A three-year water war between an Oklahoma City bottler and a major multinational corporation reached a milestone recently with jury verdicts totaling $14.2 million in favor of the local company.
"It was the fight of my life," said Steve Raupe, CEO of Eureka Water Co. in downtown Oklahoma City.
Eureka sued Nestle Waters North America Inc. in 2007, claiming Nestle breached an agreement that awarded Eureka royalties and discounted pricing on much of the Ozarka bottled water sold in 60 Oklahoma counties. A four-week trial ended recently with jury verdicts awarding Eureka $9.2 million for breach of contract and $5 million for tortious interference with business relations.
Because some aspects of the case remain to be decided, U.S. District Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange has not made a final determination in the case.
Oklahoma City attorney Mark Grossman, who represents Nestle, said the company plans to ask Miles-LaGrange to reconsider or overturn the verdict. Also, Grossman said, the separate $9.2 million and $5 million awards "overlap," and shouldn't be combined.
Jane Lazgin, spokeswoman for Nestle Waters North America, said the company was "disappointed" by the verdict.
"We felt that we conducted business in a fair and reasonable manner and that it had benefitted Eureka and Ozarka Spring Water brand for many years," Lazgin said. "The judge still has some claims and issues that are to be decided so we can't really comment any further."
Ozarka's long history
On the wall of Raupe's downtown office, a menu from a gala dinner served in 1908 in Oklahoma City includes Ozarka water. Based on that, the company claims on every label of Ozarka water that it sells that the brand has been produced since 1907.
Despite the verdict, even those origins remain in legal dispute.
The Ozarka brand has gone through a lot of changes over the years. When Raupe's father bought Eureka Water Co. nearly 40 years ago, Ozarka springwater came from Eureka Springs, Ark., and was trucked to franchisees, including Eureka, Raupe said.
The franchisees had distribution agreements with Arrowhead Water, owned by a subsidiary of Coca-Cola. In 1972, Arrowhead shut down the springs where the Ozarka water originated and told franchisees it would switch to processed water, essentially a treated form of well water or municipal water, Raupe said.
When Arrowhead made some changes in its dealings with franchisees, Raupe's father offered to buy the Ozarka brand for distribution across much of Oklahoma.
"In November 1974, we paid a sum and had a fully paid-up right to use the Ozarka brand to bottle, sell and advertise Ozarka products," he said. In 1983, Coca-Cola reintroduced Ozarka springwater in Texas, but the product began showing up in Oklahoma.
"We went crazy," Raupe said. "These were the very people who forced us out of springwater to convert all our springwater accounts to drinking water."
Eureka began again to produce and sell spring water, in 1-gallon and larger containers, and has continued to do so, he said, "advertising it, selling it and promoting it through all the food stores."