Sunday, June 28, 2009

5th Circuit: Need "Fixed" Product Design to Invoke DJ Jurisdiction in Trade Dress Dispute

On May 8, the 5th Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a declaratory judgment action concerning the trade dress of a bottom-dump truck trailer design. In Vantage Trailers, Inc. v. Beall Corp., No. 08-21039 (5th Cir. May 8, 2009), the defendant Beall owned a registered trademark for the design of its bottom-dump trailer. It learned that its rival, Vantage, had begun to manufacture and offer to sell a competing bottom-dump trailer, and so wrote Vantage a nasty letter accusing the new trailer design of trade dress infringement. Vantage sued for a declaration of noninfringement.

The 5th Circuit, however, pointed out that during the litigation Vantage had made certain modifications to the external configuration of the trailers. During this period, Vantage also sent one of its customers different depictions of the trailer. Based primarily on these facts, the 5th Circuit concluded that Vantage was thus “not immediately prepared to manufacture and sell trailers at the time it filed suit.” As a consequence, the courts entertaining the dispute would be unable to “compare [the shape of Vantage’s trailers] against that of Beall’s trailers” to determine whether trade dress infringement existed. Citing two patent DJ decisions (one from the Federal Circuit and a much older one from the 7th Circuit), the 5th Circuit held that Vantage “failed to meet its burden to show that its design was substantially fixed as to the potentially infringing elements, i.e., the appearance of the trailers, at the time of suit” (emphasis added), and therefore affirmed dismissal of the declaratory judgment action for lack of an immediate and real controversy.

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