A proposed class action filed this week claims Cottonelle flushable wipes manufactured by Kimberley-Clark Corporation were contaminated with a rare strain of bacteria that can cause symptoms ranging from minor skin irritation to severe infections.
According to the case, Kimberley-Clark recalled certain lots of its Cottonelle Flushable Wipes and Cottonelle GentlePlus Flushable Wipes products in October 2020 after consumers reported a range of complications associated with using the wipes. Product testing performed by the company apparently revealed that some of the wipes had been contaminated with “a dangerous bacterial strain” called Pluralibacter gergoviae—a rare bacterium that, as the case tells it, can cause infections that are particularly difficult to diagnose and treat.
The lawsuit argues that the recall was insufficient to compensate consumers and that Kimberley-Clark’s handling of the recall and communications with consumers has been “inadequate, ineffective, and seemingly insincere.”
All told, the case claims that even after the recall, thousands of consumers have “found themselves stuck with contaminated and worthless” wipes and have no guidance as to how they can protect themselves and their families from the risks of using the products.
February 2020: Contamination of Cottonelle Wipes
According to the 18-page complaint, certain lots of Kimberley-Clark’s Cottonelle Flushable Wipes and Cottonelle GentlePlus Flushable Wipes became contaminated with Pluralibacter gergoviae sometime in February 2020.
The suit explains that P. gergoviae, formerly known as Enterobacter gergoviae, is a pathogen that can cause “several infections including, but not limited to, lower respiratory tract infections, skin and soft tissue infections and urinary tract infections.” According to the FDA, individuals at particular risk of infection include those who have weakened immune systems or pre-existing conditions, or who have had surgery, the case says.
Infections caused by P. gergoviae are particularly difficult to diagnose and treat, the lawsuit adds, given they are “indistinguishable in clinical presentation” from those caused by more common bacteria yet are “stubbornly resistant” to the antibiotics used to treat those infections.
In the months following the apparent P. gergoviae contamination, those who used Cottonelle wipes reported a number of adverse symptoms consistent with exposure to the rare bacterium, according to the suit. Included in the complaint is a sampling of social media posts describing some of the individuals’ reported complications:
“I thought it was a stomach bug or something” “daily diarrhea for well over a month” “I became violently ill with intense nausea and vomiting” “an insanely overwhelmingly frustrating itch that will absolutely not go away unless I sit on the business end of a belt sander” “I began to experience tremendous anal itching” “I started having frequent diarrhea” “It’s ruined my life” “a summer of misery, nonstop vomiting and diarrhea” “the last two months have been hell went from 150lbs to 115 in a month, went to ER, stayed in hospital for a week to save my life, had to have gut surgery”
Additionally, the case says, thousands of women have reported urinary tract infections, which required doctor and hospital visits, after using the Cottonelle wipes.
Per the complaint, many of the injuries associated with the products have gone undiagnosed due to the rare strain of bacteria at issue.
The lawsuit argues that customers’ experiences after using the Cottonelle wipes are a far cry from Kimberley-Clark’s marketing representations. While the defendant consistently framed the products as “fresh, gentle and effective” with the ability to deliver “a truly refreshing clean,” the company should have been aware that the wipes were contaminated with a dangerous bacterium and could in no way live up to consumers’ expectations, the case avers.
The suit goes on to claim that even in the face of a flood of consumer complaints and the fact that some of the wipes had “dark-brown spots on the surface and mildew-like odors” that have been known to indicate bacterial contamination, Kimberley-Clark “was neither prompt nor careful” in launching an investigation into the matter.
“Indeed, Kimberly-Clark continued its mass, New York statewide distribution of contaminated Wipes for another seven months—all the while failing to detect the bacterial contamination, warn the public, or otherwise take any steps whatsoever to remediate the serious health risks to which it had exposed Plaintiff, similarly situated consumers, and the public at large,” the complaint scathes. “This despite ample warnings that something was wrong with the Cottonelle Wipes.”
October 2020: The Recall
Per the lawsuit, Kimberley-Clark on October 9, 2020 announced a voluntary recall of certain lots of its Cottonelle flushable wipes by posting the following notice on its Cottonelle website:
Kimberly-Clark announced a product recall of its Cottonelle® Flushable Wipes and Cottonelle® GentlePlus Flushable Wipes sold throughout the United States, Canada and the Caribbean, due to the detection of some Cottonelle® Flushable Wipes that do not meet our high quality standards. The recall is limited to specific lots of Cottonelle® Flushable Wipes and Cottonelle® GentlePlus Flushable Wipes manufactured between February 7, 2020 – September 14, 2020. Please check your lot number above. No other Cottonelle® products are affected by this recall and Flushable Wipes not affected are safe to use.”
The lawsuit notes that although the manufacturer included a “frequently asked questions” section on the webpage, the answers provided are, at best, “vague, confusing, and incomplete” and, at worst, “deliberately minimize the health risks posed by the contaminated Wipes.”
Moreover, the case claims Kimberley-Clark secretly changed the original language in the FAQ section to downplay the risks caused by the bacteria, adding that the contaminant “naturally occurs” and “rarely causes serious infections in healthy individuals.” The defendant also modified the list of high-risk individuals by limiting it to those with “weakened immune systems,” the suit says.
Still further, the case argues that although Kimberley-Clark says customers can direct any “concerns” to the company through its website or by calling customer service, consumers have “widely reported” error notices when attempting to submit information requests on the Cottonelle website and have frequently been unable to reach customer service representatives through the provided phone number.
Why a Class Action?
As explained more fully in a previous blog post, class action lawsuits are often filed in the wake of a recall if consumers believe the recall isn’t enough to cover the damages they’ve suffered.
In this case, although the recall allows consumers to request a refund for their contaminated product, the lawsuit is looking to grant consumers additional monetary and injunctive relief—i.e., when the court orders the defendant to take or stop a certain action.
The complaint claims those covered by the lawsuit are entitled to at least $500 per unit purchased, among other relief, for Kimberley-Clark’s alleged violations of the New York General Business Law.
Who Is the Lawsuit Looking to Cover?
The lawsuit looks to represent anyone in New York who purchased Cottonelle Flushable Wipes or Cottonelle GentlePlus Flushable Wipes between February 7, 2020 and September 14, 2020.
What if I Don’t Live in New York?
At this point, the lawsuit is only looking to cover New York residents. If you live in another state, you may want to consider reaching out to an attorney in your area to find out more about your legal rights and options.
Check out this page for more information on what’s involved with starting a class action.
How Do I Join the Lawsuit?
There’s typically nothing you need to do to join a class action when it’s first filed. If the case moves forward and settles, anyone affected should then have an opportunity to file a claim for whatever compensation the court deems just. Find out more about that process here.
If you want to stay on top of class action news and updates, sign up for ClassAction.org’s newsletter here.