Yesterday I argued an appeal in California’s Court of Appeal for the Second District, which covers Los Angeles, and I was just getting ready to leave after the argument when they called the next case, Christoff v. Nestle USA. That stopped me in my tracks because I recognized that case from one of my previous reports. Here’s what I wrote about it in February 2005:
How to Turn a $250 Job Into $15.6 Million
Sue in L.A. County, that’s how. In the latest (relatively) monstrous verdict from that jurisdiction, an L.A. jury awarded Russell Christoff $15.6 million dollars for the unauthorized use of his face on Taster’s Choice jars for seven years. Christoff had been paid $250 for a photo shoot in 1986 but did not know Nestle had actually used his likeness until he saw himself on a jar in a drug store in 2002. "I looked at it and said, ‘expletive, that’s me!’" he recalled.
I hope he really does go around saying, "expletive!" but I bet he doesn’t.
Lawyers for Nestle claimed that a Canadian employee of the company had unknowingly pulled the photo, thinking they had consent to use it, and that Nestle USA had brought it back to the States in 1997. The amount of damages was likely the only issue in the case. Christoff was paid $250 and was promised $2000 if the image were used in Canada, as it eventually was. The company offered him $100,000 to settle, to which he countered with $8.5 million. The jury’s $15.6 million verdict apparently represents 5 percent of Nestle’s entire profits from Taster’s Choice while Christoff’s face was on the jars, which certainly seems like a reasonable valuation to me.
Oddly, Nestle’s lawyers said the company plans to appeal.
Nestle did appeal, and I would like to thank the Court for scheduling the oral argument to coincide with my case. "Expletive, that’s the case I wrote about!" I said to myself. I stayed to take careful notes (on my own time, of course). Mr. Christoff and his whole family were there in the courtroom, so it promised to be entertaining.
I was wrong that the amount of damages was the only issue in the case. It was an issue, certainly, but the main issue on appeal was whether the statute of limitations barred Christoff’s claim even though there was no evidence he had any idea that his face was being used. (He had moved to Canada by the time he unknowingly became the Taster’s Choice Guy for millions of Americans.) I think the argument was that the "single-publication rule" that applies in defamation cases would have barred Christoff’s claim, but to be honest I was paying closer attention to trying to figure out which guy in the audience was Christoff, and more importantly which of the female heirs to the $15.6 million Taster’s-Choice-Guy fortune might be single.
The Christoff extended family group was easy to pick out. Most of them were female, and of the men one was too old, one was too young, and the two in the back were way too ugly. That left just one guy, who did turn out to be Christoff as I later confirmed by digging up the picture below.
As you can see, Christoff now looks something like the guy who played J. Peterman on "Seinfeld," but back when he was looking for coffee-jar modeling jobs he looked something like a cross between Mandy Patinkin and Ricardo Montalban. The perfect man to become the new "Taster," as the company apparently refers to whoever is on their label. It seems that Nestle argued in part that Christoff was not entitled to damages (or only to a smaller amount) because it had really not used his own personal image, but rather had incorporated his face into what it called the "icon" of the Taster’s Choice Taster. ("Taster" doesn’t seem accurate if only because the guy on the label is not in fact tasting, just gazing sensually at the coffee in the cup that he has been denied for so long, but is hoping, even longing, to taste sometime very, very soon. But I guess they have to call him something.) Justice Cooper wanted to know why Christoff should be entitled to all of the profits earned during the time his face was used, as opposed to whatever profits might have been attributable to the use of his own face. Presumably, that would be a much smaller amount, although Justice Cooper pointed out (several times) that she did of course think The Taster was a very attractive man.
Frankly, the debate over the single-publication rule in this context, while probably very important especially in Los Angeles, was less interesting to me than the various examples of celebrity-likeness cases or hypothetical cases that everybody kept mentioning. I kept a list of celebrities mentioned:
- Bela Lugosi
- Arnold Schwarzenneger
- Lance Armstrong
- Ronald Reagan
- Walt Disney
- Aunt Jemima
- "a KISS band member" (unidentified)
The most comical thing I learned from the argument was that not only did Nestle use Christoff’s face without express permission on millions of coffee jars in the U.S., they also apparently used it in other countries, and actually tinkered with his appearance to make it more palatable. According to Justice Cooper, when they used his image in Mexico "they made it darker and gave him sideburns."
Link: AP via SFGate.com (coverage of the verdict in 2005)