The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded a summary judgment ruling, finding that there were genuine disputes of material fact regarding whether the plaintiff’s alleged trade dress was functional and therefore excluded from trade dress protection. DayCab Co., Inc. v. Prairie Tech., LLC, Case No. 22-5625 (6th Cir. May 11, 2023) (Moore, Clay, Stranch, JJ.)
DayCab manufactures conversion panels for tractor-trailer cabs. DayCab asserted Lanham Act and Tennessee Consumer Protection Act claims again Prairie Technology for trade dress infringement of its DayCab conversion kit. Prairie denied infringement and counterclaimed for declaratory judgment that DayCab’s trade dress was functional.
DayCab asserted that its product’s slant-back design, depth, rounded edges and gray color were protectable trade dress, explaining that it had carefully selected the angles, curves, tapers, lines, profile and appearance of the DayCab conversion kit. DayCab further argued that the 144-degree angle of the “slant-back” design, the dimensions of the depth and radius of the design, and the color were aesthetic and not functional. In support of its argument, DayCab presented competitor conversion kits to illustrate that there are many different appearances and ways to style conversion kits. DayCab attested that the only requirement for manufacturability is that the top of the fiberglass mold used for manufacturing the conversion kits must be slightly larger at the top than at the bottom. In response, Prairie presented expert testimony that the parties’ respective kits were not identical and that the panel’s depth, top body radius, lower body angle, flange/body radius and color were functional.
The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. Prairie argued that DayCab could not prove that its trade dress was nonfunctional, had secondary meaning or that there was likelihood of confusion. The district court granted Prairie’s motion, finding that DayCab’s asserted trade dress was functional and therefore not protectable. The district court did not address secondary meaning or likelihood of confusion. DayCab appealed.
The Sixth Circuit reversed the district court’s summary judgment ruling, finding that the district court did not determine open questions about whether DayCab’s conversion kits’ slant-back design was functional. The Sixth Circuit further remanded because the district court did not consider whether Prairie’s kits infringed DayCab’s design. Regarding functionality of the conversion kit, the Court determined that existence of alternative designs and testimony from DayCab’s founder claiming that the design choices were aesthetic raised issues in the district court’s functionality ruling. The Court also noted that the existence of alternative designs was relevant to the functionality determination because they supported DayCab’s contentions that it designed the panel with aesthetic intent and that its resulting features were ornamental rather than functional.
The Sixth Circuit found that it was for the jury to determine secondary meaning and whether Prairie intentionally copied DayCab’s design. The Court also found that likelihood of confusion needed to be determined by a jury because of conflicting evidence: DayCab presented evidence that consumers inquired about ordering Prairie’s kits from DayCab because the products were similarly named and indistinguishable on the road, while Prairie argued that conversion kits are only purchased by sophisticated consumers who understand the distinct marketing and packaging differences between the products.