A civil suit in Georgia that pitted former fighter pilots against each other has grabbed the attention of the military aviation community, including famed aviator Gen. Chuck Yeager. The defendants – four former naval aviators -- claim the lawsuit brought against them by Afterburner Inc. and company CEO Jim Murphy threatens any current or former military pilot who wants to pursue a career in business management training or motivational speaking.
The four pilots, all of whom used to work for Afterburner, said the ruling in the lawsuit that went in favor of Afterburner provides Murphy the ability to determine which retired pilots can wear flight suits in their post-military careers.
Murphy, who is also an F-15 instructor pilot in the Georgia Air National Guard, rejects the claim, saying the four pilots and former employees forced him to sue them in order to protect his business.
The four defendants -- John Borneman, Kyle Howlin, John Underhill and Carey Lohrenz (the first female F-14 pilot) -- worked for Afterburner for various lengths of time before starting the The Corps Group in September 2008. Afterburner, which has been in business for 20 years, and The Corps Group both offer management consulting and training services.
Afterburner sued the The Corps Group and the four defendants in 2009 for service mark and trade dress infringement, claiming the former employees stole business leadership training concepts developed by Afterburner to include flight suits, fighter pilot terminology and components of a business solutions website that displays fighter pilot imagery.
The jury ruled on April 1 in favor of Murphy and Afterburner and found the defendants responsible for $788,649 in damages after the civil lawsuit spent five years working its way through the court system.
Pilot social media sites and message boards lit up with the news of the ruling, especially after Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier, wrote on his Facebook page that he was upset. "Afterburner has sued a few people claiming he owns the trademark for pilot flight suits."
Following the uproar over Yeager's post and responses from the pilot community concerned about the results of the ruling, Afterburner issued a statement in response to the controversy.
"In a desperate attempt to cast Afterburner in a negative light during the trial, these individuals falsely stated that we are attempting to prohibit all veterans from wearing their flight suits. THIS IS ABSOLUTELY UNTRUE. Unfortunately, this misinformation was repeated in various blogs. The truth of the matter is that Afterburner was and is only trying to protect itself from unfair competition."
Trade dress and service marks, like a trademark, protect intellectual property. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awarded in 2011 to Afterburner the trade dress of a flight suit worn for the purposes of "business management consultancy services; executive search and placement services; personnel placement and recruitment."
The jury found that The Corps Group had violated the flight suit trade dress even though the defendants argued that The Corps Groups wore patches to distinguish themselves from Afterburner.
The jury also found that the defendants were in violation of Afterburner's service marks for terms like "Plan-Brief-Execute-Debrief-Win," "Task Saturation," "Flawless Execution," and "Execution Rhythm." Afterburner received these service marks specifically for the purposes of consultancy and training services.
"They used our trademarks and trade dress to cause confusion in the marketplace and more importantly with our own clients," Murphy said. "We sought protection for the wrongful use of our trademarks and brand."
Borneman contends that the flight suit and the common fighter pilot terms like "Execution Rhythm" should not belong to Murphy and Afterburner since all military pilots wear flight suits and learn those terms in their military training.
On April 10, Afterburner issued an injunction against The Corps Group with a wide range of restrictions to include the wearing of "military flight suits with patches" as well as using audio visual images and photographs of fighter airplanes, cockpits and pilots to "conduct motivational seminars, keynote speeches or workshops that involve fighter pilots."
The injunction also prevents The Corps Group from using "fighter pilot-themed decorations such as camouflage netting, sand bags and parachutes" and "high tempo music in conjunction with fighter pilot or fighter images."
Based on the ruling and resulting injunction, Borneman said the ruling will force him to strip away his pilot identity if he wants to continue The Corps Group within the consultancy and business management industry.
"Right now, I basically have to de-fighter pilot myself and that fighter pilot image is a big deal to me," Borneman said.
-- Michael Hoffman can be reached at Mike.Hoffman@monster.com.