“If I wanted American beer, I would have bought Budweiser” – that’s what the plaintiff in the recently dismissed class action against Sapporo told the New York Post back when they reported on her filing the lawsuit.
The plaintiff in this suit went after Sapporo claiming that the packaging mislead consumers into believing the beer “is manufactured in and imported from Japan.” You can read the complaint here. She wanted money damages and asserted that because the beer is made in the U.S. or Canada and argued that Sapporo had collected “millions of dollars” because people bought a beer that’s not “what they bargained for.”
The Complaint alleged that Sapporo marketed its beer using the following advertisements and slogans:
– A television commercial with imagery of a “Japanese landscape being traveled into American landscape,” ending with the slogan “The Original Japanese Beer;”
– Slogans “Sapporo—the Original Japanese Beer” and “Japan’s Oldest Brand;”
– Statement on Defendant’s website that “Sapporo is the original Japanese beer;”
– Image of the North Star, a “symbol of pioneers in the area of Sapporo” on labels.
The Complaint also stated that the beers brewed in Canada had the word “Imported” on the front, but the beers brewed in Wisconsin did not. Which makes them true – something this complaint glossed over.
Sapporo asked the Court to dismiss the case. And the Court (opinion here) obliged noting that with regard to the origin claims, the labels stated either that the beer originated in either Wisconsin, USA or Ontario, Canada. Interestingly, the Court cottoned to a few recent examples for these types of statements being “disclaimers” that would prohibit a consumer from claiming false advertising. The first was the Havana Club case where the 3rd Circuit found that the claim “distilled and crafted in Puerto Rico” was a clear statement that overcame claims that “Havana Club” as a name was misleading and falsely implied the product was made in Havana. The second was the recent District Court determination dismissing a similar origin lawsuit which alleged that Red Stripe’s use of “Jamaican Style Lager” and “Taste of Jamaica” as slogans was misleading and falsely implied the beer was made in Jamaica. The Court rejected those claims noting that it was unreasonable to claim a misleading impression when the labels all say “Brewed & bottled by Red Stripe Beer Company Latrobe, PA.”
Drawing on those decisions and distinguishing the issue from a VitaminWater lawsuit that didn’t get dismissed, the Court noted:
In the present case, Sapporo discloses its product origin in a standalone statement, unlike the line listing the sugar content on the vitaminwater nutrition label. Unlike the slogan “vitamins + water = what’s in your hand,” Sapporo’s use of the term “Imported” is a truthful statement, and qualified by the visible disclosure statement specifying the beer’s origin in Canada. Sapporo’s marketing and slogans allude to the company’s actual Japanese heritage and are clearly qualified by the disclaimer.
These opinions are going to start to build on each other. Given the recent lawsuit filed against Kona Brewing, it’s likely that claims and suits are going to need a greater level of detail and specificity in the initial pleadings to enjoy a life beyond a motion to dismiss stage.
This is good news for brewers, distillers, vintners, food companies, everyone in general. Well defined guidelines and principles help manufacturers and consumers. In knowing that a proper disclosure can make or break such a case, don’t forget that nothing has changed the fact that it is still not proper to have a disclaimer directly contradicting some prior statement (e.g. saying “Made in Japan*” on the front of the can with an asterisk and then “*not really made in Japan” on the back of a can).