WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court unanimously allowed a false advertising suit against a Coca-Cola juice blend to move forward Thursday, saying the company’s practices “allegedly mislead and trick consumers, all to the injury of competitors.”
The blend, sold under Coca-Cola’s Minute Maid brand, is made almost entirely from apple and grape juice. But it is called “Pomegranate Blueberry,” followed in smaller type by the phrase “Flavored Blend of 5 Juices.”
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the court, said the blend contained a “minuscule amount of pomegranate and blueberry juices.” More specifically, he said, the beverage is made up of “99.4 percent apple and grape juices, 0.3 percent pomegranate juice, 0.2 percent blueberry juice and 0.1 percent raspberry juice.”
“The product’s front label,” he added, “also displays a vignette of blueberries, grapes, and raspberries in front of a halved pomegranate and a halved apple.”
Pom Wonderful, which sells pomegranate juice, sued Coca-Cola for false advertising. Lower courts dismissed the suit, saying Congress had entrusted the regulation of juice labels to the Food and Drug Administration.
The legal question in the case was how to harmonize two federal laws, one allowing private lawsuits over misleading advertising and the other authorizing federal regulation of food labels. The question was a variation on one often confronted by the justices, that of whether and when a federal law displaces, or pre-empts, a state law.
Kennedy said the two federal laws had different purposes. The false-advertising law, the Lanham Act, “is for competitors, not consumers,” he wrote. It is enforced in large part through private lawsuits.
The second law, the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, he wrote, “is designed primarily to protect the health and safety of the public at large.” Federal regulators and prosecutors, he added, have “nearly exclusive enforcement authority.”
“When two statutes complement each other,” Kennedy concluded, “it would show disregard for the congressional design to hold that Congress nonetheless intended one federal statute to preclude the operation of the other.”
Justice Stephen G. Breyer did not participate in Pom Wonderful v. Coca-Cola Co.