In a matter of first impression, the Supreme Court of New York held that protections afforded to beer wholesalers under the New York Alcoholic Beverage Control Law (“NY ABC Law”) obligate an importer to honor a distribution agreement entered into by the prior importer of the same brand, even where there is no relationship or privity of contract between the prior importer and new importer.

This case shows that alcohol importers operating in New York who succeed in distribution right should scrutinize their obligations to wholesalers before terminating or failing to renew agreements between the predecessor importer and its wholesalers. 

JRC Beverage, Inc. (“JRC”) was a beer wholesaler who purchased and resold beer to retailers in New York.  JRC entered into an exclusive distribution agreement with BWS Group Co. (“Prior Importer”), the U.S. importer of beer brands produced by Oriental Brewery Company (“Brewer”), a South Korean brewery.  Brewer terminated its agreement with Prior Importer and appointed defendant, K.P. Global, Inc. (“New Importer”), as the new importer. New Importer then designated Northern Beverage, Inc. (“Northern”), as the exclusive distributor for Brewer’s beer in New York.  JRC filed a complaint against New Importer and Northern alleging violations of NY ABC Law as they were the exclusive distributor of Brewer’s beer in New York per their agreement with the Prior Importer.

The lower court granted the New Importer’s motion for summary judgment to dismiss the complaint.  JRC appealed.   The Supreme Court of New York reversed, concluding that under the specific language of the NY ABC Law, the New Importer was a “successor to a brewer” within the meaning of the NY ABC Law, and JRC demonstrated as a matter of law that New Importer failed to honor, without good cause, the wholesale distribution agreement entered into by JRC and the Prior Importer.

The court analyzed the definition and scope of “Successor to a Brewer” under the NY ABC Law.  The critical issue was whether New Importer, acquiring rights directly from the Brewer, constituted a “successor to a brewer” under the law.  JRC argued that New Importer acquired the business or beer brands of a brewer in a transaction, fulfilling the statutory definition of a successor. The defendants contended that New Importer couldn’t be considered a successor as there was no privity of contract with the Prior Importer or JRC. The court analyzed the legislation’s purpose to protect beer wholesalers against arbitrary termination by larger manufacturers and importers. The amendments and legislative history highlighted efforts to maintain a balance of power in the beer industry, favoring small family-owned businesses and preventing market domination by large entities.  The court held that the statute’s language did not require contractual privity between the successor and the entity being succeeded. The definition of “successor to a brewer” was interpreted broadly to include any entity acquiring the beer brands or business of a brewer in any transaction. The court rejected the defendants’ argument that New Importer was not a successor since it did not acquire the rights from the Prior Importer and the distributor’s motion for summary judgment on the issue of liability under the NY ABC Law was granted.