UPDATE on the UPDATE: They have settled (2 May 2014)
In 2012, two class actions suits were filed in the USA against Vibram FiveFingers. The first alleges the company used deceptive statements about the health benefits of barefoot running to sell their footwear. The lawsuit asserts that:
1) health benefits claims Vibram FiveFingers has used to promote the shoes are deceptive
2) that FiveFingers may increase injury risk as compared to running in conventional running shoes, and even when compared to running barefoot
3) that there are no well-designed scientific studies that support FiveFingers claims.
The second case made similar allegations. While there was plenty of debate on forums and blogs at the time the first suit was announced about the merits of the case with plenty of armchair expert opinion and wishful thinking from fan boys, which was largely uninformed or ill-informed. Even some lawyers pontificated that the case had no merit.
In the first case above, Vibram recently filed to get the case dismissed. The judges ruling last week was to dismiss the motion and proceed to trial.
Some of the comments from the judge’s ruling do not auger well for Vibram when or if it goes to full trial. While this was just a ruling on the motion to dismiss, the judge obviously heard from both the plantiff’s and defendant’s attorneys on the evidence of the health gains on barefoot running and ruled:
In order to survive a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.“
I find the allegations of falsity or deception sufficient
Claiming that wearing FiveFingers provides the scientifically-corroborated health benefits of barefoot running is no less deceptive than claiming that the shoes provide some sort of intrinsic health benefit if the claimed benefits do not exist or lack scientific support
In short, as alleged in the complaint, doubts about the health benefits of barefoot running—and whether those benefits have any grounding in science—are no secret. Vibram, in fact, actively involved itself in research, making it unlikely the company was ignorant of the status of scientific knowledge. To the extent Vibram nevertheless made misleading statements about the health benefits of FiveFingers or the scientific support for those benefits, the complaint allows for the reasonable inference that Vibram did so knowingly.
Obviously the judge, when presented with arguments from both sides considered the case had merit (a very strong merit!).
What do I think of all this?
Vibram made health claims for a product. If any health claims are made for a product do not have scientific evidence to back them up or do not eventuate to the user, then disgruntled users have every right to litigate. That is the USA legal system (which we could debate the actual merits of that later!). Despite all of the rhetoric and propaganda, there is no evidence that barefoot running is better for you.
The more traditional running shoe companies generally do not make explicit health claims (ie reduced injury risk) for their shoes. They make claims about “impact reduction“, “facilitating motion” etc, but do not link those to any explicit health claims. If you don’t believe me, search their websites and look at all the running shoe adverts in the last few years in Runners World magazine. The only running shoe companies making health claims are the minimalist shoes manufacturers, leaving themselves wide open to this sort of litigation, not to mention a Federal Trade Commission investigation (just ask Skechers and Reebok about how many million dollars that they had to settle with them for the unsupported health claims that they made for their toning shoes).
The conspiracy nutters have also been let loose on this one as well on some barefoot blogs and forums where I have seen a number of allegations that Nike or Asics are behind this. How do they expect to be taken seriously if they make up these sorts of silly allegations?
The case has also exposed the deep divide in what I repeatably claim is the misuse, misrepresentation, misquoting and misinterpretation of the science by many who do not know how to properly read, critically appraise and understand scientific research. If you follow a number of blogs and running forum threads on this, many posters were quite adamant that the suit would get quickly thrown out due to all the evidence that supports barefoot running. I do not know of any research that supports barefoot running over traditional shoe running!¹ Obviously the judge agreed when it was put to him (that is unless you believe that Nike or Adidas or Asics paid him off ☺ ).
As always, I go where the evidence takes me until convinced otherwise, and it looks as though the judge in this case is doing the same.
POSTSCRIPT: I just reported on a study that showed increased bone stress injury in the group that transitioned to the Vibram FiveFingers. As the transition protocol followed in the study was taken directly from the Vibram FiveFingers website, this is not a good sign for Vibram in this class action.
¹I was going to do a separate blog post on the alleged evidence that shows barefoot running is better than shod running. However, it would be blank as there is no evidence.