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Another Misleading Beer Packaging Case: A Step Beyond “Mere Puffery”

In the latest in a string of cases alleging misleading advertising of alcoholic beverages, a federal court in California recently refused to dismiss a case against Craft Brew Alliance, Inc. (“CBA”), makers of Kona Brewing Company beer. Broomfield v. Craft Brew Alliance, Inc., No. 17-cv-01027-BLF (Sept. 1, 2017).

You’ve probably seen the products – they are all Hawaiian-themed, with names like Longboard Island Lager, Big Wave Golden Ale, Hanalei Island IPA, etc. Kona Brewing Company does have a brewery in Hawaii, but the only beer produced there is draft beer to be sold in Hawaii. All of the bottled and canned product, and draft sold outside of Hawaii, is brewed at CBA’s breweries in OR, WA, NH and TN.

The plaintiffs alleged that they were misled by the product packaging and believed the products were produced in Hawaii. Had they known that the products were brewed on the US mainland, they claim they would not have bought them or would not have been willing to pay as much for them. They brought claims based on violations of California’s unfair competition and false advertising statutes, as well as breach of warranty, fraud, intentional misrepresentation, etc., and are attempting to get the case certified as a class action.

The CBA filed a motion to dismiss, relying in part on previous cases involving Red Stripe and Sapporo where plaintiffs had claimed the product packaging misrepresented the origin of the beers. Those cases were dismissed because the allegedly misleading statements on the labels were “vague and meaningless” and not likely to deceive a reasonable consumer into believing the beers were made in Jamaica or Japan, respectively. Moreover, the packaging clearly indicated where the beers were made. CBA argued in this case that the references to Hawaii were either true, or were “mere puffery,” and not likely to deceive a reasonable consumer.

The court said it would have dismissed the complaint against CBA if the only allegedly misleading references to Hawaii were pictures of surfboards and Hawaiian imagery, and vague language like “Liquid Aloha.” But the packaging on these products went further, and included a map of Hawaii that showed the location of the Kona brewery, with the statement “visit our brewery and pubs when you are in Hawaii.” Further, the references to the other US breweries where the beers are made only appears on the can/bottle labels, not on the outer packaging, so it would not have been visible to a consumer purchasing a 12-pack, for example. And the only visible address on the outer packaging was an address in Kona, Hawaii. The court held that those were “specific and measurable representations of fact” that could be sufficient to deceive a reasonable consumer.

Exactly what can and cannot be said on product packaging without being misleading is not a black-and-white test – courts apply a reasonableness standard, which necessarily involves some subjectivity. In the Kona Brewing case, the court noted that references to Hawaii and its culture generally, and language that evokes the “spirit” of Hawaii or that claim the beer is “Hawaiian-style” wouldn’t have been actionable.

The court’s decision was only at the motion to dismiss stage, and does not mean that the CBA’s Kona Brewing company packaging will ultimately be found misleading. But this decision illustrates that not all packaging statements will be allowed as mere “puffery,” so suppliers would be wise to consider carefully references to locations and cultures different than the location where the products are produced.

Strike & Techel will follow this case, and will post future updates on this blog. If you have any questions about alcohol labeling, packaging, or advertising, contact one of the attorneys at Strike & Techel.

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