Proposition 65, known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, among other things requires businesses employing ten or more people to warn consumers if the business’ products contain a chemical scientifically shown to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity.
The State maintains a list of such chemicals: https://oehha.ca.gov/proposition-65/proposition-65-list. Such warnings are delivered by placing “clear and reasonable” warning statements on the products, on product packaging, or on signs at retail establishments selling the products. Historically, the warnings were usually sufficient even if they were somewhat generic – e.g., “This product contains a chemical [my emphasis, for illustrative purposes only] known to the State of California to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity.”
New Prop 65 Rules
After 30 years of living under regulations implementing Proposition 65, the Office of Emergency Health Hazard Assessment (“OEHHA”) has promulgated a whole new set of regulations re clear and reasonable warnings designed in part to “make warnings more meaningful to the public.”
The new regulations (https://oehha.ca.gov/media/downloads/crnr/art6fsor090116.pdf and https://oehha.ca.gov/media/downloads/crnr/art6suppfsor090116.pdf) require, among other things, the warning specifically to identify the chemical(s) in question – e.g., “This product can expose you to lead [my emphasis] which is known to the State of California to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity.” The new regulations also provide for specialized warnings for certain industries. The specific warning language listed in the new regulations need not be used if affected businesses can show other language provides a “clear and reasonable” warning; but the safest thing for a business to do is to adopt the language in the regulations.
Businesses have until August 30, 2018 until the new regulations become effective but can operate under the new regulations immediately if desired.
Proposition 65 can be enforced by the government, but if the state chooses not to take action after being notified that adequate warnings were not given, individuals may do so by acting as “private attorneys generals.” Businesses in violation of the warning requirements may face a civil penalty of up to $2,500 a day for the period of violation. Typically though, settlements are much smaller than this draconian amount.
A Prop 65 claim is a particularly difficult claim for a business to defend. The most common defense is to show that people exposed during a course of a lifetime to the chemical(s) at issue would not become ill because the levels of the chemical(s) are too low to do any harm. It is expensive to mount such a scientific defense, requiring the testimony of experts. Small to medium-sized businesses generally choose to settle because the financial burden of litigation is too great.
Although case law suggested that a litigation settlement would protect a party from further Prop 65 claims re the same products and associated chemicals placed at issue by the claim, the law was arguably not completely settled in this regard. The new regulations specify that court-approved warnings will shield the businesses involved in a particular claim from future claims over the same issues.