The Minute Maid juice - which contained 0.3% pomegranate juice, 0.2% blueberry juice and 0.1% raspberry juice... and 99.4% of cheaper apple & grape juice - was discontinued in May 2014 owing to poor sales.
While Coca-Cola said it followed the letter of the law (the FDCA or federal Food Drug & Cosmetic Act) covering juice labeling (by describing the beverage as a 'flavored blend of 5 juices' and including pictures of all of them on the label), POM argued that consumers were being willfully misled.
After a six-day trial, however, a Los Angeles jury sided with Coca-Cola, and rejected POM’s claims (originally filed in 2008) that Coca-Cola deceived shoppers to gain an unfair competitive advantage.
Attorney: This case offers a rare glimpse into how jurors regard such claims
So what do food law attorneys – who have been following the case* very closely – make of Coca-Cola’s victory? And can regulatory affairs managers at food and beverage companies sleep a little more soundly tonight?
Dale Giali, partner in the LA office of law firm Mayer Brown, told FoodNavigator-USA: “While it’s a single verdict from one case among hundreds alleging food labeling deception, to me it demonstrates that there is a difference – sometimes a big difference – between a lawyer-driven theory of deception, on the one hand, and what consumers actually take away from a label, on the other.
“When put to the test before a jury, a labeling claim must be supported by evidence of deception. Here, POM failed completely (for the fourth time against fellow juice companies).
"The problem for defendants in these types of cases, however, is that it is very difficult to handicap what will and what will not resonate with a jury.”
POM got a major boost in 2014 after the Supreme Court gave it the green light to pursue the case.
Justice Kennedy was particularly unimpressed with Coca-Cola, asking whether it believed “that national uniformity consists in labels that cheat the consumers like this one did?” and adding: “Don't make me feel bad because I thought that this was pomegranate juice.”
Fast forward two years, however, and an LA-based jury disagreed, and has given Coca-Cola the benefit of the doubt, said Coca-Cola in a statement on Monday (March 21, 2016): “We are pleased and gratified by the jury’s verdict. As we have said all along, our flavored juice blend was clearly and properly labeled in compliance with all FDA requirements.”
POM Wonderful, not surprisingly, said it was "disappointed with the jury’s decision", adding: "We believe that Coca-Cola intentionally confused consumers with its so-called Minute Maid Pomegranate juice product, which had a mere 0.3% pomegranate juice; the rest was ordinary apple and grape juice.
"Food and beverage manufacturers have a responsibility to provide honest and accurate information about what’s in their products, and consumers have a right not to be deceived by products which aren’t as they appear."
Adam Fox, a partner at Squire Patton Boggs, added that the verdict provided rare insight into how jurors thought about food labels – as such cases almost never made it to trial stage.
“With so many cases about false advertising resolved by settlement or motion practice, this case offers a rare glimpse into how jurors regard the claims.
“Although many in the legal industry were surprised by the Supreme Court’s opinion that labeling regulations may not insulate a defendant from false advertising liability, in this case the jury made that a moot point by rejecting liability on the merits.”
"Suits between competitors for alleged labeling violations are rare, but I would not underestimate the impact of this verdict.
"There are hundreds of similar suits filed by the plaintiffs' bar on behalf of consumers, alleging that labels ‘misled’ consumers into paying a price premium for the products. With the exception of a defense jury verdict in Allen v. Hyland's late last year, there are virtually no jury verdicts in this space.
"The verdict in the POM v. Coca-Cola case is therefore significant and a potential setback for plaintiffs' lawyers pursing similar claims against the food industry. The POM verdict shows that juries in fact are willing to take reasonable, common sense approaches to these issues..."
Amanda L. Groves, head of litigation at Winston & Strawn's Charlotte office
*The case is: Pom Wonderful LLC v. The Coca-Cola Co., et al., 2:08-cv-06237, in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.