Alcohol Labeling

MillerCoors Over the Moon

** Brewer prevails against Blue Moon “Craft Beer” false advertising suit **

Craft beers in different bottles.

We’ve blogged in the past about the raft of consumer class actions hitting beer and spirits makers – particularly lawsuits targeting manufacturers with claims that terms such as “handcrafted” or “handmade” are misleading if used by companies employing typical mass-production methods.  For example in Parent v. MillerCoors LLC., No. 15-cv-01204-GPC-WVG (S.D. Cal. May 30, 2015), MillerCoors – maker of that campus staple, Keystone Light (among a host of other brews) — was sued based on the premise that it’s Blue Moon beer misleads consumers into believing it is a “microbrew” or “craft beer” by using those terms in its advertising and by withholding the name “MillerCoors” from its label.

On October 26, 2015, the court granted MillerCoor’s  first motion to dismiss.  Dkt No. 17.

The court found that a reasonable consumer was not likely to be deceived by Defendant’s representations because MillerCoors’ use of the “Artfully Crafted” trademark was mere puffery.  Id. at 12–16.  The court also rejected Plaintiff’s argument that Blue Moon’s “placement among other craft beers” in retail stores was deceptive because Plaintiff did not allege, and provided no factual allegations from which the court could reasonably infer, that MillerCoors had any control over where retailers place Blue Moon on their shelves.  Id.  Plaintiff was given leave to amend, however, which he did, focusing his amended argument on the definition of “craft beer” set forth by the Brewer’s Association (and in various common dictionaries) providing that a “craft beer” connotes a beer made by traditional or non-mechanized means.  Dkt No. 19.  Plaintiff also alleged that the price differential between Blue Moon and comparable non-craft beers was, itself, a representation that the beer was superior.

The court rejected these arguments and dismissed the second amended complaint — this time with prejudice.  Parent v. Millercoors LLC, No. 3:15-CV-1204-GPC-WVG, 2016 WL 3348818, at *6 (S.D. Cal. June 16, 2016).  Again, the court considered MillerCoors’ Blue Moon advertising, as far as it pertains to representations about “craft beer,” as non-actionable puffery.  Id. ([T]he “advertisements contain ‘generalized, vague, and unspecified assertions’ that amount to ‘mere puffery upon which a reasonable consumer could not rely.’”)  Further, the court rejected Plaintiff’s argument that the price of a product can constitute a representation or statement of product quality.  Id. (citing Boris v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 35 F. Supp. 3d 1163, 1169 (C.D. Cal. 2014) (finding that the price of a migraine medication did not constitute a representation or statement about the product that could support consumer claims against a retailer under the UCL, CLRA, or FAL)).

Our takeaway:  Drink what you like.  Beer snobbery will get you nowhere.

 

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Safe Harbor for Vodka

**District Court Applies Federal Alcohol Administration Act to State Consumer Law Safe Harbor to Dismiss “Handmade” False Advertising Claims Against Vodka Maker in Florida** . . .                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Recently there has been a raft of purported class actions targeting beer and spirits makers.  See prior post.  Generally, defendants have been successful on motions to dismiss on their argument that puffery such as “handmade” or “craft” are not actionable terms.  Defendants generally have not been successful in asserting an absolute defense based on state law safe harbors.  The safe harbor defense is not complicated –  a state consumer law action cannot be asserted against labels authorized by federal law – and in that alcohol labels must be approved by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), then alcohol makers have an absolute defense.  Courts have been reticent to accept this argument at the pleading stage.  In a recent Florida district court case, common sense on this point has prevailed.  In Pye v. Fifth Generation, Inc., No. 4:14CV493-RH/CAS, 2015 WL 5634600, at *1 (N.D. Fla. Sept. 23, 2015), defendants – the makers of Tito’s Handmade Vodka – were sued (inter alia) under Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, Florida Statutes§§ 501.201-501.213 (DUTPA) on the allegation that “handmade” and “old fashioned” claims were misleading.  DUPTA includes a safe-harbor provision: it “does not apply to … an act or practice required or specifically permitted by federal or state law.” § 501.212(1).  The safe harbor has been successfully used by pharmaceutical companies (i.e. whose products are heavily regulated by the FDA) in relation to their labeling.  See, e.g., State of Fla., Office of Atty. Gen., Dept. of Legal Affairs v. Tenet Healthcare Corp., 420 F. Supp. 2d 1288, 1310 (S.D. Fla. 2005); Prohias v. AstraZeneca Pharm., L.P., 958 So. 2d 1054, 1056 (Fla. 3d DCA 2007).  The Federal Alcohol Administration Act (FAA) regulates the distribution of distilled spirits, including labeling and packaging. See 27 U.S.C. § 205(e); 27 C.F.R. § 5.42(a).  The TTB enforces these provisions in a number of ways, chiefly through requiring alcohol labels to have a valid Certificate of Label Approval (“COLA”).  Before issuing a COLA, the TTB evaluates and preapproves the alcohol label to ensure it contains all mandatory information and contains no prohibited or misleading information.  The court noted in Pye that the TTB had expressly approved Defendant’s label and, therefore, it was specifically permitted by federal law within the meaning of Florida Statutes (§ 501.212.)  On that basis, plaintiff’s Florida consumer protection claims were dismissed with prejudice.

 

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Craft, Draft or Daft?

 

**Plaintiffs’ Lawyers Failing to Get Traction in Craft Beer and Spirit False Advertising Claims That “Handmade” or “Craft” is a Misleading Term in the Context of Alcohol Labels ** . . .                                                                                                                                                                             

Plaintiff lawyers have recently set their site on beer and spirits manufacturers claiming that terms used in advertising such as “handcrafted”, “handmade” or the imprimatur of “craft beer” are being used misleadingly by mass producers.  Several defendants have been successful to date in having the cases dismissed on the pleadings.  In Nowrouzi v. Maker’s Mark Distillery, Inc., No. 14CV2885 JAH NHS, 2015 WL 4523551, at *1 (S.D. Cal. July 27, 2015), plaintiffs allege that they purchased Maker’s Mark Bourbon because its label contained the statement that it was “handmade,” which allegedly led plaintiffs to believe the spirit “was of superior quality” than other bourbon (thus justifying spending more for defendant’s product than other bourbons).  Unsurprisingly, Maker’s Mark bourbon is made with machines.  In a similar action (bought by the same Plaintiff firm) In Welk v. Beam Suntory Imp. Co., No. 15CV328-LAB JMA, 2015 WL 5022527, at *1 (S.D. Cal. Aug. 21, 2015). plaintiffs allege they were misled by the word “handcrafted” on Jim Beam Bourbon bottle labels.  In each case plaintiffs sued under the usual tripartite in California: the CLRA (Cal. Civ. Code § 1750 et seq.); FAL (Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17500 et seq.; and UCL (Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17200 et seq.).  In both cases the district court dismissed with prejudice finding that the use of the impugned terms “handmade” and “handcrafted” were non-actionable puffery.  Those terms were generalized, vague, statements and it was unreasonable to imbue in them that the product literally was created by hand without any involvement of equipment or automated process.  This reasoning follows a Florida case with respect to Jim Beam where the court dismissing with prejudice held that “no reasonable person would understand ‘handmade’ in this context to mean literally by hand. No reasonable person would understand ‘handmade’ in this context to mean substantial equipment was not used.”  Salters v. Beam Suntory, Inc., 2015 WL 2124939 (N.D.Fla. May 1, 2015).

That said, not all Defendants have been so lucky – a few plaintiffs have navigated their way out of the pleading stage.  In Aliano v. Louisville Distilling Co., LLC, No. 15 C 00794, 2015 WL 4429202 (N.D. Ill. July 20, 2015), plaintiffs argued that Angel’s Envy Rye Whiskey, which is described in advertising as “hand crafted” and “small batch” was mass-produced and thus deceptive.  The court permitted the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Trade Practices Act case to proceed.  It distinguished Salters noting that Angel’s Envy was a much smaller brand and a consumer could reasonably believe the phrase “hand crafted” on the finished whiskey label meant it was not mass-produced.  In Hofmann v. Fifth Generation, Inc., No. 14-CV-2569 JM JLB, 2015 WL 5440330, at *8 (S.D. Cal. Mar. 18, 2015), the court deferred on this same question refusing to dismiss the complaint against the makers of Tito’s Handmade Vodka, stating that as a matter of law it could not make the determination that the reasonable consumer would not be misled.

A couple of similar cases in this area are currently pending.  In Parent v. MillerCoors LLC., No. 15-cv-01204-GPC-WVG (S.D. Cal.), MillerCoors is being sued on an allegation that its Blue Moon beer misleads consumers into believing it is a “microbrew” or “craft” beer” by using those terms in its advertising and by withholding the name “MillerCoors” from its label.  Plaintiff claims that the definition of “craft beer” set forth by the Brewer’s Association, a not-for-profit trade association, governs.  While it is undisputed that MillerCoors does not qualify as a “Craft Brewer” pursuant to those guidelines, Miller has moved to dismiss on the basis that such guidelines are not controlling.  Miller has also moved on the basis that the use of the words “craft” and “crafted” in their advertising are colorful and vague – i.e. mere puffery – and not actionable.

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