Funny Shoes = Funny Lawsuit?

Virbram, the maker of those funny looking “toe shoes” called FiveFingers, has been sued over claims made in its advertising relating to the purported health benefits of its products.  The FiveFingers shoes are meant to mimic barefoot running, which Vibram claims is actually healthier than running in a traditional shoes.  The class action lawsuit filed in federal court in Massachusetts alleges that Vibram made deceptive statements about the benefits of running barefoot.

According to the complaint:

“Defendants have claimed that running in FiveFingers, inter alia, improves posture and foot health, reduces risk of injury, strengthens muscles in feet and lower legs, and promotes spine alignment. Defendants have used these claims to charge a premium for FiveFingers that consumers readily paid, believing FiveFingers would confer upon them significant health benefits. Unbeknownst to consumers, Defendants’ health benefit claims are deceptive because FiveFingers are not proven to provide any of the health benefits beyond what conventional running shoes provide.”

Interestingly, the plaintiffs’ lengthy complaint repeatedly claims that the FiveFingers product causes injury, yet presents no scientific evidence to support this claim.  Basically, the plaintiffs argue that there are no studies to support Vibram’s claims.  The plaintiffs then turn around and present no science to dispute Vibram’s claim.  Plaintiffs don’t rely on any type of scientific and controlled testing that they expect of Vibram.  Instead, they offer on the same anecdotal “evidence” that they criticize Vibram for using.  They quote a story in which a podiatrist says that 85 percent of her patients sustained injuries trying to transition to minimalist shoes.  They, of course, fail to note that a podiatrist is unlikely to be examining runners who have not sustained some sort of injury.  They also fail to mention whether that podiatrist’s patients followed Vibram’s warnings against over training.

Where this suit goes from here could have wide reaching impact on the footwear industry.  Many other shoe companies have been jumping on the barefoot running bandwagon, including New Balance, Merrill, and Adidas.  These companies use technology similar to that of the Vibram FiveFingers.   Merrill seems to have  aggressive advertising materials similar to that of  Vibram.  However, New Balance and Adidas tend to make far less claims as to the benefits of barefoot running.

In the interest of full disclosure, I actually own a pair of FiveFingers and a pair of the New Balance Minimus.  I’m happy to report that haven’t sustained any running injuries while using theses shoes.  Then again, I don’t think anyone would accuse me over training.