If you've ever bought or sold the K-cup knockoffs known as Grove Square Coffee pods, you might have grounds for a class-action standing — at least if you live in Illinois' Seventh District.
Courthouse News Service reported that “misled coffee lovers get break on common claim.” Yet the first paragraph of the court's 27-page ruling almost sounds like it was written by someone in Keurig's marketing department:
This case is about coffee. Not just any coffee - it is about the individual coffee pods that are used in the popular Keurig coffeemakers. The Keurig system solved a problem with which coffee drinkers had struggled for years: how to make individual portions of fresh-brewed coffee in a tidy, flavorful, easy, and relatively inexpensive way.
The patent on individual K-cups expired in 2012, which is why there have been so many other options on the market since then (and also why Keurig's next-generation coffee makers are supposed to come with RFID-chip pods, to ensure that only officially branded K-cup pods can be used in future Keurig coffee machines).
Patented K-cups and their post-2012 non-branded knockoffs all share something in common with standard home coffee makers: a filter, which is necessary to ensure you get a cup of coffee without any coffee grounds in it.
So a K-cup or knockoff is basically a pre-packaged, disposable coffee filter, pre-filled with enough ground coffee to brew one cup. K-cup coffee is not the same thing as “instant” coffee – those water-soluble crystals that dissolve when you mix them in hot water. In other words: making instant coffee does not require a filter, but brewing coffee does.
Anyway: until the K-cup patent expired in 2012, the only legal way for a company to sell filtered single-serving brewed-coffee pods was through a licensing agreement with Keurig.
However, Sturm Foods (parent company of Grove Square Coffee) got around the pre-2012 patent requirements by introducing a slightly different product in 2010: pods which look like K-cups from the outside, but have no filters inside. Since the GSC pods were filterless, they did not contain true ground coffee, only dissolvable instant coffee. (And anyone who's tried instant coffee knows: it simply does not taste as good as brewed coffee.)
As Courthouse News said:
Sturm's consultants allegedly advised that "use of the word 'instant' is a real no-no," so Sturm's packaging for its pods describe the product as "naturally roasted soluble and microground Arabica coffee."
The package showed fresh beans on the front, and set forth a "Coffee Lover's Bill of Rights," including the right to a "fresh cup," but did not mention that the pod contained only a dusting of fresh coffee on top of instant chunks.
In addition, the package warns users not to remove the foil seal on top of the pod, stating that the cup will not work in the coffee maker without it - a false claim, possibly intended to ensure the buyer did not view the contents of the pod.
Sturn also charged premium prices for its instant coffee. But high prices and fancy packaging couldn't hide the fact that instant coffee simply does not taste as good as brewed, which is why, according to the court decision, “The public response after the release of GSC was awful. The day after the product started selling in Wal-Mart stores, Sturm emailed its employees to request that the legal department, not the quality control or sales department, be immediately informed about any complaints regarding GSC.”
One retailer allegedly told Sturm that GSC “has been the poorest performing introductory product that we have had in our 12 year history.” Sturm allegedly responded in part by having its own employees open online sockpuppet accounts to post fake, glowing reviews about GSC products.
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