Florida lawsuit over rights to the tasty ‘Carla’ avocado ends with a public apology

With avocado sales rising across the United States, last year’s patent infringement fight over Carla avocados had potentially expensive consequences for growers and sellers of the trendiest food.

A company sued a Miami produce distributor, Fresh Directions International, claiming that it was illegally selling Carlas grown from branches stolen from a remote valley orchard in the Dominican Republic.

Turns out, the lawsuit was never ripe, legally speaking.

The company that sued, Agroindustria Ocoeña, or AIOSA, dropped its lawsuit this week, and acknowledged that Fresh Directions indeed had the legal right to sell Carlas all along.

The reason? Carlos Antonio Castillo Pimentel, the grower who discovered the Carla tree decades ago, had actually given his brother, Manuel Castillo Pimentel, the right to use “stem, buds, and/or clippings” from the avocado tree, according to court documents. And Manuel Pimentel, it turns out, owns Fresh Directions.

“AIOSA was not aware of Fresh Directions’ implied rights to the patent and would not have brought suit had it known,” said Coral Gables lawyer Ury Fischer, who filed the lawsuit. “AIOSA apologizes for any inconvenience the litigation may have caused Fresh Directions.”

Manuel Pimentel is still alive, while Carlos Pimental passed away years ago. The original federal lawsuit, brought by some family members siding with Carlos Pimentel, never mentioned the brotherly connection. News of the lawsuit was first reported in September by the Miami Herald.

Carla Tree.jpg
The Carla avocado tree was discovered in the Ocoa River Valley in the Dominican Republic in 1994.

“This was almost a family dispute as much as patent litigation,” said Deepro Mukerjee, an attorney for Fresh Directions, who called the dropped lawsuit a “full victory” for his client.

The demand for avocados has skyrocketed internationally, including in the United States, where avocado toast now rivals guacamole in popularity. California leads the United States in avocado production. Florida is second.

The Sunshine State specializes in “green skins” that are larger and have a lighter flavor than the smaller “Hass” variety, which is grown in California and dominates the U.S. market.

Florida avocados often compete with some species from the Dominican Republic, another one of the leading world producers of the the fruits with variety names like Semil 34, Choquette and Pollock. Last year, the island nation shipped 33.3 million pounds of avocados to the U.S., according to data compiled by one U.S. avocado trade association.

The Carla avocado is generally higher in oil content, which gives it a richer taste closer to the Haas than Florida green skins. The tree also produces fruit later and longer than similar species, and can be harvested from February into early June, well after the Florida growing season.

That means you might be able to buy Carlas in stores across South Florida right now — including ones provided by Fresh Directions.

“There is nothing precluding Fresh Directions from continuing to distribute the Carla variety,” said lawyer Mukerjee.