Originally created 02/02/05

Jury awards $15.6 million to coffee label model



GLENDALE, Calif. - A jury has awarded $15.6 million to a man whose image was used for years without his permission on Taster's Choice coffee labels.

Russell Christoff, a former model from Northern California, posed for a two-hour Nestle photo shoot in 1986 but figured it was a bust - until he stumbled across his likeness on a coffee jar while shopping at a drug store in 2002.

A legal dispute with Nestle USA ensued, during which Christoff, 58, declined the company's $100,000 settlement offer, and Nestle USA turned down his offer to to settle for $8.5 million. Nestle USA is part of Swiss-based Nestle SA, the world's biggest food and drink company.

Last week, a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury ordered Nestle USA to pay Christoff $15.6 million for using his likeness without his permission and profiting from it. The award includes 5 percent of the Glendale-based company's profit from Taster's Choice sales from 1997 to 2003.

During that time, Nestle sold the freeze-dried coffee with labels featuring Christoff's face in the United States, Mexico, South Korea, Japan, Israel and Kuwait. The company's Canadian arm started using his image in 1986.

Nestle USA attorney Lawrence Heller said the company would appeal the verdict.

"The employee that pulled the photo thought they had consent to use the picture," Heller said.

Eric Stockel, an attorney for Christoff, said he hadn't expected such a large verdict.

Christoff, who while working as a model had appeared in corporate training videos and hosted his own public television show, is now a kindergarten teacher in the Bay Area community of Antioch.

He first came across his picture while shopping for bloody mary mix, and says there's a good reason he didn't spot it sooner.

"I don't buy Taster's Choice," he said. "I do beans."