On Tuesday, October 11, a federal jury in California awarded Herman Miller Inc. $8.4 million in a trade dress lawsuit against Office Star. Office Star was accused of using Herman Miller’s overall look of its Eames office chair line in the trade dress suit.
Herman Miller is best known for its office furniture, specifically its office chairs. In addition, it also manufactures other office furniture and offers “solutions” for their customers, focusing on making the workplace a better environment through products and layouts for offices, healthcare settings, and homes. One particular line of chairs, the Eames office chair, is sold for between $1,500 and $3,319, according to the Herman Miller website.
In contrast, Office Star is a furniture company that does not advertise itself as offering any kinds of “solutions” besides their product itself. Office Star has a line of “Executive Chairs,” which do appear, at first glance, to be similar to the chairs sold by Herman Miller. However, Office Star’s most expensive chair is sold for $460, less than a third of Herman Miller’s cheapest offering in their similar line.
This suit arose because when Herman Miller alleged that Office Star had ripped off their “overall look” and infringed their trade dress. Trade dress is defined as the “overall commercial image (look and feel) of a product that indicates or identifies the source of the product and distinguishes it from those of others,” including design, product labeling/packaging, and the environment where the services are provided. Herman Miller felt that Office Star, by offering a very similar product, was infringing and capitalizing upon the well-known and respected image Herman Miller has built for over 50 years. By offering what a typical consumer may believe to be a similar product for up to 15% of the cost (in some cases), Office Star was able to use some of this goodwill to sell their own product.
In this case, the jury sided with Herman Miller after a nine-day trial. The jury’s decision shows the importance that trade dress can play in the everyday life of a consumer, and the effect of something as simple as the design of an office chair on a company’s reputation
-Samuel J. Gee, on behalf of the Trademark Law Firm