Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Colorado labeling doesn't dispel potential falsity of "Kona" for coffee

Corker v. Costco Wholesale Corp., 2019 WL 5887340, No. C19-0290RSL (W.D. Wash. Nov. 12, 2019)

Plaintiffs, coffee farmers in the Kona District of the Big Island of Hawaii, alleged that defendant Boyer’s falsely designates the geographic origin of its coffee products as “Kona,” prominently placing the word Kona on the front of its packaging despite the fact that the product contains little to no coffee from the Kona District. One of Boyer’s coffee products is labeled “CafĂ© Kona” and another is labeled “Kona Blend.” In lab tests, ratios of various metal (strontium to zinc, barium to nickel, cobalt to zinc, and manganese to nickel) are allegedly well outside the range of that which is found in authentic Kona coffee. Even if there were some Kona coffee in Boyer’s products, it is allegedly not the meaningful percentage that a consumer would expect based on the packaging.

Boyer’s argued that the Lanham Act false advertising claims should fail because plaintiffs didn’t allege that that they, individually or as a group, have a protectable trademark in the word Kona. But “false designation of origin,” even before its expansion to cover unregistered trademarks, always covered geographic origin.

Boyer’s then argued that the claims were implausible because its packaging clearly showed that it was a Colorado company. But none of the statements about the Colorado-ness of the company “dispels the notion that the coffee roasted or crafted in Colorado was grown in the Kona district, a notion that is arguably conveyed by the use of the otherwise gratuitous word ‘Kona’ in the name of the product.” (Does anyone think, even with climate change, coffee roasted in Colorado is grown there?)

Finally, Boyer’s argued that the mere presence of a geographic reference on its packaging cannot give rise to claim for false designation of geographic origin. If, in context, the use of “Kona” was plausibly misleading, which it was, the claim could proceed.  (Citing Pernod Ricard USA, LLC v. Bacardi USA, Inc., 653 F.3d 241(3rd Cir. 2011)), which rejected a claim based on “Havana Club” for rum that clearly, to the court, also said it was from Puerto Rico).

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