Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Energy Shot Producer’s Distribution of Recall Notice Could Be False Advertising

This posting was written by E. Darius Sturmer, Editor of CCH Trade Regulation Reporter.

The producer of a two-ounce energy shot drink known as "5-Hour ENERGY" could have engaged in false advertising in violation of Sec. 43(a) of the Lanham Act by distributing a letter, entitled "Legal Notice," to retailers notifying them of a court-ordered recall of a competing "6 Hour" energy shot product, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati has decided. Summary judgment in the producer’s favor was reversed as the false advertising claim, although it was affirmed as to a competitor’s monopolization and attempted monopolization claims.

False Advertising

The complaining company, which marketed one of several "6 Hour" energy shots not subject to the recall, offered sufficient evidence to create a genuine dispute as to whether the notice was misleading and tended to deceived its intended audience, the court held. The language of the recall notice "teeter[ed] on the cusp between ambiguity and literal falsity" both descriptively and grammatically. A statement in the contested letters that the 5-Hour maker "won a decision against a "6 Hour" energy shot" was not literally true, as the 5-Hour maker had actually won a decision against a particular "6 Hour" competitor’s use of an overall product image, the court explained.

Moreover, confusion could ensue from the recall notice’s uses of the prefatory words "a" and "any" to refer to a 6 Hour energy shot—incorrectly suggesting that any shot bearing the name 6 Hour was subject to recall. Also problematic was a subsequent use of "the," which implied that there was only one specific product at issue, though the statement as a whole failed to specify exactly what product.

A lower court’s exclusion, on hearsay grounds, of documentary and testimonial evidence from the complaining company, distributors, and brokers showing confusion as to whether 6 Hour POWER had been recalled was erroneous, the appellate court said. Phone calls from retailers to distributors were not relied on to show the content of the conversations, but to show that the conversations occurred and the state of mind of the declarants. That so many people called the complaining company immediately after receiving the notice at the very least raised a genuine issue of material fact as to whether a significant portion of the recipients were misled, in the appellate court’s view.

The defendant’s characterization of the calls as "non-actionable customer inquiries" could be rejected by a jury, in light of testimony that many distributors had called to stop buying the complaining company’s product after the notice was issued, that sales growth for the product dropped significantly, and that the company lost an estimated $3.4 million in sales as a result of the recall notice. All of the calls evidenced a belief that 6 Hour POWER had been recalled; had the called lacked such a mistaken belief, the calls would not have occurred, the court reasoned.

Monopoly, Attempt

The producer of "5-Hour ENERGY" did not engage in monopolization or attempted monopolization in violation of Sec. 2 of the Sherman Act through its actions against the competitor, the court also ruled. The producer allegedly undertook a broad anticompetitive scheme that included: (1) asserting a fraudulently obtained supplemental trademark registration for its product; (2) false advertising in connection with its distribution of the Legal Notice letter to retailers; (3) offering incentives to retailers for superior product placement, (4) requesting that retailers sell its product at the exclusion of other energy shot products, and (5) registering certain Internet domain names similar to the names of a competitor’s product.

Because the complaining competitor specified damages resulting only from the recall notice, only the anticompetitive effects of the recall notice could lead to antitrust liability. However, there could be no harm to competition from the recall notice, even if the notice amounted to false advertising. The complaining competitor was able to—and did—counter that information by sending notices that its product, 6 Hour POWER, had not been recalled.

The decision is Innovation Ventures, LLC, v. N.V.E., Inc., 2012-2 Trade Cases ¶78,053.

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