Customs broker and freight forwarder found liable for “use of a counterfeit mark in commerce”.

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A New Jersey U.S. District Court found a customs broker and freight forwarder liable for trademark infringements on Nike trademarks. The customs broker was ordered to pay $240,000 in damages and the freight forwarder will pay a yet undetermined amount.

The court held the broker and forwarder liable because they determined the arrangement of transportation and creation of documents related to the importation of the shipments constituted “use in commerce” of the Nike trademarks under the Lanham Act even though forwarder argued it had no physical control or knowledge of the shipments. Unfortunately for the broker and forwarder, the Lanham Act is a “strict liability statute” and does not consider intent or lack of intent in whether someone is liable. Speeding violations are the most common type of “strict liability statute” in that the act of speeding is the violation and it is not required to have the intent to speed. In this instance, the “use of a counterfeit mark in commerce” is the violation – with intent only a factor when determining the damages.

According to the case, (Nike, Inc. v. Eastern Ports Custom Brokers, Inc., et al., D.N.J. 2:11-cv-4390, July 19, 2018), the forwarder created the bill of lading, made arrangements for the cargo, and gave the broker a POA to act on behalf of the importer. The court ultimately found the broker and forwarder “played an active role in arranging for transportation” of the footwear and took “responsibility for the goods and making representations regarding the nature of the goods”. These actions were enough of an “use in commerce” under the Lanham Act and therefore liable for the trademark infringement.

One interesting note is the forwarder lost the case because they were in default after their lawyer withdrew in 2013. Default means a party to a lawsuit was properly served and noticed, but failed to make an appearance at any of the required hearings. For example, all parties are required to provide notice of trial dates and hearing dates. Proper notices were most likely sent by Nike to the forwarder – however, on the day of trial, no one made an appearance on behalf of the forwarder and as such lost the case for because they were in default. The forwarder, being in default, did not make an appearance and had no way to present any evidence to support their position.

Definitely an interesting case and the first time I’ve heard of a forwarder and broker liable for trademark infringement.

If you have any questions about this case and are would like to know how this ruling may impact your business as a broker or forwarder, contact experienced trade attorney David Hsu at 832.896.6288 or by email at dhsu@givensjohnston.com.