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FiveFingers Shoe Company Pays $3.5 Million For Misleading Customers

Vibram's FiveFinger running shoes have developed a strong following among runners who believe minimal cushioning in shoes provides a better running experience, but the company recently settled a lawsuit claiming there was no science backing up their claims. (Patrick Yodarus/Flickr)

Vibram’s FiveFinger running shoes have developed a strong following among runners who believe minimal cushioning in shoes provides a better running experience, but the company recently settled a lawsuit claiming there was no science backing up their claims. (Patrick Yodarus/Flickr)

Vibram USA — the maker of those shoes that look more like rubber gloves with separate compartments for each toe — has agreed to pay $3.5 million settlement in a class action suit for allegedly misleading their customers.

The lawsuit was brought by a woman who says the shoe company claimed to decrease foot injuries and strengthen foot muscles, but had no scientific research to prove it.

The shoe appealed to a niche market of minimalist and barefoot runners, who believe that running with less cushioning in your shoe and closer to the pavement is better for the feet.

The Financial Times’ Cardiff Garcia joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss the lawsuit.

Information on filing a claim will be available at www.fivefingerssettlement.com, once the website is set up.

Guest

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW.

So are you looking for your receipt? A lot of people are, and if you bought those Vibram FiveFinger running kind of slippers after March 21, 2009, you should too, because you could get your money back. Vibram USA claimed the shoes, you know them, they look like gloves for your feet, would prevent injury and strengthen foot muscles. A woman sued, saying where's the science? And now the company has agreed to pay a $3,075,000 settlement.

The Financial Times' Cardiff Garcia is with us from New York. Hi, Cardiff.

CARDIFF GARCIA: Hey, Robin. How are you doing?

YOUNG: I'm fine. And this is interesting because no one is saying they have to stop selling the shoe, just stop making the claims?

GARCIA: That's right. They have to stop making the claims. They have to make their customers aware of the settlement. They have to put it on their website. They have to put it on Facebook and in a few other places. And, of course, they have to, you know, they have to, you know, pay out the money.

I mean, what's interesting about this is that the company continues to deny that it did anything wrong. But essentially it made these claims, and in fact there is no empirical scientific evidence to support them. If anything, there is no scientific evidence to support, you know, either the benefits or the disadvantage to this. It's very good. But the very small scale studies that I have seen point in the other direction, that actually it looks like this actually puts some stress on your feet and that this might actually be dangerous. So I mean, it's all very inconclusive right now.

YOUNG: Right.

GARCIA: But the point is that they made these claims, and there's just no evidence to back them up.

YOUNG: Well, Lenny Bernstein writes in the Washington Post, no, duh. I know these were shoes that originally were made for boaters so that they wouldn't slip on boat decks. You know, why would they be then, therefore good for running? And then along came the barefoot and minimalist running movement, this idea of these lightweight shoes.

GARCIA: That's right.

YOUNG: And the Vibran FiveFinger took off. So how do people file for claims?

GARCIA: So I mean, you're going to be able to do this very simply, I think, on the website Vibran setting up for it or on the Vibran website as it is now. By the way, you're not going to have to - this is interesting - you're not going to actually verify that you bought the shoes, although Vibran reserves the right to essentially request that you prove it just in case somebody tries to fraudulently make that claim. But apparently it's not going to be too difficult.

YOUNG: Well, I just learned something else. It's Vibran, not Vivrun. But it's a vibrant company, as are all the minimalist shoes that followed. But we remember Sketchers had to pay $40 million after their claims of weight loss and heart health were not proven. And those shoes are still being sold. So what do you think - and those were the ones that sort of had a roll in them and they were supposed to make you lose weight, the Sketchers.

GARCIA: Yeah, the Shape Ups.

YOUNG: Yeah. So what do you think is going to happen to the minimalist shoe industry, these glove shoes?

GARCIA: It's hard to say. I mean, this was a fad that's taken off. I think people will continue to try it out. And then, you know, if it turns out that people like it, then they'll keep buying it. But it's really hard to predict in advance how these things take off. And then it's also hard to predict which ones are going to actually have sustainability and which ones are going to, you know, fade away.

So, I mean, in terms of these companies having to pay these settlements and whatnot, I mean, this kind of thing is going to continue. It all depends on the kind of risks that these companies choose to take. And I think consumers should be aware of that. Some companies are better than others at kind of footnoting their claims.

It's like in those commercials that are touting these drugs and how great they'll be, and then at the very end they say very quickly but don't take this if you have heart problems or something like that. You know, I mean, it's kind of a similar situation here. So I think people need to be aware of it. But it's good that every once in a while there's a kind of check on the system and that some consumers will take action.

YOUNG: Don't wear these shoes if you don't want your feet to hurt and you don't want to run into a wall and you don't want to - all these things that they've put it. Cardiff Garcia of the Financial Times, thanks so much.

GARCIA: Thanks, Robin.

YOUNG: And we'll link you up to any information at hereandnow.org. You're listening to HERE AND NOW.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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