SAN FRANCISCO 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 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 freeze-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. Nestle USA is part of Nestle SA of Switzerland.
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.
Nestle's Canadian arm started using the image without Christoff's knowledge in 1986, and Nestle USA imported it while revamping its coffee jars in 1997, Claxon said. The labels have since been changed to feature another model.
Nestle USA attorney Lawrence Heller said the company would appeal the verdict. "The employee that pulled the photo thought they had consent to use the picture," Heller told the Times.
Claxon said that even though the jury estimated that Christoff would probably have earned about $330,000 if Nestle had paid him for his likeness, millions in compensatory damages are fair because Christoff's face became "as much a part of the brand as Taster's Choice" during the six years it appeared on coffee jars, coupons and magazine ads.
Meanwhile, Christoff appeared in corporate training videos, hosted his own public television show about California parks, and had bit parts in the television series "Midnight Caller" and "Nash Bridges."
He said he was overwhelmed by the size of the jury award. But he said he felt gratified that he had taken a stand on behalf of all hardworking actors and models.
"Our image is our product, whether it's our face or our talent, and they took it improperly," he said.
Christoff is now in his second year as a kindergarten teacher in the Bay area community of Antioch. With the case likely tied up in a protracted appeal, he said he doesn't plan to give up his day job anytime soon.
"I'm still just as poor as I was before," he said.