Stone Brewing Just Won Its $56 Million Lawsuit Against Molson Coors

Fans of craft beer are likely familiar with Stone Brewing. Makers of beers such as well-known Stone IPA and Tangerine Express Hazy IPA, Stone is now the ninth-largest craft brewer in the U.S., with breweries in Escondido, California, and Richmond, Virginia (via American Craft Beer). According to their website, Stone beers are available in all 50 states as well as 40 countries.

Sounds like a true success story — except that in the 2010s, the company, which was founded in 1996, was struggling. According to Courthouse News Service, Stone Brewing CEO Maria Stipp acknowledged huge sales losses in that decade, a development the company blamed on a competing brewery: the commercial beer giant Molson Coors, makers of such inexpensive beers as Coors, Miller, and Keystone Light (via Beer Advocate). It's the latter brand on which Stone Brewing pinned the blame, alleging in a 2018 lawsuit that a Keystone Light rebrand in 2017, which used ad imagery displaying the word "Stone" only, was an example of trademark infringement that confused beer consumers (via Reuters). 

Stone Brewing alleged that its customers may have been misled by the marketing into thinking that they were buying Stone Brewing beers, when actually they were buying Keystone Light, and that this could explain why Stone Brewing suffered sales losses in those years. Stone Brewing sued Molson Coors for $216 million, and last Friday, after a three-week trial, an eight-member jury unanimously awarded Stone Brewing $56 million in damages (via Courthouse News Service).

Jurors confirmed trademark infringement but ruled that it was not intentional

The San Diego federal jury ruled that in 2017 and afterwards, a rebranding of the Molson Coors beer Keystone Light to feature just the "Stone" part of its name in advertising did, in fact, infringe on Stone Brewery's trademark, according to Reuters. However, the jury also determined that infringement was not intentional.

Responding to the decision, Marty Maloney, a spokesperson for Molson Coors, noted that the company was weighing its options, including an appeal, implying that the case may have been advanced by Stone Brewing due to ulterior motives. "What we learned through this trial is that Stone Brewing's lawsuit was not driven by consumer confusion and that Stone Brewing has a $464 million debt to pay to their private equity investors in 2023," he said, insinuating that the craft brewery may have been motivated to bring the lawsuit not out of concern for its trademark or real losses as a result of infringement, but because it was struggling financially and felt the pressure to have the sufficient funds to pay its investors (via Reuters). "It's been clear all along that there is no credible confusion between Keystone Light and Stone Scorpion Bowl IPA, Arrogant Bastard Ale, or any of Stone Brewing's other products," he added (via Courthouse News Service).

Stone Brewing co-founder Greg Koch, on the other hand, said via a press release that the decision represented a "historic day for Stone Brewing, and for the craft beer industry."