A lawsuit over the movie “Ruffian” has been dismissed in a Georgia federal court, vindicating defendants The Walt Disney Co. and its television networks ABC and ESPN.
The civil action, which was filed in June 2007 by Ruffian’s former trainer and jockey, Frank Whiteley Jr. and Jacinto Vasquez, respectively, originally centered on a patent infringement charge against the defendants, which released a movie about the ill-fated champion filly.
The patent infringement allegation was dismissed in a summary judgment order by U.S. District Court Judge Beverly B. Martin in February, as were charges by Whiteley and Vasquez of invasion of privacy. The remaining counts of false endorsement and defamation were dismissed by the plaintiffs April 15, with the court saying the defendants had the right to recover court costs.
Attempts by The Blood-Horse to contact attorneys affiliated with the respective parties weren’t immediately successful. Whiteley, a Hall of Fame trainer who also trained such stalwarts as Damascus and Forego, died May 2 at the age of 93.An ESPN spokesman in an e-mail issued a one-sentence statement about the lawsuit dismissal: "We are pleased with the outcome," wrote Rob Tobias, vice president of communications.
In addition to Whiteley and Vasquez, the plaintiffs also included Thoroughbred Legends LLC, which was formed in 2004, in part, to trademark the names of several star racehorses. In her 30-page order for summary judgment, Martin ruled the plaintiffs hadn’t demonstrated it protected the Ruffian name by using it either for commercial purposes or as a trademark, and said the defendants exhibited “fair use” of the name.
“There is … no serious question that defendants’ use was descriptive, a non-trademark use, and in good faith,” the judge wrote. “Even if the court were to assume plaintiffs had a valid mark in ‘Ruffian,’ and even if defendants used ‘Ruffian’ as a trademark, plaintiffs have not shown a genuine issue of material fact as to whether they used 'Ruffian' in commerce prior to defendants.”
Whiteley and Vasquez contended in court filings that they rejected a contract offer to participate in the making of the movie from a production company in May 2004, and that the company circumvented matters by using background from writer/author Bill Nack. Thoroughbred Legends, which is headed by Peter Blum, was incorporated in Georgia a couple weeks after Whiteley and Vasquez rejected the contract offer.
According to online court records, no appeal in the case has been filed by the plaintiffs.