Supreme Court Rules that Coca-Cola can be Sued for Leaving Pomegranate out of Pomegranate Drinks

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Marketing a product that has virtually none of the ingredient featured on the label is grounds for being sued for false advertising, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in a case involving Coca-Cola and pomegranate juice.

 

The soft drink giant was sued by Pom Wonderful for selling a competing beverage, Pomegranate Blueberry Flavored Blend of Five Juices, which contains almost no pomegranate. The Coca-Cola product has, the court said, only 0.3% pomegranate juice, but 99.4% apple and grape juices.

 

That’s why in an 8-0 decision (with Justice Stephen Breyer recusing himself) the court reversed a lower court ruling that halted Pom Wonderful’s litigation.

 

If “Coca-Cola stands behind this label as being fair to consumers,” Justice Anthony Kennedy reportedly told Coca-Cola’s lawyer, “then I think you have a very difficult case to make. I think it’s relevant for us to ask whether people are cheated in buying this product.”

 

Coca-Cola and its subsidiary Minute Maid have argued that they couldn’t be sued because they met certain requirements under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA). But Pom Wonderful said their competitor was in violation of another federal law, the Lanham Act, which bars false advertising.

 

Kennedy, who wrote the court’s opinion, said the two acts have coexisted for nearly 70 years, and that one does not overrule the other. “When two statutes complement each other,” Kennedy wrote, “it would show disregard for the congressional design to hold that Congress nonetheless intended one federal statute to preclude the operation of the other.”

 

 

The Lanham Act “is for competitors, not consumers,” he wrote, while the FDCA “is designed primarily to protect the health and safety of the public at large.”

 

Coca-Cola’s attorney, Kathleen M. Sullivan, tried to make the case that the public could tell the difference between the products, according to The New York Times. “We don’t think that consumers are quite as unintelligent as Pom must think they are,” adding: “They know when something is a flavored blend of five juices and the nonpredominant juices are just a flavor.”

 

Justice Kennedy frowned. “Don’t make me feel bad,” he said, “because I thought that this was pomegranate juice.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff

 

To Learn More:

Supreme Court Says Coca-Cola Can Be Sued Over Juice Drink Label (by Robert Barnes, Washington Post)

Coke Can Be Sued by Rival Over Juice Claim, Court Says (by Adam Liptak, New York Times)

POM Wonderful v. Coca-Cola (U.S. Supreme Court) (pdf)

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