Sartin's in dispute with new restaurants using family name

Marilyn Tennissen Aug. 13, 2008, 10:37am

Kim Sartin Tucker's restaurant on Nederland Avenue

For almost two decades, Southeast Texas families made the short drive down the coast to Sabine Pass for fresh Gulf shrimp, fish and crab dinners at Sartin's Seafood.

The restaurant, owned by Linda and Charles Sartin, was known for its one-of-a-kind barbecued crab, the all-you-can-eat platter service --served complete with rolls of paper towels and buckets for empty shells -- and its friendly, laid back atmosphere.

But in the 19 years since the original owners closed the little Sabine Pass restaurant, divorces, hurricanes and numerous locations owned by a variety of family members have the Sartin's name embroiled in a trademark dispute in federal court.

The wife and ex-wife of Charles and Linda's son, Doug Sartin Jr., have filed a trademark infringement suit against Matthews Restaurants Inc. on Aug. 8 in the Beaumont Division of the Eastern District of Texas.

The two women have joined forces against a non-family member who has opened new restaurant locations in Houston and Beaumont billed as "the original Sartin's" and the "new location of the old Sartin's."

According to court documents, Linda and Charles Sartin owned and operated the first Sartin's Seafood restaurant in Sabine Pass from 1971 to 1989. When the restaurant in Sabine Pass closed, the Sartins abandoned any rights they had to the Sartin's trademark, and have not owned any restaurant using that name since 1989.

In 1992, Doug Sartin Jr. opened his own Sartin's Seafood restaurant in Beaumont on the Eastex Freeway north of Parkdale Mall. Doug transferred ownership to his wife Kim in 1994. The couple then divorced in 1995.

Kim Sartin Tucker continued to operate the restaurant on Eastex Freeway until 2002, when she transferred ownership to Geneva Broussard, with an oral, non-exclusive license to continue to use the Sartin's name. When Hurricane Rita blew through Southeast Texas in September 2005, the freeway restaurant was severely damaged and never reopened.

In the meantime, Tucker also opened a Sartin's Seafood in Nederland in August 1997. When she incorporated under the name Little Doug Inc. in 2002, the restaurant was put under the corporation.

Doug Sartin Jr. married again, and in January 2005 his wife Emily Summers opened Sartin's West off Calder Avenue in Beaumont's West End.

The suit claims that consumers have associated Sartin's West with Emily Summers, and Sartin's Seafood with Kim Sartin Tucker.

"Tucker and Summers have operated their restaurants and managed their advertising from 2005 to the present to target distinct clientele, both geographically and socio-economically, which eliminated confusion between the two sources," the complaint states. "Any possibility of confusion that has arisen has been resolved by cooperation between Tucker and Summers."

Subsequently, Summers assigned any interests she had in the Sartin's trademark to Tucker's Little Doug Inc. In return, Little Doug Inc. granted her an exclusive license to use the name Sartin's in Beaumont.

Both owners say they received "significant goodwill and reputation" operating the restaurants.

Then in December 2005, Kelli Sartin opened a restaurant in Houston under the name Sartin's Seafood of Nassau Bay. The suit does not state Kelli's relationship to the family.

Kelli then sold the assets of the Bay Boulevard location in Houston to Tracy Matthews and Matthews Restaurants Inc.

"The Nassau Bay restaurant has been falsely advertised as 'the new location' of the Beaumont Eastex Freeway restaurant that was closed in September 2005 by Hurricane Rita and that was owned by Tucker and Geneva Broussard," court documents say.

Then Tracy Matthews opened a second restaurant, this time on College Street in Beaumont, with the name "The Original Sartin's Seafood Restaurant."

"Defendant's use of the Sartin's mark and variations thereof and false advertising associated therewith in Beaumont and Houston constitutes unlawful infringement of plaintiffs' protectable trademarks and trade names and unlawful unjust enrichment, to the detriment of the plaintiffs," the complaint states.

The plaintiffs allege that Matthews Restaurants has attempted to "palm off" its restaurants as associated with and approved by the owners of Sartin's Seafood and Sartin's West and has attempted to unfairly profit from the goodwill and good reputation of the Sartin's name.

In February 2007, Tucker, as Little Doug Inc., applied for trademark registration for the Sartin's Seafood name.

"To honor family ties, in the trademark application Tucker carved out an area of 'concurrent use' for Summers and defendant," the complaint states.

Tucker and Summers quickly reached an agreement on the concurrent use of the name and entered an assignment and exclusive license agreement.

However, according to the plaintiffs, Matthews opposed the concurrent use agreement, "asserting that there is a likelihood of confusion," which Tucker and Summers construe as an "intent to foster confusion" and profit from it.

Tucker and Summers are asking the court for a permanent injunction to stop Matthews from using Sartin's, Sartin's Seafood, Sartin's West or any variations of the name – including signage, banners, labeling, advertising, uniforms or T-shirts – or in any way holding itself out to be "the original Sartin's" or the "new location of the old Sartin's in Beaumont."

The plaintiffs are seeking defendant's profits, costs, treble damages, interest, attorneys' fees and other available relief.

J.B. Whittenburg of Orgain, Bell & Tucker LLP in Beaumont is representing the plaintiffs.

The case has been to U.S. District Court Judge Marcia Crone.

Case No. 1:08-cv-482-MAC

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