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Kona Coffee Farmers’ Attys Get $3.7M Fees From Settlements

As seen in Law360 (November 3, 2023, 7:39 PM EDT) —

Law360 (December 1, 2023, 6:05 PM EST) — Lawyers representing a class of Hawaiian coffee farmers will get $3.7 million from a settlement fund with major grocery stores and other retailers who allegedly sold knockoff Kona coffee, a federal judge in Washington ruled, calling the attorney fee request fair.

U.S. District Judge Robert S. Lasnik on Thursday found that the fee award is fair when considering the “excellent” results class attorneys achieved for their clients. The estimated value of the combined settlements, when adding up both cash and injunctive relief, is just over $122 million.

“The benefits they will receive from the injunctive relief are concrete and tied to the settlements, and plaintiffs have provided reasonable valuations for the relief obtained,” Judge Lasnik said. “The court finds that the injunctive relief provisions of the settlement support the requested fee.”

He also approved counsel’s $170,000 cost and fees request and awarded the three class representatives — Rancho Aloha, Kanalani Ohana Farm and Smithfarms — $2,500.

The combined settlements between the farmers and roughly two dozen companies they sued on claims of selling beans and ground coffee allegedly mislabeled “Kona coffee” have reached $41.175 million, according to Judge Lasnik’s order.

But the true value of the deals extends beyond the dollar figure, class counsel said, leaning on reports from economic experts. The injunctive relief secured in these deals will cause the price of the Kona farmers’ product to increase, ultimately providing $81.2 million in value over the next five years, class counsel said.

The farmers’ litigation, launched in 2019 on federal trademark claims, argued that Kona is unique to the “volcanic soil, the elevation, and the humidity of [the Hawaiian] region.” These give the coffee its specific characteristics. The farmers went as far as to compare it to “Champagne,” which comes from the Champagne region of France.

They also claimed that by selling other types of coffee under the name “Kona,” retailers drove down prices and deceived consumers into thinking Kona coffee is “nothing special.”

The long list of defendants in the suit included MNS Ltd. and Mulvadi Corp., as well as a wide range of companies like Costco, Marshalls, Albertsons Cos. Inc., CostPlus/WorldMarket, Safeway Inc., Sprouts Farmers Market Inc. and The Kroger Co., among others. Claims initially filed against Amazon.com Inc., Walmart Inc. and Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. were dropped, along with some others.

Blocking these retailers from using the Kona name is a considerable benefit, the judge said.

“The injunctive relief will benefit each individual class member going forward, preventing the exact same type of harm that gave rise to the monetary award for past conduct,” the judge said.

The farmers are represented by Nathan T. Paine, Daniel T. Hagen and Joshua M. Howard of Karr Tuttle Campbell , and Jason L. Lichtman, Daniel E. Seltz and Andrew Kaufman of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP.