June 12, 2014

Supreme Court Decides POM Wonderful LLC v. Coca-Cola Co.

On June 12, 2014, the United States Supreme Court held that competitors may bring Lanham Act claims challenging food and beverage labels regulated by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA).

Petitioner POM Wonderful LLC makes and sells juice products, including a pomegranate-blueberry juice blend. Coca-Cola Company makes a juice blend with a label that prominently displays the words "pomegranate" and "blueberry" but contains only 0.3 percent pomegranate juice and 0.2 percent blueberry juice. POM Wonderful brought a Lanham Act claim against Coca-Cola, alleging that Coca-Cola's label was deceptive and misleading and that the label hurt sales of POM Wonderful's juice. The district court held, and the Ninth Circuit agreed, that the FDCA and its regulations governing food and beverage labeling precluded POM Wonderful's Lanham Act claim.

The Supreme Court reversed. Relying on traditional rules of statutory interpretation, the Court noted that neither statute expressly precludes Lanham Act claims for products regulated by the FDCA. Further, the two statutes have co-existed for nearly 70 years; since then, Congress has amended both statutes—including adding a state preemption provision to the FDCA—without addressing FDCA preclusion of Lanham Act claims. This absence suggests Congress's intent not to preclude Lanham Act claims. The Court also found that the two statutes "complement each other," but "the Lanham Act protects commercial interests against unfair competition, while the FDCA protects public health and safety." And, though the Food and Drug Administration enforces the FDCA, the Lanham Act "empower[s] private parties to sue competitors to protect their interests on a case-by-case basis." Thus, the Court concluded that the FDCA did not preclude a competitor from bringing a Lanham Act claim relating to the labeling of food and beverages.

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, which was unanimous except as to Justice Breyer who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Download Opinion of the Court

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