• Instant Coffee Model Now Instant Millionaire
  • February 13, 2005
  • Law Firm: Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP - Los Angeles Office
  • A California jury has awarded $15.6 million to a kindergarten teacher whose image was used for years without his permission on Taster's Choice coffee labels.

    Russell Christoff, a former model from Northern California, posed as "The Taster" for a two-hour photo shoot in 1986 for Nestle USA. He was paid $250 for the job, with the understanding that he would get $2,000 more if his image was chosen to market Taster's Choice in Canada. He thought the photo shoot hadn't amounted to a hill of beans -- coffee or otherwise -- until he happened across his likeness on a coffee jar while shopping for Bloody Mary mix in 2002.

    "I looked at it and said, 'Expletive, that's me!'" Christoff told the Associated Press.

    A legal dispute with Nestle followed, during which Christoff, 58, rejected the company's $100,000 settlement offer, and Nestle turned down his offer to settle for $8.5 million. Late last month, a Los Angeles jury ordered Nestle to pay Christoff $15.6 million for using his likeness without his permission and profiting from it in violation of California law. The award reportedly includes five percent of the company's profit from Taster's Choice sales from 1997 to 2003. During that time, Nestle sold eight varieties of the freeze-dried coffee with labels featuring Christoff's face in 18 countries, including the United States, Mexico, South Korea, Japan, Israel, and Kuwait. The company's Canadian subsidiary started using his image in 1986.

    Christoff said there was a good reason he didn't realize until 2002 that his face was on supermarket shelves: "I don't buy Taster's Choice," he said. "I do beans."

    Significance: Under a breach of contract theory, Christoff would probably have earned about $330,000 if Nestle had paid him for his likeness, according to Christoff's lawyer. The jury, however, apparently opted to award compensatory damages for Nestle's use of Christoff's likeness without his permission, rejecting Nestle's argument that the employees who pulled the photograph thought they had consent to use the picture.