Former talk personality lights up Lanham Act charges

Respectability

Talk show host, military man, actor, producer, product endorser – Montel Williams has worn his share of hats, some more garish than others. So his latest role may come as a surprise to the public who knew him in the ’90s: serious medical marijuana advocate.

Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999, Williams has used medical cannabis products to alleviate the painful symptoms associated with the disease. In 2017, almost two decades after his diagnosis, he founded LenitivLabs, which characterizes itself as “a line of innovative, high quality medical cannabis products for patients.” The company goes to great lengths to maintain a profile of aboveboard legitimacy. From its sober, tasteful website to its professional team bio page, the message is clear: This is a serious business with a meaningful mission.

The Lenitiv site even fires a warning shot against the crowds of pretenders flooding the medical marijuana market: “The legal cannabis industry is laden with non-medical brands and products but the true medical cannabis consumer has been largely ignored by current brands in the cannabis space.”

Irony

As part of the rollout of the new company, Williams was featured in an article appearing in Forbes. The article stressed the seriousness of the new enterprise and featured quotes from the entrepreneur.

The article, a new lawsuit alleges, was turned against Williams in spectacular fashion.

Williams and his trademark holding company sued a number of companies that served as “sellers, suppliers, importers, and/or marketers of products” of so-called cannabidiol or CBD oils – purportedly for medical use. Several of the companies, the suit alleged, were managed by one Timothy Isaac, who also appeared as a defendant. Additional “unknown defendants” were named, part of an alleged murky soup of online CBD oil salespersons who had hidden their real identities.

The suit claims that the defendants used Williams’ “name, image, identity, reputation, persona, and trademark in a number of ways” in an effort to sell their own products. Williams’ image and the fabricated quotes attributed to him – sometimes posted to fake news sites and blogs – were also deployed to create the false impression that Williams had endorsed defendants’ products. The suit also asserts that the defendants engaged in credit-card scams, including negative-option pricing and misleading free trials.

To add insult to injury, the suit maintains, customer complaints were beginning to pour in to Lenitiv, “reflecting … actual confusion and damage to Plaintiffs’ reputation due to Defendants’ conduct.”

The Takeaway

Williams brings charges of false advertising, false endorsement and sponsorship, false designation of origin, and unfair competition under the Lanham Act, as well as violations of the right of publicity and right of privacy under Florida law and common law.

Williams seeks to bar the defendants from using his image, name, voice, reputation or trademark to market any product or service and to withdraw and destroy any advertising using the same, and he seeks profits and damages. How the lawsuit will grapple with the crowd of “unknown defendants,” whose highly mobile and obscure identities might change the scope of the case, will be of great interest. This case is another example of how celebrities have continued to pursue actions against marketers who use their names and likenesses to falsely endorse products, a trend which will surely continue in the future.