Walmart’s recent trademark infringement lawsuit loss demonstrates the importance of trademark owners understanding their branding risk tolerance during the naming stage. In this case, Walmart had a high branding risk tolerance that will likely end up costing it millions of dollars.
In about 2011, Walmart Stores went down the path of launching a new line of barbecue products. The new mark it decided to adopt was BACKYARD GRILL. According to the most recent decision from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, Walmart instructed its trademark attorneys to conduct a trademark clearance search for this new mark. It’s trademark attorneys warned Walmart of a potential conflict with a prior registered mark THE BACKYARD (in standard characters) for “retail store services in the field of lawn and garden equipment and supplies” owned by Variety Stores, Inc.
Walmart made the decision not to follow its trademark attorney’s advice and filed an intent-to-use trademark application for:
in connection with a variety of goods and services including “barbecues and grills” and “retail store services featuring a wide variety of consumer goods of others.” With such a broad identification of goods and services descriptions, Variety Stores’ THE BACKYARD mark should have been cited against the registration of Walmart’s pending application. Surprisingly, Walmart’s BACKYARD GRILL mark sailed through the examination phase and was published for opposition where Variety Stores promptly opposed its registration.
The dispute did not stop there, nor did it deter Walmart’s plans to use the BACKYARD GRILL mark. A little over three years after the opposition proceeding commenced, it was suspended for a lawsuit filed by Variety Stores against Walmart alleging trademark infringement.
In 2016, Walmart lost the lawsuit and was ordered to pay Variety Stores $32.5 million dollars. This amount was a disgorgement of the profit Walmart had earned on its BACKYARD GRILL products. However, this award was reversed by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on the ground that the case should have gone to the jury. The case was retried in front of a jury in October 2018 and the jury found that Walmart willfully infringed Variety Stores’ THE BACKYARD trademark. Now the case moves into further proceedings to determine Variety Stores’ monetary compensation.