The Supreme Court decided this morning that Coca-Cola could not hide behind FDA regulations to avoid a Lanham Act false advertising claim. POM Wonderful sued Coke for selling juice prominently labeled “pomegranate blueberry.” The juice contained 0.3% pomegranate juice, 0.2% blueberry juice, and 99.4% apple and grape juices. What would you call it? That was the court’s reaction too.
POM sued Coke for false advertising under the Lanham Act which is mostly about trademarks, but it also gives competitors the right to file a federal lawsuit to stop false or misleading product descriptions. Coke said its label complied with the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) and the FDAC should trump the Lanham Act. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.
But the Supreme Court today ruled the two federal laws had peacefully coexisted over 70 years with no suggestion one could nullify, “preclude,” the other. The Lanham Act is enforced by private lawsuits. The FDCA is enforced by government action. The FDA doesn’t pre-approve labels like the one on Coke’s products. That is mainly due to lack of enforcement resources. It has too much to do on far more pressing issues.
The decision by Justice Kennedy is unanimous for the eight justices who participated. It observes that neither law has a section precluding part of the other, and then goes more deeply into each to explain they easily work to complement each other.
The decision rejects Coke’s argument that the FDCA’s more specific regulations of food labels prevents a Lanham Act claim if the labels comply with what the FDA requires. It also rejects government arguments which differed from Coke’s, but supported its view that the FDCA controlled the Lanham Act.
The court recognizes the truth that the people who make products like POM and Coke know far more about them than government regulators. So allowing private lawsuits for false advertising adds an important watchdog to protect consumers.
When you strip away the technical points the court had to cover, what is left is pure common sense. A bottle with the words pomegranate and blueberry standing out from all the others ought to be what the marketing people are making you think it is.