Coffee mug nets millions for model
Russell Christoff was standing in line at a Home Depot in 2002 when a woman said, "You look like the guy on my coffee jar. " Christoff smiled smiled...
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — Russell Christoff was standing in line at a Home Depot in 2002 when a woman said, "You look like the guy on my coffee jar."
Christoff smiled. The Northern California model had been recognized before after appearing in corporate training films and landing a few movie and TV roles. He had even hosted a program for public television, "Traveling California State Parks."
But Christoff never had appeared on a coffee jar — or so he thought until weeks later.
That's when Christoff came face to face with himself on a label for Nestle's Taster's Choice at a store.
"What am I doing on this jar?" he thought as he looked at the picture of a clearly satisfied coffee drinker peering into his cup.
Christoff then remembered: In 1986, he had posed for a photographer on assignment for Nestle. He was paid a modest amount and assumed nothing came of the shoot.
How wrong he was. A Los Angeles County Superior Court jury last week ordered Nestle USA to pay Christoff — now a 58-year-old kindergarten teacher in Antioch — $15.6 million for using his likeness without his permission and profiting from it.
Nestle sold the freeze-dried coffee featuring Christoff's mug on the label for about six years, from 1997 to 2003, in the United States, Mexico, South Korea, Japan, Israel and Kuwait. Nestle's Canadian arm used Christoff's image even longer, beginning in 1986.
Jurors determined that Glendale-based Nestle should have paid Christoff $330,000 for the use of his likeness. They also voted to hand Christoff damages equal to 5 percent of the profit from Taster's Choice sales during the six-year period, or $15.3 million.
Nestle USA executives declined to comment. Lawrence Heller, the company's lawyer, said the food-and-beverage giant would appeal the verdict.
"The employee that pulled the photo thought they had consent to use the picture," Heller said.
The dispute began after Christoff's 2002 store visit. He went home and dug out his old modeling contract, which showed that he should have been paid $2,000 if Nestle's Canadian division used him in its marketing. Christoff contended that he was paid $250 for the photo session. Nestle maintained that it had honored the agreement and that Christoff did receive $2,000.
At one point, Nestle tried to settle the case for $100,000. Christoff declined. His side offered to settle for $8.5 million. Nestle rejected the offer.
"We thought we would get a sizable verdict, but no one was expecting one this large," said Eric Stockel, one of Christoff's attorneys.
Christoff, who quit modeling and acting and began teaching two years ago, said he hasn't had time to think about what he might do with the money.
But he did reflect on how strange it was that he hadn't ever seen the Taster's Choice photo — which for years had graced millions of jars, coupons, billboards and even a Nestle computer screen saver.
"I don't buy Taster's Choice," he explained. "I do beans."
Times staff writer Andrew Wang contributed to this report.
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