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I’d probably recognize him walking down the street. After all, his face sat on my mother’s kitchen table for years. Russell Christoff never knew that he was often the first male face seen every morning by women all over the world. Christoff, a former male model from California, posed for a photo shoot for Nestle, makers of Tasters Choice back in 1986. He was paid $250 for the shoot, and never heard another thing about it. He filed it away with countless other things that hadn’t worked out and forgot all about it.
Until the day he was shopping in a drug store and saw his face on the shelf. Christoff says he was “just a bit surprised” to see his face on the jar of instant coffee, but he pulled himself together quickly. He picked up the jar, walked up to the counter and showed it to the woman working behind it. “Wow!” she said. “That’s you!” He bought the jar and then sued Nestle.
Christoff, now 59 and a kindergarten teacher in Antioch , California, contacted Nestle regarding their use of his picture. Being a packrat, he still had the original contract that he’d signed back when he sat for the photos, and the contract spelled out the terms of the agreement. Apparently, three years after the photo shoot, a Nestle’s employee had found the pictures, assumed that they had permission to use them, and put his face on the label of the jar.
The problem was that Christoff never gave his permission for the use of his face in their advertising. Nestle USA offered Christoff a $100,000 settlement. He turned them down and countered with an offer to settle for $8.5 million. Nestle USA should have taken the offer.
In February 2005, a Los Angeles jury heard the case and awarded him $330,000 in damages for using his face without permission on the label of their jars since 1998. And then they awarded him 5% of the total profits for Tasters’ Choice coffee in the entire time that his face has appeared on the label, totaling more than $15 million.
Needless to say, Nestle appealed the award, and in 2007, a California Court of Appeals reversed the verdict stating, among other things, that Christoff should have filed his suit within two years of the time it first appeared on the Tasters Choice label. In addition, they argued, there is no proof that Christoff’s likeness was responsible for 5-15% of the company’s product during the time it was on the label.
One of the questions that the court will have to decide during its review is whether Christoff should have known that his image was being used. With millions of pictures of him in circulation, how did it escape his notice that his face was being used to sell Tasters Choice coffee?
“I don’t buy Taster’s Choice,” he said. “I do beans.”