It’s been a strange brew at the Sixth Circuit this year, with a significant number of cases related to alcoholic beverages, presenting statutory, intellectual property, and constitutional issues. There have been five cases over the last year, with only one decision issued to date. Only one judge has been involved in more than one case so far — Judge Martin, who authored the Maker’s Mark decision and is also part of the panel that will decide the MillerCoors case.
In sheer numbers of cases, the wholesaler termination cases lead the pack. Three separate cases involve the question of when a beer or wine manufacturer can terminate a wholesaler under Ohio law. In January, the Court heard arguments in Tri-County Wholesale Distributors v. The Wine Group, Inc. (No. 10-4202), involving distribution of Franzia and Corbett Canyon wines, among other brands. In the last days of May, two other panels of the Court heard oral argument in another two cases (Beverage Distributors, Inc. v. Miller Brewing Co. (No. 11-3484) and Bellas Company v. Pabst Brewing Co. (No. 11-3417)) involving the purported termination of various Ohio beer distributors’ rights to continue wholesale distribution for brands such as MillerLite, Coors Light, and Pabst Blue Ribbon. David Alexander and Emily Root of Squire Sanders represented distributors in each of these cases.
The Sixth Circuit recently made headlines with its trade dress decision with its decision in Makers Mark v. Diageo North America (Nos. 10-5508/5586/5819). The dispute in that case was whether use of dripping red wax on bottles of Reserva de la Familia tequila by Jose Cuervo infringed on the red wax seal used by Maker’s Mark. The Court concluded that the red wax trade dress of Maker’s Mark was protected and that Cuervo had infringed.
Finally, as we reported previously, alcoholic beverage labeling raised constitutional and federalism issues in American Beverage Assoc. v. Snyder. (No. 11-2097). There, the state imposed state-specific marking requirements for bottles and cans subject to deposit refunds, while the manufactures objected on the grounds that the regulation interfered with interstate trade. The case was accepted on an interlocutory appeal and will be argued July 20, 2012. The panel that will hear the case has not yet been announced.
Given the vigorous competition in the beer and wine industry, the industry’s trend towards consolidation, and the renewed focus on alcohol regulation by some states, it is quite possible that the Sixth Circuit will continue to see additional beer and wine cases in the future.