Tire wars: Local Joe wins rubber match

Nothing leaves a person jaded like a good Goliath-beats-David story. Such was the case in Baltimore in the mid-1980s when electronics giantSony Corp.famously succeeded in running a Filipino restaurant out of business because the owner had the nerve to attach her name to it. Her name was Sony Florendo.

Sony Corp. attorneys came to town and filed a $2.9 million lawsuit against Sony's restaurant on Park Avenue, claiming trademark infringement. It didn't seem to matter that Sony Corp. was a Japanese conglomerate that manufactured television sets, while Sony's was a small Filipino restaurant that made chicken adobo.

Three years of litigation later and Sony Florendo threw in the towel, saying she could no longer afford the fight. She changed the name and style of her place, and a lot of financial troubles followed. She never got to her day in court to prove the obvious — that there should be no consumer confusion between an electronics multinational and a modest, immigrant-run restaurant in Baltimore.

As I said, nothing injects the jade like a story of Goliath stomping David.

And few things are as delightful and as surprising as the vice versa, when David takes on Goliath, persists and wins. Such was the story I picked up the other day while waiting for the guys at a South Baltimore tire shop to fix my flat.

Back in 1998, Joe Hooe (pronounced "Hoe") and his wife, Marianne, decided to start a business. They called it The Tire Network, Inc. They opened a retail operation on South Hanover Street and a shop for fleet service on Hammonds Ferry Road.

The Hooes' business developed nicely, and the years went by — 13, to be exact — before something strange started to happen. Joe Hooe started getting weird phone calls.

The first was from a customer who wanted to know if he could take his fleet vehicles for service at The Tire Network in Harford County. That confused Joe Hooe because he didn't have a location in Harford County.

Then a woman called to say she needed follow-up work on a repair that had been made at The Tire Network in Anne Arundel County. That was confusing, too; Joe Hooe didn't have a shop in Anne Arundel County.

It didn't take Mr. Hooe long to figure out what was happening.

Goodyear had launched a nationwide program called Tire & Service Network. Customers in the Baltimore area were confusing the new Goodyear Tire & Service Network with The Tire Network established by Mr. Hooe and his wife in 1998. Goodyear advertised its Tire & Service Network in signs at retail locations throughout the metropolitan area. The color scheme of the signage was blue and yellow, the same colors used by the Hooes at their shop in South Baltimore. "They used blue text on yellow, and we used yellow text on blue," Mr. Hooe says.

He also discovered that the toll-free telephone number for Goodyear's Tire & Service Network was strikingly similar to his. The Tire Network's was 877-TIRES-NOW while Goodyear's was 877-4-TIRES-NOW.

Concerned that all of this was possibly hurting his business, Mr. Hooe says he asked Goodyear to stop its Tire & Service Network campaign. The company refused, Mr. Hooe said, so he hired a lawyer and took his grievance to federal court. (Mr. Hooe's attorney for this case was James Astrachan, who is a guest from time to time on my radio show on WYPR-FM.)

"I was offered $50,000 to 'go buy a boat,'" is how Mr. Hooe described the first settlement offer made by a Goodyear representative.

Mr. Hooe said no and proceeded to defend his livelihood and brand name, which he had registered with the state of Maryland in 1998. Goodyear filed a countersuit.

There were settlement talks, but they broke down, Mr. Hooe said, until Magistrate Judge Susan K. Gauvey of the U.S. District Court in Baltimore got involved. For those of us long ago jaded by the Sony Florendo case, the result is almost shocking: Goodyear agreed to pull its Tire & Service Network signs and phone listings in Maryland and in any other state where the Hooes might expand their business in the future. The big tire company must also pay attorney fees for the Hooes, and the Hooes get to keep their company name.

David won this time. I thought you might like to know.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Follow him on Twitter at DanRodricks.

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