In Golden v. Home Depot, U.S.A., Inc., the plaintiff brought a putative class action alleging, among other things, that Home Depot falsely marketed lumber as "mahogany," when it wasn't genuine mahogany.
The plaintiff claimed that real mahogany comes from several species of trees in the Meliaceae family. The plaintiff said that authentic mahogany is prized for its beauty, durability, color, and ease of use in woodworking. The plaintiff alleged, however, that Home Depot sold "mahogany" from other wood families, such as the wood of Eucalyptus rubusta trees, which is commonly known as "swamp mahogany." This type of wood, according to the plaintiff, is denser and more difficult to work with. The plaintiff also alleged that Home Depot falsely advertised its mahogany board as "premium" and "finest grade."
Home Depot moved to dismiss on various grounds, including that the plaintiff did not sufficiently allege that Home Depot's products were falsely marketed as "mahogany" or that a reasonable consumer would be misled by Home Depot's use of the word "mahogany." The court didn't buy these arguments. The court wrote, "Whether or not a reasonable consumer would expect a specific species of wood when buying mahogany, or whether it is an accepted industry practice to sell wood from trees which are not members of the Meliaceae family as mahogany are questions of fact not amenable to adjudication at this stage of the case on this record."
The court also rejected Home Depot's argument that the terms "premium" and "finest grade" were necessarily non-actionable puffery. Defining "puffery" as "outrageous generalized statements, not making specific claims, that are so exaggerated as to preclude reliance by consumers," the court said that Home Depot's use of these terms could have supported consumers' impressions that they were purchasing a more valuable or useful type of wood than they actually did.
What are the lessons here? First, it's important to make sure that product names and descriptions reflect consumers' reasonable expectations about the product. If the terms you use are subject to multiple interpretations, you may want to choose a different term or give further explanation about what you mean. Second, whether a word is "puffery" is going to depend on context. When describing a product in positive terms, consider whether the words you use will be understood, in context, to convey specific information about the quality, features, or performance of the product. And, finally, before starting your summer woodworking projects, make sure to read the label carefully, so you get exactly what you want.