The Intersection of Private Causes of Action for Unfair Competition Arising from False or Misleading Product Descriptions Under the Lanham Act and Regulation by the FDA Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act

AlertPOM Wonderful LLC v. The Coca-Cola Company
By Colin W. Turner

Issue: Whether a private party is precluded from bringing a claim for unfair competition arising from false or misleading product descriptions under 15 U.S.C. §1125 (The Lanham Act) for food and beverages by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) which prohibits misbranding of food and beverages.

Case History: POM brought suit against Coca-Cola under The Lanham Act for unfair competition arising from false or misleading product descriptions in relation to Coca-Cola's manufacture and sale of a juice blend that was marketed predominantly as a "pomegranate blueberry" juice blend. The product actually contains only 0.5% of pomegranate and blueberry juice while the vast majority (99.4%) of the remainder is apple and grape juice. POM alleged that Coca-Cola's false product descriptions negatively impacted the sale of its own products.

Both the District Court and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that POM's claim was precluded by the FDCA.

Supreme Court Holding: The Court (without the participation of Justice Breyer) held that the FDCA does not preclude a private cause of action by a competitor under The Lanham Act for false or misleading product descriptions. "There is no statutory text or established interpretive principle to support the contention that the FDCA precludes Lanham Act suits like the one brought by POM in this case." There is no legislative history or sign of "congressional purpose or design" to support a finding that such suits are prohibited. The two statutes have co-existed for seventy years without Congress seeking to amend either to explicitly bar such a cause of action. In fact, the FDCA and the Lanham Act complement one another in the regulation by the federal government of food and beverage labels.

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