Attorney predicts deceptive labeling class actions will increase; Leffe case brewing in Florida

By Stephanie N. Grimoldby | Apr 29, 2016

MIAMI - Chef Alfredo Patino owns several dining and drinking establishments in the Miami area, including Tap 79, a gastropub that serves Leffe Beer. 

The Belgium beer - more specifically, its parent company Anheuser-Busch Companies (AB InBev) - is under fire for its allegedly deceptive labels, which use pictures of the Abbey of Leffe in Belgium and select words to make it seem as though the beer is still brewed in the abbey by monks. 

In reality, Leffe Beer is brewed at the Stella Artois Brewery in Leuven, Belgium, with little human involvement because the brewery is automated, states a lawsuit filed in April by Dr. Henry Vazquez of Miami-Dade County. 

When asked if beer labels should not say "abbey beer" if the beer is not, in fact, brewed in an abbey, Patino was emphatic in his response. 

“I agree with that 100 percent,” said Patino. “Because that's the law. There are only so many abbey monks. There’s only 10 or 12 [abbey breweries] in the world, and there’s only one in the U.S. - that’s Spencer [Brewery of Spencer, Mass.].” 

Patino has a passion for beer - Tap 79 brews its own, he said - but it’s his personal conviction that “you should do things the right way” that directs his thoughts toward the case. 

Vazquez, meanwhile, felt “duped” after he learned Leffe Beer is not an abbey beer, said his attorney, Ervin Gonzalez, a partner at Colson Hicks Eidson in Coral Gables. 

Vazquez is suing AB InBev in a deceptive-labeling class action suit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, claiming the company is trying to capitalize on the growing popularity of monk-brewed abbey ales by marketing Leffe Beer as such. 

“AB’s conduct and practices misled and caused Plaintiff and members of the Class to pay a premium for Leffe Beer over competitor’s products, and over AB’s own Stella Artois, even though both beers are brewed at the same location and sold in the same marketplace,” the suit states. 

Vazquez - and anyone who purchased a Leffe Beer under false pretenses - actually received lesser quality beer, he alleges. 

“Through its marketing materials, AB falsely claims that ‘[w]ith origins dating back to 1240, Leffe is one of the few remaining true Belgian abbey beers.’ To the contrary, Leffe Beer is no [sic] in no way ‘one of the few remaining true Belgian abbey beers,’ but rather a mass-produced product not unlike Budweiser,” the lawsuit states. 

AB InBev, meanwhile, stands by its labels. 

“We believe that the labels on Leffe are accurate and will vigorously defend our company against the lawsuit,” said Felipe Szpigel, president of The High End, AB-InBev’s high end division. 

Still, the Leffe case is the third such lawsuit AB InBev has undergone in as many years. In 2013, the company was sued for its alleged misleading Beck’s Beer and Kirin Ichiban Beer labels. Those suits claimed AB InBev misrepresented the products by insinuating that Beck’s is brewed in Germany and Kirin Ichiban is brewed in Japan, when both beers are actually brewed in the U.S. 

AB InBev settled both cases. But the litigation emboldened the Florida plaintiffs’ bar to bring these types of cases to court, which means the Leffe case won’t be the last of its kind, said Alva Mather, a partner with Pepper Hamilton LLP and leading attorney in the alcoholic beverage industry. 

Beer isn’t the only product to recently come under fire for deceptive advertising, noted her colleague, Yvonne McKenzie, a partner with Pepper Hamilton. 

Three cases against olive oil companies are currently pending, with litigation claiming the products falsely advertise their country of origin. And other food and beverage companies have been hit for similar claims. 

“The truth is, [the Leffe case] is just the most recent filing in a trend that is continuing and [has] moved into alcohol,” said Mather. 

In recent years, claims against spirits - like Tito’s Vodka and WhistlePig Rye Whiskey - have hit courts, with plaintiffs arguing the defendants’ labels falsely describe how or where the alcohol originated. Those two companies have escaped trial thus far. 

But Mather believes deceptive labeling class action litigation will continue to increase. 

“There is a lot of room as alcohol continues to grow and you have new and bigger players in the craft space - whether that’s spirit or beer - who may be targeted,” Mather said. “I think we're at the beginning of this wave. How successful they are - what the percentage of the motion to dismiss is granted - that will inform the plaintiffs’ bar if it is worth it to go on.” 

Some believe these types of class action suits are “frivolous” in nature, with plaintiffs’ lawyers trying to reap the attorneys’ fees that can be claimed if the case is settled. 

Gonzalez, however, dismissed the notion. 

“I personally like to know the labels are accurate,” he said. “And I don’t like to pay more for products than I should. And the law agrees with me.” 

“The bottom line is, consumers have the right to make an educated decision on what products to buy and what to pay for it,” Gonzalez continued. “Fortunately, the law provides a mechanism for that correction to occur.” 

Trevor Brewer, a business and beverage attorney and partner at BrewerLong in Maitland, just outside of Orlando, provides legal advice to Florida breweries just starting out. 

While Brewer isn’t a class-action lawyer, he is generally supportive of the ability of people to bring class action lawsuits. 

“In many ways, I feel it is the only way to hold especially large companies responsible for things like that - keeping them honest,” he said.

“In a case like Leffe, does it really matter if it’s still brewed in a monastery in Belgium? I don’t know if that should necessarily matter to an individual … [but] I do think there is a value in the legal system for having the ability to bring that [to court]… to make sure any company is honest about what they’re saying to the public.”

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