Fans of kitchen gadgets and doodads, prepare yourselves for bad news: A series of lawsuits have been filed against the makers of the high-powered infomercial-famous NutriBullet blender--sorry: "Nutrient Extractor."
Dearly as I love a good extracted nutrient, the lawsuits make troubling claims that several of the products have seriously and harmfully malfunctioned during use. The injured plaintiffs and their attorneys have asked the company to issue a recall, but so far NutriBullet hasn't complied and their press statements suggest they don't plan to.
As of now, 22 plaintiffs have come forward with allegations that exploding blenders caused them serious burns and lacerations. Let's dig a little deeper into the lawsuit and consider how it might go.
Which Products Are Affected?
No specific variant of the NutriBullet system is named by the lawsuit. Of the four types available for purchase on their website, only the original has no suffix (the other types are the NutriBullet Pro, Lean, and Rx, each of which allegedly boasts unique features). With the lowest price point of all four models, it's probable that the malfunctioning devices were mostly base-model blenders. However, since the company refuses to acknowledge the problem, won't issue a recall, and is contesting the lawsuit, that can't be confirmed.
What's Wrong With The Products?
During normal use, NutriBullet owners put a few ingredients (vegetables, nuts, fruits) into a plastic cup, along with liquid if the goal is to make a drink. Once the ingredients are in the cup, it is capped with a base that houses the blade which will liquefy the cup's contents. The sealed container, screwed shut with the blades inside, is then inverted and placed into a motorized base. There is no on/off switch; rather, the user presses down on the plastic cup to trigger the spinning blades, and lifts it again when the ingredients are mixed. The process should take no more than a few seconds, according to the included instructions.
As mentioned, plaintiffs say that their NutriBullets exploded during the normal use described above, spewing heated liquids and exposing the blades which spin at 10,000 RPM or more. Between the hot liquids, the explosive pressure, and the high-speed manicure, several users suffered serious injuries.
Fox News recently aired a short segment about the lawsuits--be warned, some of the injuries shown in the piece are graphic.
The company is protesting the lawsuits in court, asserting that many--even all--of the allegations are unjustified. Their legal department has issued a series of statements addressing the suit:
"Reports of our blenders causing injury are extremely rare...We typically find customers have failed to adhere to the operating instructions and warnings provided."
Here's another one in a similar vein:
"Reports of blenders, which have operated normally for years, suddenly turning cool ingredients into scalding hot mixtures after less than 20 seconds of normal operation are perplexing and contrary to the hundreds of millions of uses by satisfied NutriBullet customers worldwide."
And in response to a specific claim from plaintiff Rosa Rivera about an exploding NutriBullet that badly burned her face, the company said:
"Customer safety and satisfaction are paramount at NutriBullet, and we were saddened to learn about Ms. Rivera's accident. Unfortunately, her attorneys are attempting to sway public opinion about a safe and effective product by orchestrating a publicity campaign making the NutriBullet appear dangerous. There have been hundreds of millions of uses by satisfied NutriBullet customers worldwide, who have simply followed the provided operating instructions and warnings. We will work with Ms. Rivera's attorneys to determine the cause of her accident."
If the tone of these releases seems familiar, it's because "It's not us, it's you" is the standard party line companies use to dodge responsibility. We see it all the time in product liability cases, from firearms to jelly beans. Because it's so easy to turn the tables and accuse injured users of overzealously or incorrectly using a product--failing to have proper trigger discipline, not checking ingredient labels, or inappropriately handling an inverted plastic cup with a circular saw in it--defendants often make compelling cases for how plaintiffs' injuries are of their own making.
Perhaps I'm oversensitive to these things, but in each of those releases I detect subtle suggestions that the plaintiffs are either ignorant or simply looking for a payday: "Customers have failed..." "Reports are perplexing and contrary..." "Simply followed the provided instructions and warnings..." In these statements where it politely defends itself, the company also subtly introduces doubt about who's to blame in the minds of potential jurors. NutriBullet weighed the risks of mildly insulting its customer base, implying some of them aren't able to hold a cup upside-down and count to twenty, against the possible cost of paying people injured by their products. Hurt feelings are on the whole cheaper and more easily forgotten than thousands of dollars' worth of apology money.
Will the Lawsuit Work?
That's hard to say. People are hurt, and given the nature and timing of their injuries it'd be hard to say the blenders weren't involved at all. The question is really whether the NutriBullet actually malfunctioned in a way that could have been foreseen or prevented--or whether the manufacturers can successfully argue that distraction or misunderstanding on the plaintiffs' part caused the damages.
For instance, plaintiff Sheryl Utal indicated that her NutriBullet exploded one arbitrary morning after years' worth of faithfully turning solids into nutritious slurry every day. While I feel terrible that ""It just came flying out all over [her], all over the kitchen, the ceilings, the walls...and it was on [her] chest. It also had hit [her] in the face as well," I can't help but wonder how on this day of all days, after hundreds of successful uses, suddenly the product with 100% prior success rate overheated and exploded. Reports weren't clear on how long the other plaintiffs had used their products, but if their stories are similar that could be considered a factor. Whether or not you're of the opinion that "they don't make 'em like they used to," most contemporary kitchen devices aren't built to last forever, and can't reasonably be expected to.
According to the suit's allegations, a central issue with the NutriBullets is that the chamber with the ingredients to blend has no pressure-release method; once held down on the base unit, the cup is airtight. That's necessary to avoid making a mess, but it does mean that the heat created by the high-speed motor, coupled with that made by the blade's friction with the solid matter, builds pressure within the cup and heats any liquids in the chamber. In worst-case scenarios, this creates potential for the rocket-like "liftoff" of the blending cup, sending scalding water onto the exposed hands and faces of users. Moreover, the spinning blades can catch those same exposed hands once the cup is loose from the base. Unlucky nutrient enthusiasts could suffer second-degree burns or serious lacerations.
The plaintiffs' attorney maintains that this pressurization and "dethreading" (where the cup comes unscrewed from its bladed lid) is a manufacturing defect, suggesting a breach of warranty by NutriBullet. As noted above, NutriBullet vehemently denies there's anything wrong with the product, impatiently citing the "hundreds of millions" of successful uses by customers across the globe. Twenty-two people (so far) out of hundreds of millions, a fraction of a fraction, might lead a jury to think that the injuries was user-created, which would likely mean a judgment in favor of the defendant.
However, that's all just speculation. Analysis of the (possibly) faulty units and attempts to recreate the (alleged) malfunction in controlled settings will have a lot more influence than my opinions on the matter. After all, the plaintiffs' counsel raises a good point: Using the blender normally creates an inevitable buildup of pressure within the blending cup, but no safeguard was created to stop the sudden and violent release of that pressure. There's a possible argument for flawed design there, so I don't want to suggest that the plaintiffs should give up without trying.