Its iconic soft drink may be the real thing, but as far as the Supreme Court is concerned Coca Cola’s pomegranate-blueberry juice blend is not. In a unanimous decision the justices gave Pom Wonderful permission to sue the soda giant for false advertising.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the 8-0 opinion for the High Court, which was announced June 12. Justice Stephen Breyer recused himself from the case but did not indicate why, which is the usual practice of the court.
The ruling states labels on Coke’s Minute Maid brand “Pomegranate Blueberry” beverage are misleading because the product contains only a “minuscule amount of pomegranate and blueberry juices.”
Specifically, Kennedy wrote the product it is “99.4% apple and grape juices, 0.3% pomegranate juice, 0.2% blueberry juice and 0.1% raspberry juice.” The justice made similar comments when the court heard oral arguments in the case.
If “Coca Cola stands behind this label as being fair to consumers,” Kennedy told the company’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.”
Pom took the case to the Supreme Court after lower courts ruled in favor of Coke. Coke contends the Minute Maid labels technically comply with federal law and Food and Drug Administration rules.
Company officials at the Los Angeles-based Pom Wonderful have not indicated what their next legal step will be, but they did issue a statement applauding the ruling.
“It is a real victory for consumers,” according to the Pom statement. “We believe that when people better understand what they are consuming, they can make healthier and more informed decisions about what they buy. The unanimous court ruling will translate into higher assurance for consumers that the labels on beverage and food are accurate.”
The legal question considered by the court involved how to balance the application of two federal laws. The Lanham Act, known as the false-advertising law, allows private lawsuits about misleading advertising. The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act addresses labeling in the interest of protecting the public health and safety.
Coke contends their labels meet the food and drug rules, which the soda company says preempt the false advertising law.
Justice Kennedy disagreed and the rest of the court supported his assessment. The opinion states that the statutes complement each other, rather than compete with each other. Kennedy also wrote that competitors such as Pom Wonderful have the incentive and expertise to help the government enforce the false-advertising law.
Ironically, Pom Wonderful is awaiting a ruling from the Federal Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. on its own labels for its 100% pomegranate juice and related products.
The Federal Trade Commission is challenging the labels, contending they illegally make claims about treating, preventing and curing heart disease, prostate cancer and erectile dysfunction. The appeals judges did not indicate when they would issue a ruling in the case, which was argued May 2.