The US District Court for the Northern District of California’s recent opinion in Broomfield v. Craft Brew Alliance, Inc., No. 17-cv-01027-BLF (Sept. 1, 2017) represents the latest decision in the now long-line of false advertising cases alleging that beer brands misrepresent their geographic origins.

The Broomfield case involves the marketing of Kona beers, allegedly in a manner that deceptively suggests that the beers are brewed in Hawaii. In fact, all packaged Kona beer and all draft Kona beer sold outside of Hawaii is brewed in Oregon, Washington, New Hampshire and Tennessee. The Kona brands bear names (e.g., Big Wave, Fire Rock) and images (e.g., volcanoes, palm trees, surfers and hula dancers) that evoke Hawaii. The beers’ outer packaging shows a map of Hawaii and the location of the Kona brewery, and encourages purchasers to “visit our brewery and pubs whenever you are in Hawaii.”

Continue Reading Latest Decision in Kona Beer Branding False Advertising Case

On September 27, 2016, the Northern District of Florida issued a decision in Pye v. Fifth Generation, Inc., N.D. Fla. No. 4:14cv493-RH/CAS, one of many false advertising class actions brought against the makers of Tito’s “Handmade” Vodka.

Although Tito’s has lost a number of decisions on motions to dismiss and summary judgment motions in other jurisdictions, Pye delivers a win. Having already dismissed claims related to the generic “handmade” claim, the recent Pye decision grants summary judgment on the final challenged claim – that Tito’s is made in “an old fashioned pot still.” According to the court, any pot still can be described as “old fashioned” when compared to a column still, and no reasonable consumer could read the claim to represent that all Tito’s comes from the same still.

The annual Wine, Beer & Spirits Law Conference will be held on September 22-23, 2016 in Colorado Springs, CO to discuss the latest developments in alcohol policy and practice.  Co-Chair and McDermott partner Marc Sorini has again lined up a great program of speakers on legal topics of interest to the industry.  In addition, Marc and McDermott Partner Andrew B. Kratenstein will give the following presentations:

  • Thursday, September 22, 9:30-10:15 am: Marc will help kick off the conference by discussing the intersection of the First Amendment and tied-house law.
  • Thursday, September 22, 3:15-4:30 pm: Andrew will join three other lawyers to explore the strategies and tactics of supplier-distributor disputes, touching on venue, injunctions and other topics.

For more information or to register, please visit http://www.cle.com/Broadmoor.

The annual Craft Brewers’ Conference will be held on May 3-6, 2016 in Philadelphia, PA. McDermott partner, Marc Sorini will give two presentations:

  • Wednesday, May 4, 1:20-2:20 pm: Marc will kick off his annual government affairs presentation by summarizing the results of recent research to be published in The New Brewer proving that no legally-mandated three-tier system existed immediately following the repeal of Prohibition. He then will provide an update on the biggest legal issues facing the industry during the past year, including recent tied-house/trade practice activities, the false advertising class actions and a distribution update.
  • Friday, May 6, 1:55-2:55 pm: Marc will join two other lawyers and moderator Bill Covaleski of Victory Brewing to explore the issue of beer “franchise law” reform.

For more information or to register, please visit http://www.craftbrewersconference.com/.

The latest merits decision in the ongoing false advertising/labeling class actions appears here.  This case involves allegations that the labeling and marketing of Red Stripe Beer misleads consumers into thinking they are purchasing beer made in Jamaica from Jamaican ingredients.  In fact, production of Red Stripe for the US market moved to the US in 2012.  The Southern District of California’s Dumas v. Diageo PLC decision to dismiss the plaintiffs’ case gives hope that companies with alcohol beverage brands originating overseas can produce those brands in the US without facing significant litigation risk.

The plaintiffs brought their case under several California statues and also alleged negligent and intentional misrepresentation.  Central to the plaintiffs’ allegations were statements on Red Stripe’s secondary packaging and labeling that the beer was a “Jamaican Style Lager” and contained “The Taste of Jamaica.”  The plaintiffs also pointed to the labeling and packaging’s continued display of the original Jamaican brewer’s logo as evidence of deception.  Finally, the plaintiffs pointed to the label’s statement that the beer “embodied the spirit, rhythm and pulse of Jamaica and its people.”  Of course, the labels and secondary packaging did disclose that the US market beer was brewed and bottled in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

Looking only at the complaint and before any discovery, the court dismissed the case, concluding that “no reasonable consumer would be misled into thinking that Red Stripe is made in Jamaica with Jamaican ingredients based on the wording of the packaging and labeling.”  More specifically:

  • The mere fact that the words “Jamaica” and Jamaican” appear on the packaging does not support a conclusion that consumers would be confused about the origin and ingredients of the beer.
  • The statements on Red Stripe were similar to those made with respect to a “Swiss Army knife” – just as “Swiss” modified “Army,” in this case “Jamaican” modifies “Style” and does not connote the actual place of production.
  • Red Stripe’s display of “Jamaican Style” and similar claims are similar to Blue Moon making a “Belgian-Style Wheat Ale” and Harpoon making a “Belgian Style Pale Ale.”
  • “Taste of Jamaica” is too vague and meaningless to form the basis of a false advertising claim.
  • Red Stripe presents different facts from the facts that give rise to the false advertising case involving Beck’s Beer, where the labeling and packaging stated “Originating in Germany,” “brewed under the German Purity Law of 1516,” and “German quality.”
  • Even though consumers may have already held an expectation that Red Stripe is brewed in Jamaica based on past production on the island, no legal authority places a duty on marketers to counter such pre-conceived notions.

On the basis of this reasoning, the court dismissed the plaintiffs’ complaint as a matter of law.  It did, however, dismiss the case “without prejudice,” which will give the plaintiffs 15 days (until April 21, 2016) to assert new claims that might survive dismissal.

The Dumas opinion represents merely one battle won (at least temporarily) in what will no doubt prove a long war over alcohol beverage labeling in the United States.  Nevertheless, it provides helpful reasoning that may eventually influence other courts and provide guidance to marketers in the future.

Industry members should take note of several false advertising lawsuits against brewers and distillers. Several industry members are grappling with class action lawsuits, including at least three craft distillers. Compared to national ad campaigns from larger competitors, most small producer advertising is limited. But do not make the mistake of believing that modest advertising efforts eliminate the risk of enforcement actions or other liability. Thousands of industry websites and social media pages make tens of thousands of advertising claims. As companies achieve success, its brands gain visibility and the company will draw more scrutiny from class action plaintiffs’ lawyers, competitors and regulatory bodies.

Read the full article, originally published in the May/June 2015 issue of The New Brewer.

On January 10, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal by Pom Wonderful LLC against The Coca-Cola Company.  The Court will examine whether Pom can bring a federal Lanham Act false advertising claim against a Minute Maid juice product label that had been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  (Pom Wonderful LLC v. The Coca-Cola Co., U.S. Supreme Court case no. 12-761).

At issue in the lawsuit is a Minute Maid label for “Pomegranate Blueberry Flavored Blend of 5 Juices.”  The label presents the words “Pomegranate Blueberry” in larger type than the remainder of the phrase.  Pom claimed that the label was misleading because the product contains 0.3 percent pomegranate juice and 0.2 percent blueberry juice.

A California federal trial court and the 9th Circuit federal appeals court in California both ruled that Pom could not bring a Lanham Act false advertising claim against the label, since it had been specifically examined and approved by the FDA.  Pom has argued that the decisions were contrary to established law in other U.S. courts, and that federal regulations establish a floor –but not a ceiling — on what an advertiser is required to do to avoid a claim that the advertising is false and misleading.  Coca-Cola has argued that product labeling that is specifically authorized by the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) and approved by the FDA cannot be charged as false or misleading under another federal statute such as the Lanham Act.

Although the question before the Supreme Court is whether a private party can bring a Lanham Act claim challenging a product label regulated under the FDCA, the Supreme Court’s decision could potentially have significant implications for the alcohol beverage industry.  For example:

  • If the Supreme Court rules that a competitor cannot bring a Lanham Act claim against a label that has been approved by the FDA, a natural question is whether the same rule will apply with regard to alcohol beverage labels that have been reviewed and approved by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) (by its terms, the Federal Alcohol Administration Act does not preempt the Lanham Act); and
  • If a Lanham Act claim would be barred against labels approved by TTB, a question may arise about whether a Lanham Act claim would be barred on elements of the label that TTB does not specifically review as a matter of policy – such as contrast, size and placement of label elements.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear argument this spring and decide the case by June 2014.  Depending on the decision, alcohol beverage industry members could find they have additional insulation against a federal false advertising claim, but they may likewise be limited in bringing a federal false advertising lawsuit against a competitor’s label that has been approved by TTB.