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Another Vibram Lawsuit: This Time From a Marathon Legend's Family

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on February 11, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Abebe Bikila shattered the Olympic marathon record in Rome in 1960, running the entire race barefoot. Now his family is suing Vibram, the running shoe company that advertises the "joyful feeling of barefoot running."

The Associated Press is reporting that Bikila's family has filed a lawsuit in federal court in Tacoma, Washington, alleging that Vibram used their deceased relative's name on a shoe without his, or their, permission.

While Vibram trademarked the name "Bikila" in 2010, Bikila's son Teferi asserts the company had no right to use the name in the first place.

Bikila's Life

Unhappy with the way his running shoes fit, Bikila ran Rome's cobblestone streets as he had trained -- barefoot -- becoming the first and last barefoot runner to win Olympic gold. By breaking the previous world record with a time of 2 hours,15 minutes and 16.2 seconds, Bikila became a hero to the now-burgeoning barefoot running culture.

Bikila repeated his first-place finish in Tokyo in 1964 -- in shoes this time. A 1969 car crash left him paralyzed, and he passed away from complications in 1973.

Washington's Personality Rights Statute

The lawsuit against Vibram was filed in Washington, a state whose strict personality rights statute asserts, "Every individual or personality has a property right in the use of his or her name, voice, signature, photograph, or likeness," and that no one may use a person's name "without written or oral, express or implied consent of the owner of the right" whether the use was for profit or not.

Under Washington's law, these personality rights survive a person's death, and may transfer to his or her heirs. According the attorney for Bikila's family, the relatives are seeking upwards of $15 million in damages because Vibram named a shoe "Bikila" without the family's permission. (As of this posting, Vibram's website still prominently featured a waterproof version of the "Bikila" shoe on the site's front page.)

Bikila's family presumably chose to file the lawsuit in Washington to take advantage of the state's protective personality statute, and will likely have to demonstrate that Vibram did enough business in the state to justify the court's jurisdiction. Vibram has yet to comment on the suit, which was filed Monday; the company has 21 days to file a response to the complaint under federal court rules.

As you may recall, this is not the first major lawsuit against Vibram, which once claimed that its FiveFingers brand of fitness shoes could be healthier for runners and exercisers. The company reached a $3.75 million class action settlement in 2014 under which it was forced to discontinue claims that FiveFingers reduced users' injuries.

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