When it comes to coffee, Russell Christoff is more of a fresh-brewed than a freeze-dried kind of guy. So he never scrutinized the Taster’s Choice label.
When he finally did, he was staring back at himself.
While shopping for Bloody Mary mix at a drug store in 2002, the former actor and model saw a younger version of himself, the one who had once posed for the free-dried coffee brand.
True, the label only showed a man’s eyes, nose and mouth hovering over a white coffee cup, but they were two eyes, a nose and a mouth Christoff knew exceptionally well.
“I looked at it and said, ‘Expletive, that’s me!'” Christoff, 58, recalled Tuesday, five days after a jury awarded him $15.6 million for Nestle USA’s unauthorized use of his mug.
After two decades as a struggling performer, Christoff says he had all but forgotten the 1986 photo shoot where he spent two hours posing as “The Taster” in a red sweater. He received $250 for the job – with the understanding that he would be paid $2,000 more if his image was selected to promote Taster’s Choice in Canada.
He figured the job hadn’t amounted to a hill of beans – until he stumbled across his likeness in the drug store 16 years later. A legal dispute with Nestle USA ensued, during which Christoff declined the company’s $100,000 settlement offer, and Nestle USA turned down his offer to settle for $8.5 million.
Since California has a law barring unauthorized use of a person’s image for commercial purposes, Christoff’s attorneys, Colin Claxon and Eric Stokel, said they knew they had adequate grounds for a lawsuit.
Last week, a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury ordered Nestle USA to pay Christoff $15.6 million for using his photograph without his permission and profiting from it.
Claxon said a confidentiality agreement prevented him from discussing how the jurors reached that amount, but the award includes 5 percent of the Glendale-based company’s profit from Taster’s Choice sales from 1997 to 2003, according to the Los Angeles Times.
During that time, Nestle sold eight varieties of the freeze-dried coffee with labels featuring Christoff’s face in 18 countries, including the United States, Mexico, South Korea, Japan, Israel and Kuwait.