POM Wonderful, the California-based producer of various pomegranate juices, will now have its legal arguments sampled by the Supreme Court.
On Friday, the high court agreed to hear an intriguing case pitting POM Wonderful against Coca-Cola. The case was one of eight that the court added to its calendar for the remainder of the 2013 term.
Last year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled POM Wonderful could not challenge Coca-Cola because the latter's labels already met federal standards.
"If allowed to stand," former Solicitor General Seth Waxman and other attorneys wrote in a petition filed for POM Wonderful, "the 9th Circuit's opinion would have far-reaching consequences."
Intriguingly, the high court is taking the case against the recommendation of the Obama administration.
In November, responding to a request from the court, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, Jr., wrote in a brief that the court should not hear the case even though Verrilli said the lower appellate court's decision was wrong. Verrilli argued that despite the alleged appellate error, the issue was not yet ripe for consideration by the high court.
POM Wonderful sued Coca-Cola in 2008 under the federal Lanham Act, claiming Coca-Cola misleadingly labeled its pomegranate-blueberry product. Less than 1 percent of the Coca-Cola product came from pomegranates or blueberries. POM Wonderful executives contend this has undermined the time and money building up the healthy reputation of pomegranates, grown in California's San Joaquin Valley.
The Lanham Act permits civil legal action against anyone who "misrepresents the nature, characteristics or qualities" of the goods being sold.
The lower appellate court rejected the suit, concluding that the federal Food and Drug Administration had preempted labeling oversight. The FDA, following an extensive review, had concluded that blends could be identified by a "non-primary" but not "characteristic" juice.
"Manufacturers should not be exposed to lawsuits by competitors under the Lanham Act simply because they have adhered to these FDA prescriptions," Coca-Cola's attorneys wrote in a brief.