Jessica Kruger poses for a photo at her attorney’s office in Orem on Thursday, July 8, 2021. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)
PLEASANT GROVE — Jessica Kruger rolled on an essential oil blend designed to soothe period cramps almost five years ago, but instead of relief, she said she wound up with severe burns.
Now the 33-year-old real estate agent from Holladay alleges in a lawsuit that the doTerra product contained more than 23 times the safe amount of bergamot oil — the same substance used to make Earl Gray tea — that can make a person hyper-sensitive to UV rays when applied to skin. It had burned others in the past, but the company continued to sell it without any sort of warning before Kruger ended up in an emergency room, the lawsuit contends.
“I come from a football player family of brothers, NFL players. I can take a lot. And this was insane,” said Kruger, also a decorated amateur mixed martial arts fighter. “I would rather have been punched in the face, to be honest.”
She sued in 2016, and her legal case against the Pleasant Grove-based multilevel marketing company is inching forward after the Utah Supreme Court handed her a small victory last week.
When Kruger signed a contract to become a wellness advocate, the company’s term for its distributors, the justices found she didn’t sign away a future right to sue for a financial award designed to punish the company for alleged wrongdoing.
DoTerra says it looks forward to presenting its side in court.
“The Supreme Court’s pretrial ruling was limited to one provision of the contract between doTerra and Ms. Kruger — whether she waived a claim to punitive damages. While we were surprised by the decision regarding the contractual provision, we look forward to the time when Ms. Kruger and doTerra may present our respective cases at trial, which is still likely months away from starting,” doTerra executives said in a statement provided to KSL.com Friday.
After a lower court in Provo made a ruling in Kruger’s favor, doTerra appealed. Its attorneys argued punitive damages were off the table because of the contract she signed.
Kruger doesn’t want others to have to endure the pain she did, she said, noting many distributors are women, and some are fellow parents whose children use the oils.
“If I had an 11-,12-year-old daughter that started her period, and that happened to her, that’d be a damn problem for me as a mother,” Kruger said. “These massive companies like this need to know that it’s not OK.”
Kruger had friends who sold the company’s products and was drawn to doTerra company by its natural approach, she said. After becoming a seller, she opted to test out an oil blend called ClaryCalm, applying it to her abdomen and lower back on Nov. 17, 2015, her lawsuit says. Later in the day, she made a rare trip to a tanning bed in preparation for her brother’s wedding.
She doesn’t typically get sunburned, but the same places she’d applied the oil began to sting that night. By the third day, she said the pain was excruciating.
Doctors at American Fork Hospital diagnosed her with second- and third-degree burns, she recalled. A week or so later, at the wedding, “I remember being in extreme pain there, but still trying to put a smile on my face,” she said.
Attorney Blake Johnson said his client would have had a similar effect if exposed to natural sunlight. And while doTerra isn’t saying the contract barred Kruger from seeking damages to cover medical costs or lost days at work, it’s important that jurors have the option to award her the sort of payment that could deter other companies from doing the same thing, he said. Kruger hasn’t specified any dollar amount.
This month’s ruling has implications not just for essential oil enthusiasts who use the plant extracts for therapeutic purposes ranging from stress relief to mitigating the effects of chronic diseases, Johnson said, but it’s also a good thing for anyone who shops online and must scroll through legal jargon and click “agree” to do so, but is later harmed in some way by the product or service.
If the justices had sided against his client, “there was a danger that companies could be running amok and not have to face any claims of punitive damages,” he said.
A broad clause shielding the company from liability wasn’t specific enough to thwart Kruger’s legal claim, Justice Paige Petersen wrote in the opinion issued earlier this month.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Deno Himonas wrote that any contract barring a person from seeking punitive damages is contrary to state law that’s designed “to prevent individuals from financially safeguarding against their own bad behavior.”
Federal regulators classify the oils as a cosmetic, so they’re not as heavily regulated as food or drugs, and there’s no public government database of injuries tied to them, Johnson noted. He and Kruger are seeking to call attention to what they claim is a lack of oversight for the industry, alleging it allows some dangerous products to remain on the market without so much as a warning label.
The company later changed the ingredients in the product Kruger used, the lawsuit alleges, but by that time, she contends several others had similar experiences.
Paralegal Jacque Findlay said Kruger is one of many who sign up as distributors mainly to obtain a wholesale discount or simply to have a wealth of products for their own use and don’t plan to sell much of their stock.
“Even though doTerra is a worldwide company, this decision is such a big deal for Utah because of how many MLMs are here,” Findlay said.