Russell Christoff was standing in line at a Home Depot in the spring of 2002 when a woman leaned over and 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 his own program for public television, “Traveling California State Parks.”
But Christoff had never appeared on a coffee jar -- or so he thought until several weeks later.
That’s when Christoff, shopping for bloody mary mix at a Rite-Aid store, happened to come face to face with himself on a label for Nestle’s Taster’s Choice.
“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.
Then he remembered: In 1986, he had posed for a photographer on assignment for Nestle. He was paid a modest amount for his time and assumed that nothing ever came of the two-hour shoot.
How wrong he was. Last week, a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury in Glendale ordered Nestle USA to pay Christoff -- now a 58-year-old kindergarten teacher in the Bay Area town of 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 U.S., Mexico, South Korea, Japan, Israel and Kuwait. The company’s Canadian arm used Christoff’s image even longer, beginning in 1986.
The 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% 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 between Christoff and Nestle began after his 2002 visit to Rite-Aid. 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 only $250 for the photo session. During the trial, Nestle maintained that it had honored the agreement and that Christoff did in fact receive the $2,000.
But earlier, when the two sides were in pretrial mediation, Nestle took a more curious position, said Christoff and his two lawyers: The company wouldn’t even acknowledge that it was Christoff on the Taster’s Choice label.
“For the first two years, they wouldn’t admit it was me,” Christoff said in an interview Monday.
His lead attorney, Colin C. Claxon, went even further: “They absolutely denied it was him.”
Heller, the attorney for Nestle, stressed that whatever happened at mediation, the identity of the man on the label was never an issue at trial.
At one point, Nestle tried to settle the case for $100,000. Christoff declined. His side, in turn, offered to settle for $8.5 million. Nestle rejected the offer.
Now, of course, Christoff and his lawyers are thrilled about that. “We thought we would get a sizable verdict, but no one was expecting one this large,” said Eric Stockel, Christoff’s other attorney.
Christoff, who put a halt to his two-decade modeling and acting career and began teaching two years ago, said he hasn’t had much time to think about what he might do with the jury award.
But he did pause to 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 -- until that day at Rite-Aid.
“I don’t buy Taster’s Choice,” he explained. “I do beans.”
Times staff writer Andrew Wang contributed to this report.