NEW YORK – Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), the health-products giant that uses a red cross as its trademark, sued the American Red Cross on Wednesday, demanding that the charity halt the use of the red cross symbol on products it sells to the public.
Johnson & Johnson said it has had exclusive rights to use the trademark on certain commercial products — including bandages and first-aid cream — for more than 100 years.
It contends that the Red Cross is supposed to use the symbol only in connection with nonprofit relief services.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in New York, marked the breakdown of months of behind-the-scenes negotiations and prompted an angry response from the Red Cross.
"For a multibillion-dollar drug company to claim that the Red Cross violated a criminal statute ... simply so that J&J can make more money, is obscene," said Mark Everson, the Red Cross president.
Johnson & Johnson began using the red cross design as a trademark in 1887 — six years after the creation of the American Red Cross but before it received its congressional charter in 1900. The lawsuit contends that the charter did not empower the Red Cross to engage in commercial activities competing with a private business.
"After more than a century of strong cooperation in the use of the Red Cross trademark. ... we were very disappointed to find that the American Red Cross started a campaign to license the trademark to several businesses for commercial purposes," Johnson & Johnson said in a statement.
It said these product include baby mitts, nail clippers, combs, toothbrushes, hand sanitizers and humidifiers.
The Red Cross said that many of the products in question were part of health and safety kits, and that profits from the sales — totaling less than $10 million — went to boost Red Cross disaster-response efforts.
The suit asks the Red Cross to turn over the products in question to New Brunswick, N.J.-based Johnson & Johnson for destruction and also seeks unspecified punitive damages.
"The Red Cross products that J&J wants to take away from consumers ... are those that help Americans get prepared for life's emergencies," Everson said. "I hope that the courts and Congress will not allow Johnson & Johnson to bully the American Red Cross."
In a telephone interview, Everson said the Red Cross was confident it would prevail.
"Our lawyers have looked at this; we wouldn't be doing something we think is improper, and our position will be sustained in the courts," he said.
Everson noted that the Red Cross faces a budget deficit and relies on donations.
The lawsuit also names four licensing partners involved in marketing the disputed products.
Johnson & Johnson noted that it had contributed $5 million over the past three years to the Red Cross and will continue to make donations.
The company also said that it had offered to engage in third-party mediation to resolve the dispute, but that the Red Cross declined.