Coca-Cola Loses Initial Trial In ‘Right Of Publicity’ Brawl Over Use Of Juice Seller’s Image

Posted by David Siegel on Dec 12, 2019 8:10:09 PM

Monster CEO

CVN screenshot of Monster Beverage CEO Rodney Sacks testifying in the first phase of the trial 

San Diego, CA - A California state court judge ruled Tuesday that the heirs of juice-maker Hubert Hansen control the rights to his name and image and not Coca-Cola, setting the stage for a second trial to determine damages with more than $14 million potentially at stake.

San Diego County Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor issued his ruling following a five-day bench trial that concluded November 25. That initial trial, which was webcast and recorded gavel-to-gavel by Courtroom View Network, determined whether or not California’s “ Right of Publicity Law” applies to Hansen’s name and likeness. The law prohibits unauthorized uses of a person’s name or likeness for commercial purposes.

Hansen family attorney Neville Johnson of Johnson & Johnson LLP told CVN he would seek $14 million in the upcoming damages phase, plus unspecified attorneys fees that could also reach into the millions. A third trial phase to determine punitive damages could potentially follow.

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“Our team is very proud to represent such an incredible and deserving group of clients and we look forward to the next phase of the trial,” Johnson wrote in an email.

A representative for Coke did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Hubert Hansen founded a juice company in 1935 that, following a series of name changes and bankruptcy reorganizations, eventually became Monster Beverage Corporation in 2012. In 2015 Coke took ownership of Hansen’s juice products and sodas, Hubert’s Lemonade, Blue Sky sodas, Peace Tea and other non-energy drink brands, in exchange for their energy drink brands.

Hubert’s grandchildren sued Coke in 2016, claiming that while Coke did acquire various copyrights and trademarks associated with the Hansen brand, they did not obtain the rights to use Hansen’s actual name and likeness. They claimed Coke’s ongoing use of Hansen’s name and image violated the right of publicity statute.

Coke argued the Hansen family’s claims are baseless, and that Hansen’s descendants want a portion of profits from Coke’s acquisition of Monster to which they’re not lawfully entitled.

In his 31-page ruling, Judge Taylor rejected the claim that Coke obtained Hubert’s publicity rights through their acquisition of Monster.

“Plaintiffs established, through testimony and documentary evidence, how ownership of the Hubert Hansen right of publicity passed through inheritance and testamentary documents to Hubert' widow, children, and grandchildren,” Judge Taylor wrote.

Coke largely relied on documents from the decades-long paper trail through the various permutations of Hansen’s juice company leading up to the 2015 acquisition, but Judge Taylor rejected their position.

“The court finds all of the documents used by defendants to support their claim of ownership of the Hubert Hansen right of publicity to be unambiguous: none of them transferred the right of publicity to defendants,” Judge Taylor’s ruling states.

Jury selection in the upcoming second phase of the trial is scheduled to begin in early January.

Hansen’s descendants are represented by Neville Johnson, Jordanna Thigpen and Jordan Gonzales of Johnson & Johnson LLP.

Coke is represented by Marc Miles, Kristy Schlesinger and Janet Hickson of Shook Hardy & Bacon LLP.

Gavel-to-gavel video of the full trial is available to CVN subscribers, along with hundreds of other civil trials featuring top litigators from across the country as part of CVN’s one-of-a-kind trial video online library.

The case is captioned Hubert Hansen Intellectual Property Trust v. The Coca Cola Company, case number 37-2016-00021046-CU-MC-CTL in San Diego County Superior Court.

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Topics: Intellectual Property, California, food & beverage