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For the week of Dec. 29, 1999 through Jan. 4, 2000

Picabo Street sues Sun Valley Co.

Gold medal skier alleges unauthorized use of her name


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

Picabo StreetSun Valley’s golden child, Picabo Street, is suing Sun Valley Co. for "blatant, willful…wanton and unauthorized use" of her name in its advertising, according to a lawsuit filed in Boise on Dec. 16.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Boise, asks that Sun Valley Co. be ordered to stop using Street’s name in its promotions and seeks in damages all profits from the resort since July 1999.

Those promotions include 1999-2000 winter print ads that stated, "I carved the same slopes as Picabo Street" and an Internet web site (www.sunvalley.com) with quotes attributed to Street. Street’s name and photographs have since been removed from subsequent publication of the ads and the Internet site.

"Picabo Street was raised and learned to ski in Sun Valley, Idaho," the complaint says. "The promotion department at Sun Valley, and specifically (marketing director) Jack Sibbach, have capitalized on this fact."

Sibbach declined to comment on the litigation, saying the lawsuit "has not crossed my desk."

Regarding the famed skier, Sibbach said, "I wish Picabo all the luck in the world. I’m her biggest fan."

Sibbach referred further questions to Sinclair Oil attorney Mark Quinn. Sinclair is Sun Valley’s parent company. However, Quinn said, "We’re reserving comment, but I’d like to find someone you can attribute that to."

Street could not be reached for comments.

The Sun Valley/Ketchum Chamber of Commerce partnered with Sun Valley Co. on publication of several of the print ads, but the suit does not name the chamber as a defendant.

Street’s attorney, Kevin Evans of the Denver-based law firm of Hogan & Hartson, said in a telephone interview that Street has no plans to include the chamber in the suit "as of now." He said that as legal proceedings progress, "we will look at options."

Street, 28, was born in Triumph, Idaho, and honed her Alpine skiing skills under tutelage from the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation. Throughout her childhood, Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain was her home hill and proving ground.

She went on to win a slew of World Cup medals and two women’s alpine championships, including a gold medal in the women’s super giant slalom at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan and a silver medal in downhill in the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

For the 1995-’96 winter, Street allowed Sun Valley to use her name for promotions, but following that she has not granted the Idaho resort permission for such use of her name, the suit states.

On Nov. 1, 1998, Street entered into an agreement with Park City Mountain Resort in Utah as its director of skiing, a public relations position in which she promotes her affiliation with the resort, Park City communications director Melissa O’Brien said in a telephone interview.

O’Brien said Park City played no role in the suit’s filing.

Sibbach said he doesn’t know why Sun Valley Co. was not able to maintain Street’s affiliation, but speculated that Sun Valley probably didn’t offer her enough money.

The suit states that "Ms. Street expressly consented to the use of her name and image in Sun Valley’s 1995-‘96 winter brochure. The same cannot be said with respect to the current use of Ms. Street’s name and image.

"Indeed, Mr. Sibbach of Sun Valley approached Ms. Street requesting permission and authorization from Ms. Street to use her name and image in a new wave of advertising and promotional material. Ms. Street declined Mr. Sibbach’s offer and refused to consent to the use of her name and/or image. In fact, Ms. Street has entered into an agreement with a competitor of Sun Valley."

Sun Valley general manager Wally Huffman said he believes Street’s case holds little weight.

"Last August we first talked with her legal people," he said in an interview. "At that time and at this time we don’t think their case has any merit. I just got notice (about the lawsuit) and until we have the chance to review it further, we’re going to reserve comment."

Evans, one of two Street lawyers who filed the complaint, said a lawsuit was not Street’s preference.

"The law firm that’s representing Sun Valley took an outrageous position," he said.

Street’s suit charges seven counts against Sun Valley Co., including violation of federal and Idaho laws.

The suit alleges violations of the federal Lanham Act, which grants award of civil damages for the unauthorized use of commercial names and symbols. According to the act, any person who sells goods or services using a name that is likely to "deceive as to the affiliation, connection or association of such person," is subject to legal action.

It also states that plaintiffs, if they prevail, are entitled to recover "defendant’s profits, any damages sustained by the plaintiff, and the costs of the action."

Ken Freudenberg, a Colorado attorney specializing in intellectual property, said that judging by a description of the suit, "it certainly would seem that there’s some merit to it."

Freudenberg said that, generally, the names of famous living people cannot be used for promotional purposes without their consent.

"If there’s value in their name, then they’re entitled to it instead of everyone else," he said in a telephone interview. "I think that she may under present-day law have a pretty good case because they’re trying to ride on her coattails."

Freudenberg pointed as an example to a suit won by entertainer Johnny Carson against a portable toilet company that had adopted the name "Here’s Johnny."

Freudenberg said Street may have a case even though the Sun Valley ads contained a factual statement rather than an endorsement. He pointed out that if a company terminates a promotional contract with an athlete, it can’t then say "He used our stuff last year."

However, Freudenberg speculated that if Street prevails, it is unlikely she will be able to collect as damages all Sun Valley’s profits since the allegedly unauthorized ads began to run, as she is asking. Under the Lanham Act, such damages are permissible, but are "subject to the principles of equity."

"It’s hard to conceive of a court actually doing that," Freudenberg said. "It’s not that having her name in the ad generated all the profits for the ski area."

The likely damage award, he said, would be the value of the contract Sun Valley would need to have entered into to legally use Street’s name. However, Freudenberg said, based on his experience with similar suits, Street’s case is likely to be settled before going to trial.

"Filing a suit is cheap," he said. "Litigating one is expensive."

 

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