Off Beat

Sue 'Em If You Got 'Em

THE BRIGHT RED awning says it all: Cheap Smokes. At the bustling intersection of East Lake Street and 27th Avenue South in Minneapolis, this unassuming 900-square-foot store sells exactly what the sign touts: discount cigarettes. Traffic is steady on this Thursday afternoon, as proprietor Wes Knodt reclines in the backroom and lights up a Marlboro Medium 100 ($2.68 a pack). Three years ago, Knodt says, having spent 18 years as a salesman for a tobacco wholesaler, he "decided to live the American Dream" of owning his own business. In December 1996 he hung out his shingle, with a name that he figured spoke for itself. (You want cheap smokes? Knodt's rock-bottom butts, Main Streets, run $1.49 a pack.) Then, this past fall, a letter arrived from a San Francisco law firm, politely asking Knodt to change the name of his store because Cheap Smokes sounds too much like their client's name, Cigarettes Cheaper! Having never heard of that chain, Knodt ignored the letter. "I didn't take them seriously," he recounts between drags. "I figured, this is so far off the wall!" On December 1 Knodt was slapped with a federal lawsuit alleging trademark infringement and violation of the Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Founded in 1994, Benicia, California-based Cigarettes Cheaper! opened its 500th store a few months ago. The chain doesn't operate any stores in Minnesota; as near as Off Beat can figure, the closest one is located in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Cigarettes Cheaper! vice president Jeremy Chapman declines to discuss the suit or answer general questions about his firm, but one of the company's attorneys, Dirks B. Foster, says his clients have persuaded five businesses around the nation to change their names rather than face litigation, and they're pursuing others. Cigarettes for Cheap (California), Cigarettes 4 Cheap (Arizona), Tobacco Cheaper (Texas), Cheapest Cigarettes (Nevada), and Cheaper Smokes (North Carolina) have all altered their monikers. Noting that Cigarettes Cheaper! has registered its trademark federally, Foster observes, "We think 'Cheap Smokes' is a takeoff on our company's [name]." In trademark cases the legal test is whether or not the names are "confusingly similar." Knodt, who is talking to his own lawyers before deciding on his next move, says he gets most of his business within an eight- to ten-block radius of his shop, and from smokers who are transferring buses at the corner. "I don't know what customer I'm confusing," he muses, shaking his head. "I'm sure not confusing any of theirs."

Had Milk?

DID YOU BUY unflavored whole, one-percent, two-percent, or skim milk in half-gallon or gallon containers in Minnesota between 1985 and 1996? If so, Penny Godden wants to represent you. In 1997 she filed suit against Minnesota-based milk companies, alleging that executives met secretly to stifle competition and fix prices. Her case was dismissed, but thanks to a favorable appeals-court ruling last winter, it lives again. On Friday Godden and her attorneys will appear in Ramsey County District Court to apply for class certification, which, if granted, would pave the way for a jury trial. Godden's is the last of three antitrust suits against Minnesota milk companies: Attorney General Mike Hatch settled his this past November for $3.75 million worth of milk donations to Minnesota food banks; a federal case was thrown out earlier in the year when an appeals court affirmed a ruling that its allegations were "factually insufficient." Attorney Gary Hansen, who represents one of the Godden defendants, Land O'Lakes, predicts the case is destined for the dumpster. For one thing, he argues, the plaintiff can't reasonably claim to represent everyone in Minnesota. Besides, even if his clients did fix prices--an allegation he strenuously denies--it would be impossible to determine how to repay customers. "Every individual milk buyer would need to prove their claims on a case-by-case basis," Hansen scoffs. Stewart Loper, one of Godden's attorneys, hopes the court doesn't fall prey to the defense's "speculative parade of horrors." Citizens won't have to take time off work to testify, he assures; an economist has been hired to calculate how much money people are entitled to. "I don't know about you, but I don't keep every receipt when I buy milk," Loper explains. "But that doesn't matter. The bottom line is that consumers paid more for milk due to the conspiracy and should be recompensed."

 

At Off Beat our motto is "Staying informed so you don't have to." Call (612) 372-3788 or send e-mail to offbeat@citypages.com with any poop that's fit to print.

 
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