A $15 million jury verdict against Nesté USA has signaled that even noncelebrities can be awarded a percentage of profits under a California law that prevents the unauthorized use of a person's liken

(The Hollywood Reporter) -- A $15 million jury verdict against Nestlé USA has signaled that even noncelebrities can be awarded a percentage of profits under a California law that prevents the unauthorized use of a person's likeness, attorneys in the case said Jan. 31.

The victory by Russell Christoff might be the first time the state's right of publicity laws have resulted in such a verdict, plaintiff's attorney Eric Stockel said. It also was notable that Christoff, an Antioch, Calif., resident and former model, was a noncelebrity during the 17 years his photo was used on certain Taster's Choice coffee packaging.

Attorneys for Nestlé USA said they will appeal the verdict that was reached Jan. 27 by a Los Angeles Superior Court in Glendale, where the company is based.

"The question is, 'Does anyone actually think that a noncelebrity can be responsible for any sales just because his picture is on the top of a label?'" defense attorney Larry Heller said. " Nestlé's use of his photo was completely innocent. They believed that they had authority to use the photograph."

Also in dispute is whether Christoff was fairly paid for the use of the photo, Heller said.

Christoff earned $250 for posing for Nestlé's Canadian division in 1986. His picture was used on Taster's Choice products in that country for 11 years and worldwide beginning in 1997 after Nestle USA redesigned its labels, Stockel said.

Christoff realized what was going on when he saw the label in a drug story in 2002, his attorney said. The photo was replaced in 2003, but not before it had been used for years on billboards, commercials, coupons, the Internet and product packaging.

The lawsuit, filed in February 2003, went to trial on Jan. 10, resulting in a verdict of $15.6 million. Of that, the jury awarded $330,000 for the misappropriation and the remainder based upon an estimation that Christoff's photo generated 5% of the product's profits.