Trademark Dispute Between Naperville Small Business and National Corporation Can Proceed



In a business trademark dispute, the Seventh Circuit has ruled that large auto parts retailer AutoZone may proceed with its trademark infringement lawsuit against a two-store automotive services business in Naperville and Wheaton, Illinois, called Oil Zone and Wash Zone. AutoZone, Inc. v. Michael Strick, No. 07-2136 (7th. Cir. Sept. 11, 2008).

AutoZone sells auto parts and products, and has been well-known in the Chicago area since the early 1990s, according to the opinion. In that decade, defendant Michael Strick opened his Oil Zone stores outside Chicago, in Wheaton and Naperville. These stores sold automotive services such as oil changes, not parts or products; the Naperville location also offered car washes under the name “Wash Zone.”

AutoZone learned of Strick’s businesses in 1998, but did not contact him until sending a letter in February of 2003. It filed a lawsuit against Strick and his businesses near the end of that year, alleging service mark, trademark and trade name infringement and trademark dilution under the federal Lanham Act, federal unfair competition law, the Illinois Trademark Registration and Protection Act and Illinois common law. Both sides sought summary judgment, which was granted to Strick only, on his claim that there was no reasonable likelihood of confusion between his trademark and AutoZone’s. Strick’s defense of laches — that AutoZone had waited too long to sue — was not addressed. AutoZone appealed on the likelihood of confusion issue.

In its analysis, the Seventh Circuit noted that summary judgment in trademark cases is only appropriate when “the evidence is so one-sided that there can be no doubt about how the question should be answered.” Packman v. Chicago Tribune Co., 267 F.3d 628, 642 (7th Cir. 2001). That case also laid down a series of seven factors courts must analyze to decide whether to grant summary judgment, which include questions of similarity, geography, consumer confusion and the intent of the parties. The court in this case concluded that six of those factors applied, including the similarity of the marks, the similarity of the products and their geographic proximity.

There was enough likelihood of confusion in this case for the case to survive summary judgment, the court concluded. It also left the issue of latches — the time between AutoZone noticing Oil Zone and when it filed suit — up to the district court. Thus, the district court’s decision was reversed and remanded to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

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