Canadian refunds uncertain for Vibram ‘finger toe’ shoes in US lawsuit

A photo from the "Bare Minimum" Facebook group, where Alex Flint trained with runners who embraced the FiveFingers shoe. File/ Global News

TORONTO – Toronto marathoner Alex Flint has heard about the $3.75-million settlement over claims to health benefits made in Vibram’s FiveFingers advertising, but he won’t be trying to get his money back.

“I was running before that in regular shoes and starting to get some hip pain and knee pain, so I switched to these for a more natural running form,” he said of the unique-looking “finger toe” shoes. “And for me, it worked great.”

The 28-year-old started using the shoes—which cost up to $125 per pair—a few years ago as he was training for his first marathon. He even belonged to a group that favoured the fancy footwear.

“We had a group called Bare Minimum that was minimalist shoes and some runners that ran completely barefoot.”

He bought them specifically for the benefit of improving his running form, and said he researched outside of the Vibram marketing material to make his decision.

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“Their marketing was definitely strong … [but the shoes] did exactly what I hoped they would do,” he said.

That was not the case for American plaintiff in the lawsuit Valerie Bezdek, who alleged in March 2012 Vibram engaged in “deceptive marketing” related to the following health benefits it advertised:

  • Strengthen muscles in the feet and lower legs
  • Improve range of motion in the ankles, feet, and toes
  • Stimulate neural function important to balance and agility
  • Eliminate heel lift to align the spine and improve posture
  • Allow the foot and body to move naturally

Bezdek alleged there is “no reliable scientific support” for the claims of health benefits, corroborated by a statement from the American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA) saying “research has not yet adequately shed light on the immediate and long term effects” of possible health benefits to barefoot running.

She said if she’d known there was no scientific evidence, she wouldn’t have bought them and that “reasonable consumers” wouldn’t have paid the price charged for the shoes.

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Vibram is standing by its product and denying the allegations, but settled to avoid additional legal expenses, according to a court brief quoted by Runner’s World.

“Vibram expressly denied and continues to deny any wrongdoing alleged in the Actions, and neither admits nor concedes any actual or potential fault, wrongdoing or liability.”

Runner’s World reports the $3.75 million will be used for American consumers who could get a refund up to $94 per pair, without receipt or proof of purchase for up to two pairs of shoes. They suggest most claimants can expect between $20-$50 based on similar settlements.

A U.S. Vibram customer service representative told Global News as far as she knew, “the settlement is for purchases made within the U.S.”

Requests to media representatives at American and international Vibram offices were not immediately answered, but a phone message said a settlement website has been set up at (not yet live) where consumers can file claims.

“The court has not yet approved the settlement and until it does so, there’s no way to submit or process a claim,” said the phone message.

The second part of the settlement prevents Vibram from making any marketing claims in the future about the health benefits of its shoes.

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“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,” said Runner’s World, quoting the federal settlement.

But some runners are defending the shoes.

Flint has moved on from FiveFingers because he runs more trails and longer distances, but hasn’t changed styles.

“I still use similar minimalist shoes – not the ones with the separate toes—but with minimal padding and flat soles…and they’re great for me.”

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