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Vibram settles suit over running shoes

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BOSTON—The Boston federal district court has approved a $3.75 million settlement agreement in a class action lawsuit that accused Vibram U.S.A. Inc. and Vibram FiveFingers L.L.C. of making false claims about the health benefits of their FiveFingers running shoes.

Concord, Mass.-based Vibram began marketing FiveFingers shoes in 2009 as an offshoot of the fad for barefoot running. Some scientific studies issued at that time showed traditional cushioned running shoes can cause injuries because they create an unnatural gait in runners.

The “minimalist” FiveFingers shoes, with their trademark individual toes at the end and total lack of cushioning, would reduce foot injuries and strengthen foot muscles by allowing runners a more natural gait, Vibram claimed.

A runner named Valerie Bezdek filed suit against Vibram in the Boston court in March 2012. Bezdek claimed the company deceived consumers because it made its claims about the health benefits of FiveFingers shoes without any scientific evidence.

Other runners also filed suit in Boston, and the cases were consolidated into a class action.

A 2013 scientific study from Brigham Young University undermined Vibram's defense.

“While performance benefits may exist (from minimalist shoes), injury may also occur from the added stress of running without the benefit of cushioning under the foot,” the study said. “Bone marrow edema can be a manifestation of added stress on the foot.”

In the settlement agreement approved April 30, Vibram agreed to pay purchasers of FiveFingers shoes up to $94 per pair on a prorated basis. “Based on experience from other similar settlements of class actions, it is reasonable to expect that class members may receive a payment in the range of $20 to $50 per pair,” the agreement said.

Vibram agreed not to make any further claims of health benefits for FiveFingers shoes, or assist any other efforts to do so, until “competent and reliable scientific evidence” substantiates those claims. As is typical in settlement agreements, the company admitted no wrongdoing.

Vibram is sending notifications about the settlement agreement, including claim forms and opt-out instructions, to purchasers of FiveFingers shoes from March 21, 2009, on. Bezdek and fellow plaintiffs Brian De Falco and Ali Safavi will receive $2,500 each for being representative plaintiffs in the class action.