filing yourself here (PDF); in fact, I hope you can take a minute to view the allegations. Here are a few of note:

  • Through an extensive, comprehensive, and uniform nationwide marketing campaign, Defendants claim that “scientific research” shows that their expensive FiveFingers (ranging from approximately $80-$125 per pair) will provide “all the health benefits of barefoot running” to anyone who runs in them and that traditional running shoes do not provide such health benefits. Given that Defendants’ advertising and marketing equates barefoot running with running in FiveFingers, Defendants’ uniform deceptive statements about barefoot running are
    also deceptive statements about FiveFingers.
  • Defendants have claimed that running in FiveFingers, inter alia, improves posture and foot health, reduces risk of injury, strengthens muscles in feet and lower legs, and promotes spine alignment. Defendants have used these claims to charge a premium for FiveFingers that consumers readily paid, believing FiveFingers would confer upon them significant health benefits. Unbeknownst to consumers, Defendants’ health benefit claims are deceptive because FiveFingers are not proven to provide any of the health benefits beyond what conventional running shoes provide. (emphasis added)
  • The American Podiatric Medical Association’s position on barefoot running demonstrates how Defendants’ uniform statements are false and deceptive. That position is as follows:

    While anecdotal evidence and testimonials proliferate on the Internet and in the media about the possible health benefits of barefoot running, research has not yet adequately shed light on the immediate and long term effects of this practice.

    Barefoot running has been touted as improving strength and balance, while promoting a more natural running style. However, risks of barefoot running include a lack of protection–which may lead to injuries such as puncture wounds–and increased stress on the lower extremities.

  • Not only is there no reliable data demonstrating that running in FiveFingers will yield the health benefits Defendants say they will yield, but consumers hoping to reap the touted health benefits from FiveFingers must first change the way they have always run with conventional running shoes. With conventional running shoes, the runner runs with a heel-strike manner. But with FiveFingers, a runner must run with a forefoot strike pattern. This process, necessary with FiveFingers, can be long and painful, and can even lead to injuries. As indicated in a recent study by the University of Wisconsin — La Crosse and published by the American Council On Exercise (the “ACE Study”), ‘“If you want to run in Vibrams, you should be prepared to change your gait pattern . . . . If you run in them, give yourself time to acclimate to them and adapt.” Notably, some people may never change their gait.
  • A consumer would only purchase the premium-priced FiveFingers, which requires that consumer to change his/her gait while running, in reliance on Defendants’ uniform deceptive health benefit claims.

It seems the members of the Class exceed 100 individuals, seeking aggregate claims of over $5 million. The named Plaintiff, Valerie Bezdek, apparently bought Bikila FiveFingers on April 13, 2011, “In reliance on the misleading health benefit claims about FiveFingers on Defendants’ website.”

Another substantive allegation I found interesting was that, “[Vibram], intending to capitalize on the rising popularity of barefoot running … launched FiveFingers in the U.S. in or about April 2006.”

The suit repeatedly takes Vibram to task for the “hang tags and brochures accompanying FiveFingers” as deceptive marketing; also, the Internet is cited as a prime medium through which the deceptive marketing was transmitted.

What is going on here?

Is there any merit to these allegations? Do you think it’s reasonable to claim that Vibram was actively deceiving consumers?

I confess that my initial reaction was a little jaded; we live in a litigious society where personal responsibility can be set aside in favor of playing the “victim.” Is it reasonable to assume that someone honestly believed that they could equate wearing a thin rubber soled shoe with being actually barefoot? Has Vibram made such claims?

Meanwhile, just think of all the “conventional” footwear out there making claims to fix your stride, overpronation, underpronation, etc. Are they subject to this sort of scrutiny? Should there be a class action suit against footwear manufacturers at large for impacting one’s natural biological machinery?

What do you make of this? Seems awfully ridiculous to me. I’m eager to hear from any lawyers out there. Any merit to this case?