Wake up and smell the lawsuit: Taster's Choice model goes to court

Russell Christoff has the strong features and gorgeous dark eyebrows of a model. His hair is grey now, but he's still just as handsome as he was when his hair was still dark brown, back in 1986 and living in Canada, when he posed looking lovingly into a cup of Taster's Choice coffee "as if he enjoyed the aroma."

But, after the photo shoot, he heard nothing more from Nestle. He gave the company permission to use the photo in Canada, but not elsewhere. The photo was stuffed into the archives. Until 1998, when a Nestle employee was searching the archives for just the right "Taster" to portray the brand and chose Christoff's almost romantic photo. It's too bad Christoff doesn't actually enjoy the aroma of Taster's Choice, at least not enough to drink the stuff, because it wasn't until 2002 that he saw his own, younger face staring back at him from the shelves of instant coffee crystals -- in California, where he was working as a teacher.
So, he sued, claiming his image had been used without his permission, and his expert witness got a jury to believe that Nestle had done him $15.6 million worth of harm (evidently, his deceptive admiration of the coffee was just that lucrative for Nestle).

A few years later, an appeals court reversed the verdict, saying that it was too much, and that it could be barred by the statute of limitations; Christoff (and any other model in his shoes) has just two years from the date of first publication to bring a civil suit. Even though, as the case pointed out, Christoff's image appeared on labels in 21 countries, including the Latin regions where they darkened his complexion and added sideburns so the customers would better relate to his love for the "delicious" Taster's Choice brew.


Today, Christoff is back in court, this time the California Supreme Court, where he's arguing the verdict reversal should be reversed. The case has to do with whether the single-publication rule -- the statute of limitations invoked by the first appeals court -- applies to the right of publicity (as Nestle and the entire entertainment industry say) or just to defamation and other common law torts (which Christoff and his lawyers say -- if the right of publicity is indistinguished from the right to privacy, plantiffs only have two years to bring their case).


And though I think $15 million is a lot, I have to hope he wins. Not just because he's so handsome (evidently, a judge in the earlier court appearances commented glowingly on his continued good looks), but because, geez, it's instant coffee. If he can look so winsomely at the beverage that he encourages millions of people to drink the stuff, he deserves to at least get a payday. Michael Krauss at PointofLaw.com says that, if Christoff wins, the distinction between publicity and privacy will be unprecedented... and really bad for the entertainment industry.

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