Will Harlan on the Vibram Five Finger Legal Settlement and Barefoot Running

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Yesterday every outdoor news wire and most mainstream media as well announced that Vibram USA agreed to pay a total of $3.75 million to consumers who bought its FiveFingers shoes to settle a 2012 lawsuit — alleging it marketed the shoes with unsubstantiated claims that they “strengthened muscles and prevented injury,” and played a major role in a world-wide barefoot running fad. Vibram has denied any wrongdoing in the case.

Blue Ridge Outdoors editor Will Harlan just happens to know a little bit about barefoot running and the history of Vibrams Five Fingers. And, according to Harlan, “It’s never been about the shoes.”

“What the Tarahumara taught us — and Born to Run emphasized — is that running form matters,” Harlan explained to me. “Every sport has fundamentals, and so does running. Running may look easy, but to do it well – and stay injury-free – requires practicing basic elements, like landing lightly and quickly on your midfoot, leaning forward, and engaging your core. No shoe — whether a minimalist Vibram or an ultra-cushioned supportive boot for overpronators—can prevent injury. The best that a shoe can do is give your feet and body the flexibility and protection needed to maintain healthy form. Vibram tried to capitalize on the minimalist shoe hype that followed Born to Run’s success, and they made claims that they shouldn’t have.”

“I’m glad they’re getting a well-deserved slapdown. But blaming injury on a shoe is like blaming a strikeout on the bat. The Tarahumara wear sandals with similar tread to Vibrams, but they don’t get injured often because they have superb running form, instilled at a very early age. They dance down the trail, light and lithe, on the balls of their feet. Instead of trying to mimic their shoes, we should follow in their footsteps by improving our form. Ultimately, it’s about how we run, not what we are wearing,” Harlan said.

The class-action suit was brought against Vibram in March 2012 when Valerie Bezdek filed a suit in Massachusetts claiming that Vibram deceived customers by advertising that their shoes could reduce foot injuries and strengthen foot muscles. According to the settlement, the company will also cease claiming the shoes reduce injury or strengthen muscles, and agrees not to assist others in making any health benefit claims about FiveFingers footwear or similar products.

The $3.75 million will be used to reimburse members of the class suit, pay the costs of administering claims, and the plaintiffs’ counsel attorney fees. In exchange for accepting the proposed settlement, plaintiffs would release Vibram USA from all future claims related to the purchase of the FiveFingers during the claims period.

According to retail point-of-sale data collected by SportScanINFO, the settlement represents a fraction of Vibram FiveFinger retail sales, which neared $160 million in 2011 alone.

Vibram said in the settlement filed with the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts: “Even though Vibram expressly denies any wrongdoing, Vibram considers it desirable for these cases to be settled and dismissed, because this Settlement will finally put Plaintiffs’ claims and the underlying matters to rest and will avoid the substantial expense, burdens, and uncertainties associated with the continued litigation of these claims and cases.”

SportsOneSource reported that under the proposed settlement, consumers who purchased a pair of the shoes between March 21, 2009, and the date of the first dissemination of summary settlement, or class, notice, will be eligible for a refund of up to $94 per pair up to two pairs. The class action settlement manager can require consumers submit proof they purchased the shoes during the claim period. The proposed settlement filed with the court notes that that, based on similar settlements, it is reasonable for class members to expect to receive between $20 and $50 per pair. More than two dozen models of Vibram’s shoes qualify.

Any money left over in the settlement fund after payment of all claims and expenses shall be distributed to the American Heart Association with an “earmark relating to research regarding health benefits associated with running or exercise or substantially similar research, or such other beneficiary as the Parties and the Court shall agree at the time of the Final Judgment and Final Order.” Vibram has pledged not to lower its own donations or contributions to any entity, charity, charitable foundation or trust, and / or non-profit organization to recover the costs of the settlement.

Interestingly, the settlement also calls for Vibram to establish a website where consumers can make their claims, and must post banner ads with the settlement information on a number of websites — including runnersworld.com and Facebook — until it makes approximately 300,000,000 impressions.

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