(Updates with reaction from SPI Group)
By Toby Sterling
AMSTERDAM, Jan 10 (Reuters) - Russia’s state-owned Sojuzplodoimport won a Dutch appeals court ruling on Tuesday giving it the rights to the Stolichnaya vodka brand in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg (Benelux) and stripping them from SPI Group’s Spirits International.
The decision, which upholds a lower court ruling, is a setback for SPI Group, which faces similar challenges over the brand in other markets, including 13 European Union countries.
Tuesday’s ruling went further than a 2015 lower court decision, which had allowed SPI to continue using the nickname “Stoli.” Tuesday’s decision said that name too belonged to the Russian company.
Spirits International will have to repay all the profit it has made from sales of the Stolichnaya, Moskovskaya and Na Zdorovye brands in the Benelux region since 1999.
SPI Group said it was disappointed by the decision and would seek to challenge it in other venues.
“SPI will continue to pursue all available legal remedies in the Netherlands, including the appeal of this decision to the Dutch Supreme Court,” the company said in a reaction.
It said legal action in the United States and Australia were on hold pending better documentation from Sojuzplodoimport, and that SPI Group had won a similar suit in Brazil.
However, Sojuzplodoimport said the decision marked a turning point in fights over the brand.
“After 15 years of litigation it is now certain that this Russian cultural heritage will remain with whom it belongs: Russia,” said Sojuzplodoimport lawyer Joris van Manen.
SPI Group is controlled by Russian tycoon Yuri Shefler, who had argued that he purchased rights to the brands for $285,000 in 1997 after the breakup of the former Soviet Union.
Shefler, whose net worth is estimated at more than $2 billion by Forbes Magazine, left Russia in 2001 after the country’s Supreme Court stripped him of rights to the brand within the Russian Federation.
SPI Group’s major factories are located in Latvia. Tuesday’s rulings forbid SPI from describing vodkas and other drinks it sells as “Russian” or “Imported from Russia.”
Documents in the Dutch Chamber of Commerce showed Spirits International had net profit of more than 100 million euros ($110 million) in the Netherlands in 2011 and 2012 before it moved offices to Curacao. (Reporting by Toby Sterling; Editing by Louise Heavens and Mark Potter)