Supreme Court Justices Batter Coca-Cola on Minute Maid Label

minute-maid-pom-blueJustices of the U.S. Supreme Court repeatedly challenged an attorney for Coca-Cola, who defended her client on Monday against claims that the label of a blended fruit juice misleads consumers.

During the hearing Monday, the Court heard arguments from the attorneys of POM Wonderful, Coke and the Department of Justice, the last of which acted as amicus curiae, supporting neither party.

In the case, which started in 2008 in The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, POM, which markets a line of pomegranate juice products, claimed that Coke misleads consumers with its Minute Maid pomegranate and blueberry flavored juice blend because the product is made with 99 percent apple and grape juice, 0.3 percent pomegranate juice and 0.2 percent blueberry.

Kathleen M. Sullivan, an attorney representing Coke, emphasized the word “blend” and points out that the ingredients are listed on the label in order of predominance.

“We don’t think that consumers are quite as unintelligent as POM must think they are,” Sullivan said in court Monday. “They know when something is a flavored blend of five juices, the non-predominant juices are just a flavor.”

Seth P. Waxman, an attorney representing POM, repeatedly cited the Lanham Act, enacted in 1946, which prohibits trademark infringement and dilution and, most pertinent to this case, false advertising. He also cited Wyeth v. Levine, a Supreme Court case decided in March 2009, which concluded that federal approval of a medication does not shield it from state law. The latter case is of significance because the label in question complies with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) labeling requirements, according to a lower court that dismissed POM’s suit.

Aside from a likely request for monetary relief, Waxman made it clear that POM seeks injunctive relief that would force Coke to cease using the label as it currently exists, without saying what label would be lawful. Juries aren’t required or permitted to give prescriptive judgments, he said. Rather, they must decide if there’s enough evidence to judge that consumers were misled. In other words, the decision would “supply a floor and not a ceiling,” he said.

“Coke well knew and intentionally designed a label that, in fact, grossly misleads consumers to the economic disadvantage of the company that, in large part, created the market,” Waxman said.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who commonly acts as the deciding vote in the court’s 5-4 cases, outwardly expressed his doubts in Sullivan’s argument.

“Is it part of Coke’s narrow position,” he said, “that national uniformity consists in labels that cheat the consumers like this one did?”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor also challenged Sullivan, questioning the efficacy of the FDA as a reliable source in the argument.

“You’re permitted to use this name under their regulations,” Justice Sotomayor said. “But why are you permitted to use it in a misleading way?”

BevNET will follow with attorney reactions to the argument.