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From Antitrust Law Daily, February 11, 2015

Appropriate use of Chuck Yeager’s name and likeness to promote gun safes in dispute

By Jody Coultas, J.D.

A district court properly found that a gun safe company’s use of General Charles E. “Check” Yeager’s name and likeness fell outside the statute of limitations and was barred by the doctrine of laches, according to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver. However, claims relating to conduct within the limitations period relating to the use of his name and likeness following termination of the original agreement should not have been dismissed (Yeager v. Fort Knox Security Products, February 10, 2015, McKay, M.).

Fort Knox manufactures and sells gun safes and other security products, including a product line the “Yeager safes.” In the 1980s, General Charles E. Yeager entered into an oral agreement with Fort Knox allowing the use of General Yeager’s name and likeness to promote Fort Knox products in return for free safes for General Yeager and members of his family. Inquiries into the agreement in 2008 led Fort Knox to be concerned about the potential for difficulties arising over the continuing use of General Yeager’s name and likeness. Fort Knox ceased using General Yeager’s name and likeness with the exception of a poster of General Yeager at a convention in January 2009, attended by General Yeager.

General Yeager alleged that Fort Knox exceeded the terms of the oral agreement, which limited use of his name and likeness to the annual Safari Club International convention and continued to use his name and likeness despite outright termination of the agreement sometime in 2008.

A district court held that General Yeager’s action was barred by laches. General Yeager should have known that Fort Knox’s implementation of their oral agreement had evolved beyond the rights to which he allegedly agreed. The delay resulted in the loss of witnesses and faded memories, resulting in prejudice to Fort Knox. The court also found that the doctrine of unclean hands did not precluded Fort Knox’s reliance on laches.

General Yeager argued there was no evidence that he actually knew Fort Knox was acting in a manner contrary to his understanding of their agreement. However, laches does not require actual knowledge on the part of the dilatory party. Regardless of whether General Yeager knew the extent to which Fort Knox was making use of his name and likeness beyond his asserted understanding of their agreement, he knew enough about its promotional activities to put him on notice to inquire into the matter decades before this suit was filed. The court also noted that the faded memories of the parties was evident based on the parties’ testimonies.

The district court properly rejected General Yeager’s argument that Fort Knox did not have the “clean hands” required for assertion of a laches defense, according to the court. General Yeager argued that Fort Knox’s breach of the agreement was “misconduct,” causing it to have unclean hands. The clean-hands inquiry looks for fraudulent and deceitful conduct, and General Yeager’s claims were not based on fraud.

Because the district court did not address certain issues, the court reversed the grant of summary judgment with respect to two claims noted by General Yeager and to allow the district court to address these unresolved laches issues in the first instance. General Yeager noted that Fort Knox uploaded a promotional video that referred to the Yeager line of safes and Fort Knox displayed his name and likeness at the 2009 SCI convention within the four-year look-back period preceding the filing of this action in January 2011. The application of laches to the rest of his case did not apply to these events. Fort Knox was free to challenge these claims on the basis of any other defenses it has preserved.

The court also declined to find that laches barred claims related to unauthorized promotional activities following termination of his agreement with Fort Knox. The alleged use of his name and likeness at the 2009 SCI convention fell within the limitations period and was not tied to any stale disputes over the nature of the 1980s agreement. The district court erred in taking the lack of factual challenge by Fort Knox on this point to mean termination of the agreement was actually undisputed.

The case is No. 14-4011.

Attorneys: Charles E. Yeager, pro se. Heinz J. Mahler (Kipp and Christian, PC) for Fort Knox Security Products.

Companies: Fort Knox Security Products

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