Manufacturer of Barefoot Shoes Settles Lawsuit Over Health Claims

220px-Statue_of_Pheidippides_along_the_Marathon_Road220px-FiveFingers_Bikila_top_view_2If 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.

Source: Vox

26 thoughts on “Manufacturer of Barefoot Shoes Settles Lawsuit Over Health Claims”

  1. All of us were skeptical when this design was launched! It’s sensible that the company has agreed to change its claims regarding health benefits of their unique footwear. I personally liked their five-finger shoes though. And if they don’t have health benefits as claimed by the company, I’m sure they don’t have any side effects either!

  2. When I initially started running, I ran out and bought moderately expensive pair of running shoes. After running in them for a few days, I noticed that the area around my shins always hurt when I ran, not necessarily the shin itself but the area on either side of it. As a person who grew up being barefoot as often as possible, I kicked off the running shoes and just took off running barefoot (heel striking all the way) and was able to run about three times further without shoes. I heard about Vibrams and got a pair and started researching barefoot running. I could run well in them, however I also found that wearing them instead of just being totally barefoot caused me feet to ache. This was esp true if I wore them out and just walked around in them like a normal shoe, however it was more so if I was standing in place. It was suggested to me that I didn’t tolerate the thin layers forcing my toes to spread more than normal, but I’m not certain. As for the other folks in the studies, I would tend to question whether they wore them and ran as if they were wearing a shoe instead of altering their running form. I could definitely see inflammation and stress if that were the case and they didn’t learn to run in a more accommodating way.

  3. I believe several of those minimalist shoes came with training instructions, and specialty running stores were well aware of the risks. The feet are foundations of everything as far as movement goes, and a radical change like this type of footwear would necessitate a drastic reduction and change of running form. But, as an acquaintance of mine–who is a runner and sells shoes–said, people bought the the NB and Nikes, and went right out and ran themselves right into injury. SO… who’s responsibility is it? I don’t think the shoe company is negligent in this case. But, with my rotten, plunger-like flat and flexible feet, these shoes are a no go. Isn’t it my responsibility to know that?

  4. With multimilion dollar companies like Nike with expensive soft cushioning shoes, this could be another row to make the most money and squash the competition like kemotherapy, a terrible way to ‘heal’, trouncing far better natural cures with legal and government intervention.

  5. po, My doc looked @ my gait but he also looked @ my shoes. I always wear out the balls of my souls. I attribute that to the aforementioned wise pediatrician and good coaches who always stress running on the balls of your feet.

    1. Indeed! Speaking of wife ,Paul, I wonder she feels about your freudian slip, next vs next wife. Yes, she looking over your shoulder right now.
      Good point, Nick., playing basketball made sure I naturally had that gait, and when I don’t for a while, my feet to hips are stiff.

      1. po – I do threaten my wife that in my next life I am going to marry someone different, but she does not seem to take the hint. She seems to think it is an idle threat.

  6. I am the proud owner of 2 of these shoes, one basic, without padding that hurt my feet when I ran on asphalt (which I assume is what people complain about, asphalt is not meant to be run on unless you have well padded shoes), and one with padding that I play soccer in, run in and basically use as overall shoes.
    Walking barefoot (in proper areas and with proper benefits) has definite health benefits. My weak ankles from past injuries have gotten stronger, and my knees are better thanks to my Vibram.
    Padded shoes have caused a disconnection between our legs and our feet. Our feet are no longer an extension of our legs, they are a disjointed unit that acts as flippers, slapping the ground over and over again, independently of the process that links feet to calves to thighs to hips, back and neck.
    Man is supposed to walk on the ball of their feet, that is the proper mechanics. Vibram are supposed to spur people walking on the ball of their feet, but because we are trained since birth to wear padded shoes, which cause heels/ flat walking, we do not know how to walk properly, whether in Vibram or not.

    1. po – be sure to send your name to Vibram. They can use you as an expert witness. You are probably going to get a lot of extra work in the next couple of years. 🙂

      1. Paul
        I would not mind, hell, I would actually welcome it. They have many models I have my eyes on.
        Also, women are attracted to them, I get quite a bit of attention. Which is never a bad thing, unless your wife is around, obviously.

        1. po – I was at my high school reunion and this woman comes up and says “I had the biggest crush on your in high school.” I had two thoughts 1) why didn’t she let me know in high school, 2) why would she tell me this with my next to me and now staring daggers in my direction. 🙂

  7. I thought those looked like a fad and I was not going to be caught dead or alive in them. I am surprised they got on the market though with a large company. Thought they would have done more R & D.
    The lawsuits will depend on how the company decides to handle it. However, I am sure I am going to see a new late night ad asking for people injured by this product to call an 800 number.

  8. We had a wise pediatrician when I was small. He instructed all mothers to not put shoes on their kids until they had been walking a year or so. He said the foot is adapting to walking and shoes can alter the normal gait. My podiatrist doc said I had a good gait, I wore the wrong sneakers. This wise pediatrician also advised all moms to not let their sons play football. When I got a blow out fracture of the orbital bone and severe concussion my mom felt so guilty. I remember this doc doing his rounds when I was in the hospital. My mom started apologizing and he just smiled and said to her that there are risks in life, and never taking risks leads to an unfulfilled life. We were blessed to have such a wise doc. Too few out there now.

  9. Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia won the 1960 Olympic Marathon running barefoot. And, that was through the streets of Rome! So yes, Transition, if you live your life running barefoot these are I’m sure a good product for you. Maybe the women who are “kept barefoot and pregnant” by oppressive men would be a good market for these socks.

  10. After growing up on a western diet and wearing pillows (constrictive, triangular pillows) on their feet for 20+ years is it really a surprise that some people have problems?
    The African and Indian tribes that grow up barefoot, travel most places on foot and probably top out at 150lbs as adults.

    I have vibrams and love them.

  11. I had plantar fasciitis three times in my nursing career, but when I started wearing crocs to work I never had another case. Unfortunately crocs will sometimes stick to very warm surfaces and that can be risky. Walking barefoot around the house and on grass is great. My comment isn’t directed to you Spinelli, it just reminded me of my own plantar fasciitis, so no need to reply.

  12. I don’t see how marrow inflammation can result from wearing essentially a sock with a sole; so what it has the toes covered individually.
    Sure it probably doesn’t have the health benefits, but I can’t see any damage either.

  13. And yet we have to endure the bleating from the right about class action lawsuits, the sneering pejorative, “trial lawyers” and tort reform that would limit the rights of people to seek redress for damages done by irresponsible companies, their products, their unfounded claims while allowing corporation to calculate in advance the potential damages and legal costs of their actions and simply continue forward irresponsibly, sometimes endangering people’s health and lives.

  14. I walk a lot and had to deal w/ plantar fasciitis while I was out in San Diego. I found a veteran podiatrist who also happened to be a big baseball fan like me. He told me those shoes are the stupidest foot apparel invented since high heels. He said high heels still bring him more business but these running shoes were up there for a while. He said word is out their no good and he’s seeing less of them now.

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