NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Oct. 20, 2003)—Bridgestone/ Firestone has sued an independent tire dealership for what the tire maker said was unauthorized use of its logos.
But the dealership, Nebraska Tire, contends it has had a relationship with Bridgestone/Firestone (BFS) since at least the early 1990s. The Firth, Neb.-based co-op dealership operates nine retail outlets, a wholesale division, and also sells various other brands.
In its suit, filed Aug. 22 in U.S. District Court in Nebraska, BFS said Nebraska Tire used the Nashville-based tire maker's trademarked fonts and logos without permission since Nebraska Tire is not an authorized dealer. BFS is seeking unspecified damages.
“We will not allow them to falsely imply that they are a dealer, that they carry our full line of tires, etc., and by doing so possibly take business away from our authorized dealers,” a BFS spokesman said.
He maintained that the case is not part of an overall crackdown, unless other dealerships are found to be in violation. BFS recently settled in its favor with a Chinese company, KHH, in a similar case. But the suit against Nebraska Tire is believed to be the first one against an independent dealer in the U.S.
Tim Engler, an attorney in Lincoln, Neb., representing Nebraska Tire, said the dealership had sold Bridgestone/Firestone products in the past as part of a long-standing relationship. He said the extent and technical longevity of that relationship is at the crux of this case.
“That's one of the things that will have to be addressed as part of the lawsuit,” he said.
In its court filing, BFS said Nebraska Tire was never a link in its authorized dealer chain, and the spokesman said he could not find any record of the dealership being in the network since at least 1982. In 2001, BFS demanded the dealership cease use of the logos but the tire maker said the company continued to use them.
BFS provided a snapshot of Nebraska Tire's Web site from June 30, which had brand logos including Bridgestone, Firestone, Michelin, Yokohama, Goodyear and Cooper.
When Tire Business visited the site Sept. 5, the Bridgestone/Firestone logos were removed, but the others remained. By Oct. 2, all brand logos were gone, replaced by a note asking customers to call about the selection of tires.
Mr. Engler said Nebraska Tire had made the changes to the Web site until the court case is resolved. He said he is not aware of any other manufacturers getting involved in the lawsuit.
He said the company's managers were surprised by the lawsuit because of the past relationship with BFS. “We thought we had the consent of Bridgestone/Firestone,” he said.
BFS also is accusing Nebraska Tire of bait-and-switch tactics, for example advertising Firestone tires then offering a lesser model when the customer gets in the store. The spokesman said the tire maker's allegation relates back to trademark use.
“I think it's something we'd like to go after but it's very difficult to prove,” he said.
Mr. Engler said Nebraska Tire denies those charges. “We don't know of any facts that would support that,” he said.
The BFS spokesman said the tire maker establishes clear guidelines for the use of its logos through agreements with authorized dealers. Those who aren't part of that group yet buy the tires through a third-party distributor can use “Bridgestone” and “Firestone” in block letters, just not in the stylized fonts, he said.
But any enlarged use that makes the name stand out is swimming in infringement waters, he said.
BFS is watching use of its logos carefully, he said, because it fears outside dealers could gain advantage against authorized ones and an unscrupulous dealer could harm the reputation of others.
“We're very careful about and feel strongly that only authorized dealers should be using our trademarked logos,” the spokesman said. “…We want to protect our authorized dealers.”