By: Josh H. Escovedo
On September 9, 2015, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that Costco was willfully infringing Tiffany & Co.’s trademarks by selling diamond engagement rings bearing the renowned jewelry retailer’s name. The suit started back in 2012 when a patron of Costco in Huntington Beach, California decided to reach out to Tiffany to express her disappointment in Tiffany offering its rings for sale at Costco. She also stated that the rings were being promoted on signs within the store as Tiffany diamond engagement rings. After receiving the complaint and knowing that it did not sell its rings through Costco, Tiffany launched an investigation revealing that the Huntington Beach Costco was in fact displaying diamond engagement rings in a case labeled with the word Tiffany. The investigation also revealed that the Costco salespeople were referring to them as Tiffany engagement rings. Accordingly, Tiffany took action.
According to the Court’s ruling, prior to the lawsuit, Costco promised that it would remove references to Tiffany from its display case signs and even sent a letter to customers who bought the rings offering a full refund if they were not satisfied. Irrespective of these acts, Tiffany filed suit, ironically enough, on February 14, 2013. In response, Costco filed a counterclaim alleging that Tiffany’s trademarks were invalid because they sought to prevent others from using the word “Tiffany” as a generic description of a type of ring setting. Almost a year and a half later, the Court ruled in favor of Tiffany and against Costco. Specifically, Judge Laura Taylor Swain ruled that the evidence established that Costco had infringed Tiffany’s trademarks by selling engagement rings and had confused consumers by using the word Tiffany in display cases. Judge Swain ruled that “Despite Costco’s arguments to the contrary, the court finds that, based on the record evidence, no rational finder of fact could conclude that Costco acted in good faith in adopting the Tiffany mark.”
Under the ruling, Tiffany may now seek damages from Costco through a jury trial. These damages could include disgorgement of Costco’s related profits from the rings, as well as punitive damages. It seems likely that because of the egregious nature of the infringement, a jury will award Tiffany Costco’s related profits, with punitive damages to punish Costco’s seemingly intentional and deceptive conduct. That, however, assumes that the matter gets to the jury. The Court ordered the parties to “make good faith efforts to settle the outstanding issues” and given the unpredictability of juries, I believe the parties will reach a resolution on damages before a jury comes into play. With that said, it is debatable how much leverage Costco has to negotiate at this point with the Court already finding that it infringed Tiffany’s mark.
General Counsel for Tiffany, Leigh Harlan, stated that “We believe this decision further validates the strength and value of the Tiffany mark and reinforces our continuing efforts to protect the brand.” Ms. Harlan’s statements are bolstered by the .55% increase in the Tiffany stock to $82.32 the day after the issuance of Judge Swain’s ruling. Interestingly, Costco’s stock also went up .04% to $141.48 per share the same morning.
This ruling should not come as a surprise to many. The strength of the Tiffany mark in the realm of diamond rings is in my opinion second to none. So when an unpermitted party chooses to use the word Tiffany in conjunction with its sale of diamond rings, consumer confusion is almost inevitable. It would certainly be interesting to see how many consumers were duped into purchasing these Costco rings under the impression that they were getting a Tiffany ring at a substantial discount. Personally, I think it would be more interesting to see how the consumers who purchased these rings pawned them off on their significant others as a Tiffany ring without the distinctive Tiffany Blue Box. But that’s just me.