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Ryan v. Carmona Bolen Home for Funerals

341 N.J. Super. 87, 775 A.2d 92 (App. Div. 2001)

TRADENAMES—A person may be enjoined from using his or her own name for his or her business if that use has the capacity for confusion with another well-known business.

Two funeral homes were operated under the name “Timothy E. Ryan Home For Funerals.” An unrelated funeral home business was operated under the name of “Carmona Bolen Home For Funerals.” The Carmona Bolen Home for Funerals was the subject of a great deal of adverse publicity and its misdoings became common knowledge in the community. The home was sanctioned, but allowed to operate. One of the home’s owners always referred to himself as “Rodney R. Bolen.” After the adverse publicity, he began to refer to himself as “Rodney Ryan Bolen” because his middle name was “Ryan.” The “Timothy E. Ryan Home For Funerals” began to receive telephone calls from people who confused the “Ryan” in “Rodney Ryan Bolen” as indicating some relationship between the disreputable funeral home and the Timothy E. Ryan homes. The Timothy E. Ryan homes filed suit to enjoin Rodney Ryan Bolen from using the name “Ryan” in advertisements and to place a disclaimer stating that “Carmona Bolen” was not affiliated with “Timothy E. Ryan Home For Funerals.” The lower court denied that relief, concluding that “the utilization of one’s name is a constitutional dimension” which was supported by “an absolute privilege.” On appeal, the Court noted that “the essence of unfair competition is fair play,” and “the purpose of the law regarding unfair competition is to promote higher ethical standards in the business world.” As such, ordinarily, “a person has the right to use his or her name in the operation of a business. ... While it is presumed that the use of one’s own name in business is for proper purposes, the law recognizes that a person ‘may not use his name so as to compete unfairly or fraudulently or as part of a plan to palm off his wares as those of his namesake.’” The Court was concerned that “[w]hen a family name has been used in business over a period of time, it may become so associated with a product or products that in the eyes of the public the name becomes synonymous with a product.” Consequently, a person may be enjoined from using his or her name in a commercial enterprise “when the use of that name has the capacity for confusion with another well-established business, even though they may not be in competition with one another.” The Court was suspicious of the timing of “replacing the initial R. with the middle name Ryan.” Consequently, the Court found that, at the very least, there was a genuine factual issue regarding the aggrieved funeral home’s entitlement to relief, and the matter was remanded. The lower court was instructed that “the number of instances of confusion shown is not controlling ... [and the aggrieved funeral home] merely need[s] [to] demonstrate a potential for confusion in order to be entitled to injunctive relief.” Rodney Ryan Bolen was held by the Court to have no vested interest in the use of the name “Ryan” as he only began to use that name after “Carmona Bolen’s” difficulties surfaced.

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