Vibram USA has lost a class-action lawsuit that says the shoemaker falsely claimed its FiveFingers minimalist shoes had a series of health benefits over traditional running shoes.
The plaintiff is Valerie Bezdek, who bought a pair of FiveFinger shoes in 2011, on the basis of Vibram’s health claims. Her class-action suit was combined with a number of similar suits against Vibram.
The company has set aside $3.75 million into an escrow account to pay backup of $94 per pair to anyone who purchased FiveFingers shoes after 2009. Vibram also agreed to stop making claims that FiveFingers shoes are beneficial to a runner’s health, including that they lower the chances of injury. Despite the settlement, Vibram completely denies it did anything wrong in the court brief:
“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.”
Vibram is essentially admitting that a full-on court battle over FiveFingers would cost more than the settlement, which is likely correct considering the mixed science behind its claims. While there are plenty of anecdotal claims to the health benefits of FiveFingers and barefoot running as a whole, there isn’t much science behind Vibram’s claims.
There have been studies that show "traditional" running shoes filled with gels and cushioning can be harmful for your health because they encourage an unnatural gait. Much of Vibram’s supposed health benefits hinged on the idea that they allowed runners to return to a more primeval style of running in which the runner lands on the midfoot with each step instead of toward the heel.
While that style is considered healthier, there are studies that show barefoot running can get you hurt as well. Switching from heavily cushioned running shoes to barefoot running often requires a drastic change in running style and runners can hurt themselves because they transition too quickly.
At the end of the day, the scientific consensus seems to be that it’s more about how you run than what shoes you run in. Scientists hesitate to throw their support behind either style of shoe and instead encourage runners to run correctly with shoes that are comfortable for them.
A number of runners on Reddit’s running community vow to stand by their FiveFingers shoes, claiming that while the science may not be exact, they have noticed improved strength with the shoes. Some call the lawsuit frivolous, arguing that its widely known that barefoot running can be good for you if it’s done right, but the benefits aren’t built in.
If Vibram can prove that FiveFingers are beneficial to a runners health, then they can make claims on that data, but until then they’ll have to keep it zipped.