'Dead parrot' sketch invoked as B.C. judge OK's glucosamine sulfate class action
Mislabelling claim reminds judge of British comedy troupe's legendary ode to frustrating purchase
It's not every lawsuit that tickles the judicial funny bone.
But a Vancouver judge saw parallels this week between one woman's proposed class-action claim against a handful of pharmaceutical companies and a legendary British comedy sketch involving an irate customer who complains that he was tricked into buying a dead parrot.
"Sometimes a consumer will make a purchase but not receive what they ordered," B.C. Supreme Court Justice Ward Branch wrote before citing nearly all of the so-called Dead Parrot Sketch by Monty Python's Flying Circus at the start of a lengthy ruling certifying the class-action claim.
The woman leading the legal charge — Uttra Kumari Krishnan — claimed she spent years buying glucosamine sulfate products that allegedly contained no glucosamine sulfate.
In giving Krishnan the go-ahead to sue, Branch compared her to "Mr. Praline" — the customer in the decades-old skit who confronts a shopkeeper with a "Norwegian Blue" parrot that turns out to have been nailed to its perch — an "ex-parrot" in the words of Mr. Praline, "expired and gone to meet his maker!"
"Much like the poor Mr. Praline, [Krishnan] complains that she was sold a health product that did not contain what it said on the bottle," Branch wrote.
"[She] admits that she does not know for certain what is in the bottles, but argues that what is important is that it was not glucosamine sulfate."
From dead parrots to dead shellfish
The judge approved the class-action lawsuit against WN Pharmaceuticals Ltd. and Natural Factors Nutritional Products Ltd. in relation to products purchased after May 6, 2004 that claimed to contain glucosamine sulfate.
Glucosamine is part of the human cartilage, but it is also found in the covering of shellfish. Glucosamine sulfate is produced by combining glucosamine and mineral salt.
Global sales of the compound are worth billions.
If Health Canada approves a licence for a glucosamine sulfate product, a manufacturer is allowed to say it "helps to relieve joint pain associated with osteoarthritis and to protect against cartilage deterioration."
According to Branch's ruling, the lawsuit was sparked by a 2012 academic article that threw doubt on the contents of many commercial products claiming to contain glucosamine sulfate.
Krishnan claims that a University of British Columbia professor hired to test a bottle of "Webber Naturals Glucosamine Sulfate 500 mg Capsules" found they did not contain "glucosamine sulphate or so-called glucosamine sulfate potassium chloride."
The distinction is crucial because experts cited by the claimant say only glucosamine sulfate itself is effective in managing osteoarthritis and that other forms of glucosamine are harder to digest.
The companies dispute the claims. They also say their products met Health Canada's testing requirements and that the scientific tests done by Krishnan's expert go beyond what is required by the government.
Branch reached for the dead parrot sketch again when considering whether Health Canada's approval for glucosamine sulfate mattered more when it came to suing than if the product actually contained glucosamine sulfate.
"To invoke the opening comedic extract, Health Canada's testing protocols cannot change a dead parrot into a live one," the judge wrote.
"Health Canada cannot establish a protocol that requires that a parrot only still have its feathers in order to be sold as a live parrot, and thereby prevent anyone from suing after being sold a parrot who 'joined the bleedin' choir invisible.'"
In approving the class action for certification, Branch did not decide on the merits of the claim — only whether it met the bar to proceed. The allegations have not been proven in court.
A search of the Canadian Legal Information Institute database shows a judicial fondness for Monty Python — a British comedy troupe that created the Flying Circus TV show, which was broadcast on the BBC between 1969 and 1974.
The dead parrot sketch is a particular favourite.
In 1998, a tax court judge compared the behaviour of employees at Human Resources and Development Canada to the parrot seller for their treatment of taxpayer claims: "They simply refused to accept the parrot was not napping or meditating but was, in reality, extremely dead," the judge wrote.
The Alberta Court of Appeal also cited the sketch as a means of showing that a "moribund" pipe company that had been struck off the corporate registry could not file a civil claim: "To borrow from the satire of Monty Python, it is a non-entity and denial does not change that fact," the judges wrote.
And in a literary tour-de-force, an Ontario Superior Court justice compared a witness to Monty Python's so-called Minister of Silly Walks, claiming the man's "credibility was reduced to existential confetti" when he finished testifying and "he even appeared to be physically shorter than when the trial began."
The same judge described the closing arguments as "eye-glazing, bum-numbing" and "disc-herniating."
Not to be outdone, B.C.'s Civil Resolution Tribunal ruled last year in a dispute involving a man who claimed he was sold a defective parrot. In that case, the tribunal member found that there was an "implied warranty" that the ex-parrot — Tiberius — would be healthy for at least six months after purchase.