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Yeager v. Airbus Group

Retired General Charles E. Yeager and General Chuck Yeager, Inc., a corporate entity owning Yeager’s trademark rights, sued European aircraft manufacturer Airbus and related entities for trademark infringement and violation of his right of publicity.  Yeager, a famous pilot who broke several airspeed records during his military and civilian aviation career, passed away in December 2020 while the lawsuit was ongoing, and the case was continued by his estate.  

Yeager alleged that, beginning in 2003, Airbus had sought to procure his endorsement of its aircrafts and, though no final endorsement deal was ever reached, the company used his name and likeness in promotional materials without authorization.  After the district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, the plaintiffs appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed the lower court’s decision.

General Yeager alleged that Airbus had violated his intellectual property rights in two ways, first by using footage from his 2008 visit to Airbus’ facilities in Germany and France in a sales video, and second, by using his name in a 2017 press release-style piece published on Airbus’ website.  The Ninth Circuit held that the district court had properly dismissed the case for lack of personal jurisdiction.  The court ruled that Yeager failed to demonstrate that Airbus had “purposefully directed” its conduct toward the forum state of California such that the exercise of jurisdiction there would comport with due process.  

With regard to the allegedly infringing sales video, Yeager had only claimed that the video existed, but had not argued that Airbus disseminated the sales video externally or in California specifically, or that the video was addressed to or seen by California residents.  As for the press release, which discussed a product announcement from an air show in Paris, France, the court reasoned that Yeager failed to allege the piece was aimed at California, and reiterated that maintenance of a passive website does not constitute “express aiming” at the forum to establish jurisdiction.  Absent claims that Airbus sells website advertising to advertisers targeting California residents or otherwise appeals to and profits from the forum audience, the court ruled that Yeager could not satisfy the constitutional minimum contacts requirement, and that Airbus’ contacting the Yeager family at their California home was likewise insufficient as an incidental component to endorsement negotiations in Europe. 

The Ninth Circuit also affirmed the district court’s rulings on a number of collateral matters, including the rejection of Yeager’s claim that Airbus orally agreed to jurisdiction in California, the denial of Yeager’s request for jurisdictional discovery on Airbus’ website and creation of the allegedly offending materials, and the denial of the defendants’ request for attorneys’ fees under the California right of publicity statute and the Lanham Act.

Summary prepared by David Grossman and Jordan Meddy.