Vacuum wars set to end in damp squib

A tit-for-tat legal battle between Electrolux and Dyson, described as “the settling of old scores”, has ended in a 49 page High Court judgment criticising both companies.  Apart from adding to the growing case law on the use of competitors’ trade marks in advertising, this case is an object lesson in the dangers of getting lawyers involved in marketing wars when there is nothing worth litigating about.

Electrolux sued rival vacuum cleaner manufacturer Dyson over misrepresentations in a pocket-sized graph card distributed to Dyson retailers.  The card compared Electrolux cleaners unfavourably with Dyson cleaners and claimed backing from independent test results.

Electrolux also sued Dyson over a statement attributed to James Dyson in a trade magazine:  ‘Electrolux can rest assured that James Dyson will not be suing it for infringing any of his “cyclonic” patents:  “It is not the same.  It doesn’t work,” says Dyson provocatively.’

Dyson responded by counterclaiming in respect of an Electrolux flyer which contained misleading statements about Dyson cleaners.

Each side was aiming its nuclear weapons at the other and pressing the button.  The judge’s task was to determine the consequences, the possibilities ranging “from global conflagration to a damp squib.”

Neither side came out of it well.  A Dyson director was found to have been guilty of “gross carelessness” in not checking facts set out in the graph card.  One of Electrolux’s directors suffered what the judge described as “an unhappy experience in the witness box” and his evidence was dismissed as unreliable.  James Dyson was found not to have made any false statement to the trade magazine, merely to have expressed his own view in forthright terms, but both companies were roundly criticised for putting out “thoroughly misleading” material.

Each side sued the other both for malicious falsehood and infringement of its registered trade marks.  Neither side was found to have acted maliciously, but each side was held to have infringed the other’s mark (since none of the marketing material was “in accordance with honest practices in industrial or commercial matters.”)

The judge doubted whether either side could have suffered more than negligible loss as a result of the infringement.  Each side was said to have been more concerned with winning the case than obtaining anything concrete out of it.  The judge was concerned that further litigation over the damages he should award would be a waste of the court’s time and (presumably hoping the matter would be dropped) told the parties to come back at a later date to argue about what remedies, if any, would be appropriate.

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