NEW YORK — Don Barrett, a Mississippi lawyer, took in hundreds of millions of dollars a decade ago after suing Big Tobacco and winning record settlements from R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris, and other cigarette makers. So did Walter Umphrey, Dewitt M. Lovelace, and Stuart and Carol Nelkin.
Ever since, the lawyers have been searching for big paydays in business, scoring more modest wins against car companies, drug makers, brokerage firms, and insurers. Now, they have found the next target: food manufacturers.
More than a dozen lawyers who took on the tobacco companies have filed 25 cases against industry players like ConAgra Foods, PepsiCo, Heinz, General Mills, and Chobani that stock pantry shelves and refrigerators across America.
The suits, filed over the last four months, assert that food makers are misleading consumers and violating federal regulations by wrongly labeling products and ingredients. While they join a barrage of litigation against the industry in recent years, the group of tobacco lawyers is moving aggressively. They are asking a federal court in California to halt ConAgra’s sales of Pam cooking spray, Swiss Miss cocoa products, and some Hunt’s canned tomatoes.
‘‘It’s a crime — and that makes it a crime to sell it,’’ said Barrett, citing what he contends is the mislabeling of those products. ‘‘That means these products should be taken off the shelves.’’
The food companies counter that the suits are without merit, another example of litigation gone wild and driven largely by the lawyers’ financial motivations. Barrett said his group could seek damages amounting to four years of sales of mislabeled products — which could total billions of dollars.
‘‘It’s difficult to take some of these claims seriously, for instance, that a consumer was deceived into believing that a chocolate hazelnut spread for bread was healthy for children,’’ said Kristen E. Polovoy, an industry lawyer at Montgomery McCracken, referring to a lawsuit that two mothers brought against the maker of Nutella. ‘‘I think the courts are starting to look at the implausibility of some of these suits.’’
While the lawyers are being questioned about their motives, they are not alone in pursuing the food industry. In recent weeks, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has filed two lawsuits against General Mills and McNeil Nutritionals over their labeling on Nature Valley and Splenda Essentials products, and warned Welch’s it would sue unless the company changed the wording on its juice and fruit snacks. The Federal Trade Commission won settlements from companies like Dannon and Pom Wonderful for claims about the health benefits of their products.
The new batch of litigation argues that food companies are violating specific rules about ingredients and labels. Barrett’s group, for example, has brought a case against Chobani, the Greek yogurt maker, for listing ‘‘evaporated cane juice,’’ as an ingredient in its pomegranate-flavored yogurt. The Food and Drug Administration has repeatedly warned companies not to use the term because it is ‘‘false and misleading,’’ according to the suit.
“If you’re going to put sugar in your yogurt, why not just say it’s sugar?’’ said Pierce Gore, a lawyer affiliated with Barrett’s group.
Food companies dispute the accusations, defending their packaging and marketing. Nicki Briggs, a spokeswoman for Chobani, said the lawsuit was ‘‘frivolous’’ and ‘‘without merit.’’
Even so, such cases are raising concerns within the industry.
At a recent food and beverage conference attended by more than 100 lawyers, Madeleine M. McDonough, a lawyer at Shook, Hardy & Bacon who is cochairwoman of the agribusiness and food safety practice, warned in a session on fraud litigation that it was imperative for companies to comply with federal regulation. ‘‘Otherwise, we are dead in the water,’’ she said, according to two lawyers who attended the event, including J. Price Coleman, who is working with Barrett’s group.
If the lawsuits prove successful, the liability could be sizable. The lawyers are looking to base damages on products’ sales. While companies do not typically break out figures for individual items, Chobani’s revenues are expected to total $1.5 billion this year. The lawsuit filed by Barrett cites 18 flavors of yogurt, more than half its line.
The lawyers are being selective about where these suits are filed. Most cases have been filed in California, where consumer protection laws tend to favor plaintiffs.
Food companies are already fighting a legal battle in the state, spending tens of millions of dollars to scuttle a ballot initiative that would require them to specify genetically modified ingredients.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers realize that critics may counter that their lawsuits do not have real victims. Barrett fought tobacco cases for years on behalf of smokers dying of cancer — and lost because juries agreed with the tobacco companies that smoking was a personal choice. Not until he and Richard Scruggs sued on behalf of states, which had spent hundreds of millions of dollars caring for sick smokers, did they ultimately win their record settlement.
Consumers like Christine Sturges, one of the plaintiffs in a suit against ConAgra, has gluten allergies and reads labels vigilantly.
When she heard about a lawsuit involving the Pam cooking spray, she took a closer look. ‘‘There was nothing scary on it, just this innocuous word, ‘propellant,’ ’’ said Sturges, a hairdresser from Los Gatos, Calif.
After digging deeper, she learned that ‘‘propellant’’ included petroleum gas, propane, and butane. ‘‘I’d been spraying that on muffin tins to make muffins for my grandchildren — oh, my God!’’