(Adds reactions of Coke, POM)
By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON, June 12 The U.S. Supreme Court ruled
on Thursday that drink producer POM Wonderful LLC can sue over
allegations that Coca-Cola Co has misled consumers over
its marketing of Minute Maid pomegranate blueberry juice.
The court ruled in favor of POM on an 8-0 vote, with Justice
Stephen Breyer recused. POM had filed a lawsuit against
Coca-Cola saying it had misled customers by selling a
pomegranate blueberry juice even though it had 0.5 percent of
the two juices. POM, which makes a drink that is 100 percent
pomegranate, said the label would hurt sales for its own
Although the case pitted two businesses against each other,
POM hailed the ruling as a victory for consumers.
"We believe that when people better understand what they are
consuming, they can make healthy and more informed decisions
about what they buy," the company said in a statement. POM
Wonderful also makes food products.
Both a U.S. District Court in California and a federal
appeals court said that POM could not bring its claims under the
federal Lanham Act but the Supreme Court reversed that finding.
"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," Coca-Cola said
in a statement.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote on behalf of a unanimous court
that challenges such as POM's are permitted even though food and
beverage labels are regulated under another federal law, the
Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.
The lower courts had said that it was the prerogative of the
Food and Drug Administration, and not private parties, to object
to juice labels which are potentially misleading.
Various business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of
Commerce and the American Beverage Association, had backed
Coca-Cola in the case. The federal government filed a brief
supporting neither side, saying some claims could move forward
but not others.
Kennedy wrote that, contrary to what Coca-Cola argued, the
two laws complement each other. He noted, for example, that the
FDA "does not have the same perspective or expertise in
assessing market dynamics that day-to-day competitors possess."
POM has itself run into legal problems over allegations of
misleading consumers. In January 2013, the Federal Trade
Commission said the company was deceptive in advertising that
its pomegranate juice and other products had been clinically
proven to reduce the risk of heart disease and other ailments.
That case is currently on appeal.
Justices do not usually reveal why they recuse themselves in
cases so it was not disclosed why Breyer did not participate.
The case is POM Wonderful LLC v. The Coca-Cola Company, No.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Diane
Bartz; Editing by Howard Goller and Meredith Mazzilli)