Supreme Court rules POM may sue Coca-Cola

by Jeff Gelski
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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 12 that POM Wonderful, L.L.C. may take the Coca-Cola Co. to court over allegations that Coca-Cola’s marketing of Minute Maid pomegranate blueberry juice is misleading. The juice contains 0.3% pomegranate juice and 0.2% blueberry juice. Less expensive apple juice and grape juice combine to make up more than 99% of the product.

POM Wonderful, Los Angeles, sued Coca-Cola, Atlanta, under the Lanham Act. Coca-Cola argued the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act should apply and not the Lanham Act. A Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco eventually ruled in favor of Coca-Cola and denied a POM Wonderful petition to rehear the case.

The 8-0 Supreme Court vote rescinded the ruling of the appeals court.  Justice Stephen Breyer did not take part in the case. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy delivered the Supreme Court’s opinion.

“The ruling that POM’s Lanham Act cause of action is precluded by the F.D.C.A was incorrect,” Mr. Kennedy wrote. “There is no statutory text or established interpretive principle to support the contention that the F.D.C.A. precludes Lanham Act suits like the one brought by POM in this case.”

He wrote the F.D.C.A. and the Lanham Act complement each other in the federal regulation of misleading food and beverage labels.

“Competitors, in their own interest, may bring Lanham Act claims like POM’s that challenge food and beverage labels that are regulated by the F.D.C.A.,” Mr. Kennedy wrote.

He added that the F.D.C.A. is designed primarily to protect the health and safety of the public and that private parties may not bring enforcement suits under the F.D.C.A. In contrast, the Lanham Act relies in substantial part for its enforcement on private suits brought by injured competitors, Mr. Kennedy wrote.

“We respect the court’s decision and remain committed to clear labeling that fully complies with F.D.A. regulations,” the Coca-Cola Co. said. “The court has decided that even though the name and label for our product was authorized by F.D.A. regulations, POM is entitled to present its legal claims to a jury. We intend to defend against POM’s claims that our labeling is misleading, and the evidence at trial will show that our product was not the cause of POM’s poor sales.”

POM Wonderful markets and sells a variety of pomegranate products, including a pomegranate-blueberry juice blend that the company says is 85% pomegranate juice and 15% blueberry juice. The Coca-Cola Co. launched its Minute Maid pomegranate blueberry juice in 2007. POM Wonderful originally sued Coca-Cola in 2008.

Mr. Kennedy gave details on marketing of the Minute Maid product. The front label displays the words “pomegranate blueberry” in all capital letters on two separate lines. The phrase “flavored blend of 5 juices” is in smaller type. In even smaller type are the words “from concentrate with added ingredients.” The product’s front label displays a vignette of blueberries, grapes and raspberries in front of a halved pomegranate and a halved apple.

The Supreme Court ruled POM Wonderful’s case against Coca-Cola could go forward.

“The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion,” Mr. Kennedy wrote.

POM Wonderful, L.L.C. is part of Wonderful Brands, which also includes Wonderful Pistachios, Wonderful Almonds and Wonderful Halos.

“The unanimous court ruling will translate into higher assurance for consumers that the labels on beverage and food are accurate,” Wonderful Brands said. “Focused on healthy products for healthy lifestyles, Wonderful Brands cares deeply about the health issues that consumers face today. We believe that when people better understand what they are consuming, they can make more healthy and informed decisions about what they buy.”

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