Beginning in the 2010s, as the popularity of energy drinks was skyrocketing, so too was the number of lawsuits filed against energy drink companies. Monster Energy, one of the leading energy drink companies in the world, was a primary target. Aaron Sonnhalter, vice president and chief litigation counsel, was brought on board in part to address the growing number of lawsuits.
Sonnhalter came to Monster Energy in 2014 after spending seven years at DaVita, a Fortune 500 healthcare company, where Sonnhalter was brought on to build DaVita’s global litigation capabilities. Prior to building DaVita’s group, Sonnhalter spent a decade litigating complex matters around the country at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius and Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, two of the country’s top law firms at the time.
“I have significant experience litigating major product liability cases, including large class actions and multidistrict litigation, so these types of cases were not foreign to me,” Sonnhalter explains. “I know the importance of identifying the goal, creating a plan, and executing on that plan.”
With the spotlight on energy drinks and increased case filings nationwide, including dozens of cases specifically filed against Monster, Sonnhalter knew the importance of litigating aggressively, with the goal of winning a case at trial. “We know the facts and the science are on our side, and we know Monster Energy drinks have always been safe,” Sonnhalter says. “We knew that if we have the right counsel to tell the story through the evidence, a jury would see the truth. And that is exactly what happened.”
The most high-profile case for the company involved a lawsuit alleging that Monster’s caffeinated products were responsible for a Texas man’s heart attack. Sonnhalter explained that there was no way the Monster Energy drink, with half the caffeine of a same-sized Starbucks drip coffee, could have caused the injury.
“It took many weeks for Marc and his outstanding team to present all the evidence. But once the jury got the case, they deliberated for only fifteen minutes and ruled in our favor,” Sonnhalter recalls. “This was the culmination of years litigating a large body of cases that many lawyers thought was going to be the next big thing in legal plaintiff work. Our goal was to show everyone that Monster Energy drinks are safe. I think we did that. Now, fortunately, that collection of cases is gone. It was the reason I came to Monster, and I am glad we did our small part to protect the industry from frivolous attacks on our products.”
Sonnhalter repeatedly expresses appreciation for his in-house legal team, his outside counsel relationship with Shook, and the leadership at Monster for knowing when to take a stand. “Our co-CEOs, Rodney and Hilton, are authentic, genuine, and great people who want to do the right thing,” Sonnhalter says. “We will take an aggressive litigation posture when that is the right thing to do, but we won’t drain resources just to make a point.”
Monster’s legal successes are impressive considering that the $50 billion company’s in-house litigation team is relatively small—just three people. Sonnhalter says that success is possible due to the company’s leadership empowering and trusting its in-house team and outside counsel. Sonnhalter explains that working closely with the co-CEOs is an ideal situation where his lean team can operate in a trusted and supported environment. “Great leadership is imperative to making a lean team successful and effective,” Sonnhalter says.
“I also want to make sure to recognize everyone on the Monster team that makes our work possible including the other Monster legal lanes and departments throughout the company,” he says. “Everyone pulls in the same direction. It starts at the top. If you have great leadership, you get great results. I believe our results are unparalleled.”
The Outside Edge
Aaron Sonnhalter, vice president and chief litigation counsel of Monster Energy, says one of the keys to the company’s continued litigation excellence lies in the trust he has built with his outside counsel. One of Sonnhalter’s most trusted advisors is Marc Miles, a partner at Shook, Hardy & Bacon.
“Too often, outside counsel at other companies litigate with an eye toward their bill and a focus on only the case they are litigating. I feel fortunate to have true partners that consider the entirety of an issue and understand how even ‘small’ decisions fit into the overall puzzle. Marc especially gets it,” Sonnhalter says. “Being able to have honest conversations where nothing is off-limits and there are no bad ideas is vital to achieve the success we have. When there is a lot on the line, you really need to be confident that your team is considering every way to succeed. As I like to say, ‘Everything matters.’ I am grateful that our team approaches each challenge this way.”
Shook, Hardy & Bacon LLP:
“Aaron is a skillful lawyer who has a keen sense of balancing an aggressive litigation stance with a commonsense business purpose. He has proven to be successful in efficiently and effectively furthering the company’s interests.”
–Marc Miles, Partner