It seems like the Aunt Jemima brand of pancakes and syrup has been around forever.  And it almost has. Quaker Oats registered the U.S. trademark for AUNT JEMIMA in 1937. So, it must have been a complete surprise when D.W. Hunter and Larnell Evans, claiming they were the descendants of Anna Short Harrington (reputedly, Aunt Jemima), filed a lawsuit in federal court in Illinois alleging that Quaker Oats and its successor corporations had exploited Harrington’s image rights and recipes for profit. They claimed that the defendants owed them more than $2 billion in damages!

Now that’s a lot of money, but in today’s market, it’s hardly unusual for celebrities to profit from their names in and out of court. Take, for example, Actress Katherine Heigl (“Knocked Up” and “Grey’s Anatomy”) who sued New York pharmacy Duane Reade for using her name and likeness in an unauthorized tweet and Facebook advertisement.  The complaint alleged that Heigl “is highly selective and well compensated” when she endorses a product or service. She claimed damages in excess of 6 million dollars for unauthorized use of her image! She later withdrew her lawsuit under a cloak of secrecy and we assume that Duane Reade paid her something.

Back to Aunt Jemima. Was she a celebrity?  Was she even a real person?  In their complaint, Hunter and Evans claimed that their grandmother, Harrington, was an employee of Quaker Oats and accused the defendants of intentionally covering up the facts.  The two also accused the defendants of breach of contract, conspiracy, and fraud, among other charges, “while alleging that Quaker Oats engaged in “industrial espionage” to procure Harrington’s trade secrets before failing to compensate her estate on an annual basis following her death.”  They also asserted that PepsiCo , Pinnacle Foods, and Quaker Oats engaged in a pattern “of racial discrimination towards Anna S. Harrington’s heirs … reflecting an innate form of disrespect towards African American people.”  Defendants, on the other hand, claimed that Aunt Jemima was purely a fictional character.

Too bad for Hunter and Evans when the court dismissed the case writing that “[T]he only information about plaintiffs’ connection to Harrington … is an account of how Hunter received a photograph (now lost) of Harrington from his grandmother and of plaintiffs’ attempt to locate Harrington’s grave in Syracuse, New York.”  That just was not sufficient to maintain the suit.  According to PepsiCo, “The Aunt Jemima brand is not, and never has been, based on any one person. We have taken steps to contemporise the ‘Aunt Jemima’ trademark to ensure it represents a more modern look and feel, and today represents a sense of caring, nurturing and comfort that families have come to know and love.” One can’t fault the court for dismissing a two billion dollar lawsuit based upon a lost photograph. What were the plaintiffs thinking?

— Adam G. Garson, Esq.