Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Plaintiffs in 'Handmade' Cases Are Slapped by Florida Judge

As shown here, Maker's Mark Master Distiller Gregg Davis has hands.
The owners of Tito's Vodka, Templeton Rye, and other spirits producers facing false advertising accusations are breathing a little easier today after the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida on Monday ruled in favor of Maker’s Mark and parent company Beam Suntory in a class action lawsuit alleging misleading marketing in the labeling of Maker’s Mark as 'handmade.'

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle dismissed the complaint of two Florida consumers 'with prejudice,' thereby ending the case. “In all events, the plaintiffs have not stated a claim on which relief can be granted,” the ruling concludes.

“We have asserted all along that the complaints in this case were frivolous and without merit, and we are very pleased the court agreed with our position so emphatically,” said Rob Samuels, chief operating officer of Maker’s Mark. “This ruling is very good news, and it should send a strong message to those who would seek to gain from similar baseless and irresponsible litigation,” added Kent Rose, senior vice president and general counsel of Beam Suntory.

The case is Dimitric Salters and A.G. Waseem, etc. v. Beam Suntory Inc. and Maker’s Mark Distillery, Inc., etc. The full text of the decision is here. Feel free to jump ahead to page four.

While Judge Hinkle's decision is only law in the Northern District of Florida, it will surely influence the judges in other cases. Not all of the facts are the same, of course. Judge Hinkle noted that Maker's Mark is made in batches of no more than 19 barrels. Plaintiffs didn't challenge that fact, though perhaps they should have. There are many ways to break down batch size. For Maker's, those 19 barrels represent the size of a dump tank, 1,000 gallons. That's a bottling batch. A distillation batch is much larger. These are all facts, but their significance is open to dispute.

Judge Hinkle further explains that no reasonable juror would believe Maker's Mark is made entirely by hand, a fact acknowledged by plaintiffs who "offered other possible meanings, including made from scratch or in small units. But the defendants say they make their bourbon from scratch and in small units. The plaintiffs have alleged no contrary facts."

"The plaintiffs suggest 'handmade' implies close attention by a human being, not a high-volume, untended process. But the defendants say their human beings pay close attention and that, while they produce a large volume of bourbon, they do it in small, carefully tended batches. Again, the plaintiffs have alleged no contrary facts."

So, a different judge might find differently. Also, Templeton's case is more about false representation of origin than a strictly 'handmade' claim, and while 'handmade' is at the center of the Tito's case, a court could easily find that his product is not "made from scratch or in small units," thus using Salters against him.

So those other guys aren't out of the woods yet, but Maker's is.


Anonymous said...

Richnimrod said;
GOOD! It sounds like logic and reason prevailed against a 'grab for loot'..... NOT always guaranteed in a court of law; but certainly something we should hope for.

Ace said...

Important element to the ruling: plaintiffs failed to assert contrary facts, relying instead on a weirdly absolutist reading of "handmade". I can't see that getting much play in any court.

Templeton has a much bigger problem: they're presenting themselves as making something which they emphatically didn't make themselves.

Erik Fish said...

Well, as for Templeton, a lawyer might say that depends on your definition of "make". Remember that "flavoring formula" that, according to one of Chuck's blog entries last year, Templeton buys and blends with the rye they buy from MGP. Do they make the rye? Definitely not. But can they claim they make the final blended juice? That may depend on how much per hour they pay their lawyer and on which side of the bed the judge got up in the morning.

Anonymous said...

What about Eagle Rare? the bottles at my local liquor store say "5 time gold medal winner" but it isn't the same whiskey. The old ER 10 year old was a single barrel, the new stuff isn't. Shouldn't that matter?


Gary Gillman said...

In my view, Maker's got off kind of lightly here and should stay away from this kind of advertising in the future as at best, it plays fast and loose even in the context of the `puffery` approach liquor advertising (in the industry generally) has often taken in the past.

Just as some styles of advertising have passed into history, e.g., the long folksy messages which Pappy Van Winkle used to write in the 50`s, the time is past (IMO) for some of the more questionable marketing still quite common in the industry. The hand-made thing seemed to me particular ``out there`` when I first saw it. Maker`s is an excellent product and I`m sure the creative types who come up with its taglines and ad themes can think of something better than the hand-made line.


Anonymous said...

Pappy Van Winkle ads from the 1950s? That sounds about as believable as Templeton or Bulleit being actually distilled in the places their labels kinda sorta suggest they are. I would love to see one of these ads. Can you point me in the right direction?