If you are one of us who look at those barefoot shoes with skepticism, you are not alone. VIbram, the manufacturer of FiveFinger shoes, has settled a multi-year, class-action lawsuit brought by customers who challenged the company’s claims that barefoot running shoes could improve health. The company will pay some $3.75 million in partial refunds to people who purchased the shoes since March 2009. The settlement is not huge but the basis for the lawsuit is damaging to the company. The company has agreed to change its claims of health benefits from its odd looking footwear.
The settlement mandates that “Vibram will not make…any claims that FiveFingers footwear are effective in strengthening muscles or preventing injury unless that representation is true, non-misleading and is supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence.” Critics says that no such evidence exists and millions of customers have been duped.
However, this settlement is tiny in comparison to $70 million in sales for this one company alone in 2012. The company reportedly has seen a 300 percent annual sales growth over the past six years.
The popularity of the footwear is due in part to the 2009 book Born to Run in which Chris McDougall wrote about a little-known Indian tribe in Mexico that ran without shoes and seemed to be able to run for exceptionally long distances due to the conditioning of their feet. It has been called the “barefoot manifesto.” The idea is the bare foot runners tend to hit the fore-foot and not the heel first.
Vibram ramped up the claims in promotions that the shoes would strengthen muscles in the feet and legs; improve range of motion; stimulate neural function related to balance and agility; eliminate heel lift to align the spine; improve posture etc. However, the American Podiatric Medicine Association in November 2009 warned that “research has not yet adequately shed light on the immediate and long-term effects of this practice . . . risks of barefoot running include a lack of protection, which may lead to injuries such as puncture wounds, and increased stress on the lower extremities.”
Moreover, a study at Brigham Young University of a group of 36 runners found that about half of the runners who had transitioned to Vibrams had developed an inflammation of their bone marrow while only one person in the control group had seen a similar change.
This lawsuit may be just part of the first wave if reports of injuries continue to reach the media. For product liability, it would seem that a warning defect and false advertising would be the most likely areas of legal challenges. Design defect claims can be tricky since the shoes are clearly marketed as effectively running barefoot. It is a choice of the consumer whether they believe that they feel better or improve their performance.