Legally Speaking: I'll Drink To That Lawsuit

John G. Browning Sep. 20, 2010, 4:38am

Many writers have found inspiration in the bottle. I can't claim to be one of them, but as I enjoyed an ice-cold longneck on Labor Day, I did wonder whether beer had been at the heart of any lawsuit.

Now, I'm not talking about alcohol-fueled divorces or criminal acts like drunk driving, but cases where beer itself was the focus. After all, lawyers like their libations as much as the next person.

Andy Lyall, a lawyer in Dundee, Scotland, even advertises for clients on beer mats distributed around the city's pubs. Lyall defends the mats (which feature his photograph, phone number, address and the words "defence lawyer"), saying "Many of my clients end up in trouble because they have too much to drink so the pub seems to me to be an eminently sensible place to advertise."

The U.S. Supreme Court has even had several cases involving beer, but the beverage was always less of a focus than a bigger constitutional issue, like the First Amendment (in a case of advertising alcohol prices) or the equal protection clause (like the case in which the court struck down Oklahoma's law permitting young women aged 18-21 to buy 3.2 percent beer, while denying that right to young men).

My favorite controversies, thought, seem to revolve around the name of the beer. For example, visitors to the Kentucky State Fair this summer could have purchased a bottle of the award-winning "Blackmail Ale".

The beer's label features a photo of Karen Sypher, the woman who made national headlines with her account of a sexual tryst with University of Kentucky basketball coach Rick Pitino. Sypher was convicted in August of extorting Pitino and lying to the FBI about their encounter at an Italian restaurant.

The label describes the beer as "A bitter brew available only at your local Italian eatery. 0% Dignity by Volume." The bottle also features this warning: "Consuming this beverage may lead to incarceration in the United States federal prison system."

The beer and its parody label won the first place blue ribbon not for its taste, but in the Humor/Satirical category, in which a number of homebrews poked fun at current events.

I just wonder if this "Blackmail Ale" will spawn a lawsuit by Sypher for using her image without permission.

Another one of my favorites "cases of beer," so to speak, dealt with the David vs. Goliath brewhaha between Hansen Beverage Co. (makers of Monster energy drinks) and Rock Art Brewery.

Rock Art is a microbrewery in Morrisville, Vt., that employs seven people. Rock Art and its owner, Matt Nadeau, came out with a 10 percent barley wine-style ale which they named "The Vermonster".

Hansen Beverage's California trademark lawyers sent Nadeau a cease and desist letter, threatening a trademark infringement lawsuit if the tiny artisan brewery continued to market its product.

Monster's lawyers claimed that the use of "Vermonster" (which Nadeau trademarked in Vermont in 2006 to celebrate the brewery's 10th anniversary) "will undoubtedly create a likelihood of confusion and/or dilute the distinct quality of Hansen's MONSTER marks."

That right - a big company and its lawyers thought that people might confuse a sugar-loaded, caffeinated 16-ounce energy drink sold nationally with a 22-ounce bottle of high alcohol beer that's hard to find outside of Vermont.

Nadeau would not back down from a fight, saying "I just don't think in America this should happen." He fought back, with social media and the tightly-knit craft brewing community behind him.

On Facebook, the group "Vermonters and Craft Beer Drinkers Against Monster" gained thousands of members, and Twitter users organized a national "monsterboycott." Ultimately, the beverage Goliath agreed to back off, with Nadeau agreeing that his David-sized brewery had no plans of venturing into the energy drink arena.

My all-time favorite beer-inspired dispute also features what brewers and beer drinkers alike would call a smooth, satisfying finish. In 2004, two craft brewers - Adam Avery of Colorado's Avery Brewing and Vinnie Cilurzo of California's Russian River Brewing - had a chance meeting at the Great American Beer festival.

While discussing their respective product lines, the two brewers realized that each of them was offering a Belgian ale named "Salvation". But instead of following the all-too-predictable path of our litigious society and calling in the lawyers to litigate a product name dispute, Avery and Cilurzo chose a different solution.

Relying on their considerable talents as brewmasters, they decided to blend the two "Salvations" - Avery's Belgian golden ale and Russian River's Belgian strong ale - into one seasonal beer.

It took until 2006 to come up with the final blend that captured the best qualities of each (sometimes categorized as a Belgian brown ale or a Belgian strong ale). Cilurzo's wife gave the concoction its name: "Collaboration Not Litigation Ale".

Avery and Cilurzo took their spirit of collaboration even further, using the profits from their joint venture to fund educational trips to Belgium for American craft brewers eager to learn more about traditional brewing techniques.

Finding a way to resolve disputes without clogging up the courts or involving lawyers?

I'll drink to that.

More News