San Diego-headquartered Stone Brewing’s long-running trademark infringement lawsuit against Molson Coors’ Keystone brand will move to trial in October.
Stone first brought the lawsuit against MillerCoors, the U.S. business unit of Molson Coors, which is now known as Molson Coors Beverage Company, in February 2018 in the U.S. District Court Southern District of California, alleging that the April 2017 packaging and marketing refresh for the company’s Keystone Light brand that more prominently featured the word “Stone” infringed on the craft brewery’s intellectual property.
Both parties had filed for summary judgement to dismiss the lawsuit without a jury trial, but U.S. District Judge Roger T. Benitez denied Stone’s in part and MillerCoors’ in full in a document filed March 27. Stone had also requested to strike portions of MillerCoors’ summary judgment brief, which Benitez denied as “moot.”
“The Court having reviewed the fully briefed motion declines to rule on the motion as it finds the evidence sought to be stricken, or alternatively, to supplement the record, will not change the outcome of the Court’s analysis with respect to Defendant’s motion for summary judgment,” Benitez wrote.
The years-long lawsuit has centered on the strength of Stone Brewing’s trademark. In an earlier finding, the court ruled that the Stone mark “was conceptually and commercially strong and recognizable” based on evidence Stone presented that included the 1997 filing of its mark. Because the mark was not contested for five years, it earned “incontestable status.”
MillerCoors has argued that the Stone trademark is “conceptually weak because at least 10 other craft breweries actively use the word ‘Stone’ in their name.” Data submitted showing that 53% of beer drinkers surveyed “had never heard of Stone Brewing” suggested that the Stone mark is “commercially” weak. This disconnect will be determined by a jury.
“While defendant has provided some evidence that the word ‘Stone’ has been used in craft brewery names, as well as it being an old-style beer brewing technique, the court is unable to see a commonly understood connection between the mark and the product,” Benitez wrote. “Furthemore, plaintiff also offers evidence that it has sold its products nationally. Nevertheless, viewing such evidence in the light most favorable to defendant, a finder of fact could reasonably conclude that plaintiff’s marks are commercially weak.
“Accordingly, the conceptual and commercial strength of plaintiff’s mark is a question for the jury,” he continued.
The court dismissed MillerCoors’ laches defense, the company used to claim that Stone had “unreasonably delayed in filing its lawsuit.” Because Stone’s lawsuit is based on the 2017 packaging change and not MillerCoors’ use of Keystone in general, the court found that Stone was within California’s four-year statute of limitations.
Stone Brewing is seeking to recover the $1 billion in “infringing sales” that Keystone has made since the lawsuit began. In a statement, Stone Brewing CEO Dominic Engels called the move forward to a trial “a good day for independent craft beer and our employees.”
“The Court’s order allows the jury to rectify years of injury to Stone’s name and business,” Engels said. “All of us at Stone are hopeful that #truestonevskeystone will have a meaningful impact on Stone and on craft beer as a whole.”
In its own statement, Molson Coors reaffirmed that its Keystone brand predates Stone. Keystone debuted in 1989, whereas Stone was founded in 1996.
“We have been using ‘Stone’ as a moniker for our brand since before Stone Brewing was in business,” the company wrote. “These two products look nothing alike, as the judge noted, and are competing for an entirely different consumer. There is no credible evidence that consumers are confused, and we’re confident we will prevail when the case is decided by a judge and jury.”