July 29, 2015 – A California federal judge has dismissed the class-action lawsuit filed last December accusing Maker’s Mark Bourbon of defrauding consumers with the “handmade” claim on its labels. Judge John Houston used the same argument that a Florida federal judge used in dismissing a similar case against Maker’s Mark in May, ruling that a “reasonable consumer” would not be misled by the claim.
“This Court finds that “handmade” cannot reasonably be interpreted as meaning literally by hand nor that a reasonable consumer would understand the term to mean no equipment or automated process was used to manufacture the whisky. Thus, this Court finds plaintiffs have failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”
Lawyers for plaintiffs Safora Nowrouzi and Travis Williams filed the lawsuit in San Diego claiming that the Maker’s Mark label claim violated California state consumer protection laws, and sought to represent all California residents who had purchased Maker’s Mark over the previous four years. Beam Suntory asked Judge Houston to dismiss the case in January, arguing that the Treasury Department’s Tax & Trade Bureau’s label approval process created a “safe harbor” protecting Maker’s Mark from claims over label language. The judge rejected that argument based on previous court rulings that the TTB’s process is “informal” compared to other regulatory agencies such as the Food & Drug Administration where the “safe harbor” standard applies.
Abbas Kazerounian of the Kazerouni Law Group led the legal team for the plaintiffs, and is traveling and unavailable for comment. Matthew Loker of the Kazerouni Law Group declined to comment on the ruling or whether an appeal is planned. The firm has a similar lawsuit against Jim Beam pending before another judge in the same court, and lawyers for Beam Suntory submitted Judge Houston’s ruling in the Maker’s Mark case Tuesday as part of their motion to dismiss the Jim Beam case as well. Judge Larry Alan Burns has yet to rule on Beam Suntory’s motion.
In an email, Beam Suntory spokesman Clarkson Hine praised the ruling. “We were confident we would prevail, and we are pleased that the California court terminated this matter at an early stage, much like the Florida case two months ago,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story was updated with a response to the ruling from Beam Suntory. Judge John Houston’s ruling in the Maker’s Mark case is available to download from our web site.