A new lawsuit claims that former Juul CEO Kevin Burns dismissed concerns about contaminated and expired vaping pods, saying that half the company's customers are "drunk."
San Francisco-based e-cigarette maker Juul Labs is on a spectacular run of bad public relations that rivals PG&E or WeWork, but it might get even worse for the vaping giant. Things were already bad for Juul when San Francisco enacted a vape pod sales ban, the FDA nailed them on false medical claims, a nationwide public health crisis emerged related to vaping, the CEO quit and layoffs were announced, and the company abandoned their $11 million campaign to overturn the local vape ban. But the worst-case scenario for Juul was always if they somehow got implicated as a possible culprit in the vaping-related lung illness that has killed 34 people and sickened more than 1,600 nationwide. And that dog may now be barking, as BuzzFeed reports that a former Juul executive claims the company knowingly shipped and sold a million contaminated vape pods.
The full 29-page lawsuit is available online, and if you care about the technical aspects of the potential health violations, that dirt begins on the bottom of Page 12. The suit claims that Juul had pods returned from a distributor for being more than a year old, therefore ‘expired’ products, and merely sold them elsewhere. But more troublingly, the suit also alleges that mint refill kits were “contaminated” (without acknowledging exactly how they were contaminated), and that “approximately 250,000 ‘Mint Refill Kits,’ the equivalent of one million pods, with this contaminated eLiquid have already been shipped to retailers and are being sold to customers.”
There is some fun color and profanity in the lawsuit’s description of Juul company culture. When confronted with the possibility of expired and contaminated pods, the suit claims then-Juul CEO Kevin Burns responded, “Half our customers are drunk and vaping like mo-fos, who the fuck is going to notice the quality of our pods?” During an apparent dispute with one of his direct reports, Burns allegedly said, “Tell that motherfucker I’ll take him out of the room and shoot him with a shotgun if he challenges my decisions.”
Good times! But the public health issue here is directly related to Juul’s mint refill kits, which experienced a spike in sales after the company suspended the sale of other flavors like Mango and Creme. "You need to have an IQ of 5 to know that when customers don’t find mango, they buy mint," Burns allegedly told his employees.
This latest lawsuit's claims are not directly being correlated with the underlying cause of vaping illnesses around the country, which has not yet been determined.
An ounce of caution may be advisable here, as the fired executive plaintiff is represented by San Francisco attorney Harmeet Dhillon. This is the same attorney who represented sexist Google employee James Damore when he was fired for expressing his views on diversity in 2017. Ms. Dhillon is also the California Republican National Committeeperson who handles PR duties for the occasional Trump visit.
Juul has responded to the New York Times report on the lawsuit, mostly calling out the fired executive and alleging sour grapes. "He was terminated in March 2019 because he failed to demonstrate the leadership qualities needed in his role," Juul spokesperson Ted Kwong told the Times. “The allegations concerning safety issues with Juul products are equally meritless, and we already investigated the underlying manufacturing issue and determined the product met all applicable specifications.”
Note the acknowledgement of an “underlying manufacturing issue.” So there is some there there.
The watershed issue here is whether Juul has any possible liability in the lung illness outbreak that has killed dozens. According to the Centers for Disease Control’s latest statement on the matter, issued Monday, 86 percent of the victims had used THC or cannabis vaping products. So that absolves Juul, right? Not so fast. Many had used both THC and nicotine vape products, with 64 percent reporting they’d used nicotine products — a sector where Juul has dominant market share. As the nationwide vape illness victim count approaches 2,000, if Juul can be shown to have knowingly shipped contaminated product, there’s certainly a likelihood that Juul could be class-action lawsuited into oblivion.
Related: Juul Just Bought A 28-Story Office Tower On Mission Street Worth an Estimated $400 Million [SFist]