A Reno-based company intentionally interfered with business relationships established by Bob Marley's heirs and must pay the family at least $300,000 in damages, a Las Vegas jury ruled Friday.
"The verdict sends a clear message to anyone who would challenge the integrity of our father's legacy," Rohan Marley, son of the late reggae musician, said in a written statement. "Preserving it remains one of our top priorities and we will continue to aggressively pursue legal actions against those who attempt to unfairly profit from his life and legacy."
Jurors ruled that AVELA, a corporation based in Reno, and owner Leo Valencia, a San Diego resident, intentionally interfered with the family's business relationships and engaged in unfair competition by selling T-shirts and other products bearing Bob Marley's image. The products have been sold across the country at retail stores such as Target, Walmart and Wet Seal.
The case was filed in January 2008 by Fifty-Six Hope Road Music Ltd. and Zion Rootswear.
Fifty-Six Hope Road was formed by Bob Marley's widow, Rita, and nine of his 11 children. According to court records in the Las Vegas case, the company first licensed Marley's identity in 1986. In 1999, it granted Zion the exclusive worldwide license to design, manufacture and sell T-shirts bearing Marley's image.
Marley died of cancer in 1981 at the age of 36.
Jurors awarded the plaintiffs $300,000 in damages on the claim of intentional interference. U.S. District Judge Philip Pro is expected to award additional damages after he determines the amount of lost profits caused by the unfair competition.
According to Rohan Marley's statement, the verdict "affirms what we've been saying all along: we are the rightful owners of all rights to our father's identity and persona -- not because we inherited it, but because we had to buy back those rights many years ago and have taken great care to protect his legacy, identity and persona since his passing almost 30 years ago."
Rohan Marley testified during the trial, which began Jan. 4, and sat at the plaintiffs' table Thursday for closing arguments.
During the arguments, family attorney Jill Pietrini said the Marleys had to borrow $11 million to buy back the rights to Bob Marley's identity.
Pietrini had asked jurors to award $375,000 for intentional interference, and has said the unfair competition claim should result in damages of at least $3 million.
Marley's heirs claimed that retailers, including Wet Seal, dropped their products in favor of the defendants' cheaper, unlicensed merchandise.
No members of the Marley family were in court when the verdict was read Friday afternoon.
The jury's four men and four women deliberated about five hours before announcing their decision.
Los Angeles attorney Douglas Winter, who represents the defendants, said his clients plan to take the case to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
The defendants' lawyers argued at trial that Marley's heirs needed to show that consumers likely were confused about the family's sponsorship of the defendants' products.
"We're obviously disappointed with the verdict," Winter said. "We don't believe that a false endorsement was actually proven in the case. We don't believe that the evidence established that consumers are likely to be confused that Bob Marley or his heirs sponsor or approved defendants' products."
He said the unfair competition claim "is an unprecedented extension of a false endorsement claim beyond that which the statute or existing case law authorizes, and we anticipate that we will be successful on appeal in the 9th Circuit."
AVELA publishes and licenses photographs, images, movie posters and other artwork for retail use. Other defendants in the Las Vegas case included Jem Sportswear and Central Mills (Freeze).
The jury found that all the defendants willfully engaged in unfair competition, but the panel found that JEM and Central Mills did not intentionally interfere with the Marleys' business relationships.
"It was a hard-fought battle, and the jury came to the right decision," Pietrini said.
SOURCE: Las Vegas R.J.