Lawsuit over use of barefoot marathoner’s name is dismissed

SEATTLE – The maker of a popular line of minimalist running shoes doesn’t have to pay damages for naming some of its models after Abebe Bikila, the legendary Ethiopian runner who won the 1960 Olympics marathon barefoot, a federal judge has ruled.

Bikila’s family sued Vibram, which makes foot-glove-style shoes, in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, Washington, early last year, seeking $15 million in damages. The family said the company didn’t have permission to trademark or use the Bikila name.

Judge Ronald Leighton dismissed the case on Monday. He found that the family knew by 2011 that Vibram was using the name, yet didn’t file suit until 2015. The judge said it would have been unfair to Vibram to allow the lawsuit to go forward after such a delay, when Vibram had been investing in and marketing the products for years.

“The Bikilas unreasonably delayed in seeking to enforce their rights, and this unreasonable delay prejudiced Vibram,” Leighton wrote.

In a statement provided by its lawyers, Vibram, which is headquartered in Italy and bases its U.S. operations in Concord, Massachusetts, said it was pleased with the ruling.

Bikila was a last-minute addition to the 1960 Ethiopian team when another runner fell ill. He got blisters from the running shoes he was issued and decided to run barefoot — the way he had trained — over Rome’s cobbled streets, along a course that passed the Obelisk of Axum, a granite monument the Italian fascists plundered from Ethiopia in 1937.

He finished in just over 2 hours, 15 minutes, winning the gold and shattering what was then the Olympic record by about eight minutes.

Bikila also went on to win the 1964 Olympic marathon in Tokyo — just 40 days after having his appendix out. He wore shoes for that race.

In 1969, a car crash left him paralyzed, and he died of complications a few years later. An annual marathon in his home country is held in his honour, and the New York Road Runners, the organization behind the New York City Marathon, has given its Abebe Bikila Award every year since 1978 to honour an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the sport.

Vibram named some models of its Five Fingers running shoes after Bikila and trademarked the name in 2010 as barefoot or nearly barefoot running became more popular in the United States. It renamed the shoes “V-Run” in 2015 as part of “the normal course of refreshing its product line,” according to a declaration filed in court by a company vice-president.

Alex Trauman, a lawyer for the Bikilas, said Tuesday the family is disappointed and considering an appeal. Their complaint alleged violations of federal law as well as Washington’s Personality Rights Act, which is considered one of the most progressive such laws in the nation because it specifies that the heirs of a deceased person can continue to assert personality rights.

“The fact remains that Vibram has never asked the Bikila Family for permission, nor compensated them for using Abebe Bikila’s personality,” Trauman wrote in an email. “We hope that the parties can ultimately resolve their differences and the Bikila family can continue to promote the legacy of Abebe Bikila.”


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