Passing off claim brought by a "mutual" insurance company fails

This was a passing off action brought by a mutual insurance company that provides insurance services to members of the armed forces against the defendants (subsidiaries of a friendly society), which set up a website offering insurance services under the trading name "Forces Mutual". Although all cases to date on passing off have concerned the name of a product, the judge saw no reason why the goodwill associated with the name of a type of service should not also be protected. However, the difficulty was that there are several definitions of "mutual" and the judge held that the meaning of the word in the mind of the "relevant public" (here, members of the armed forces) had only one broad meaning: "That meaning includes some understanding….that a mutual has no shareholders and is owned by stakeholders, who may be employees, customers or individuals of other kinds". The judge rejected the claimant's argument that there is also a second, distinct and narrower meaning for a financial mutual (namely, a financial organisation solely owned and controlled by some or all of its customers). Accordingly, the claimant's claim to collective goodwill held by such a class (and so its claim for passing off) failed because the public did not, at the relevant time, recognise any such class as being distinct.