Columbia companies fight over name

February 15, 1994|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Sun Staff Writer

The two businesses with similar names both specialize in window blinds and sit less than half a mile apart in a Columbia industrial park. Now they have something else in common -- a pending court battle.

One of those companies, Vertical Connection Inc., is seeking $2 million in damages from its competitor, contending that the other firm is hurting its business by using a name that is too similar and confusing to customers.

The civil lawsuit, filed in Howard County Circuit Court Jan. 21, seeks a court order that would stop Modern Interiors Inc. from using the name Vertical Factory Outlet at its shop.

"It's a consumer issue," said Alan Fishbein, an Ellicott City attorney for Vertical Connection, whose client claims exclusive rights to the name. "People are being misled. . . . Competition isn't the problem."

But Si Pollack, owner of Modern Interiors, said Vertical Connection has no basis for the lawsuit.

Mr. Pollack compared the two businesses to car dealerships, which often are located near one another to foster competition and provide convenience for their customers.

"I don't see anything similar there, except 'vertical,' " Mr. Pollack said.

Vertical Connection specializes in wholesale and retail sales of window blinds and drapes, as well as carpeting. It opened in 1978 in the 9100 block of Rumsey Road at Oakland Ridge Industrial Center off Route 108.

The lawsuit states that no other businesses in the Columbia area had a similar name at the time Vertical Connection opened.

To further complicate matters, although the company's sign reads Vertical Connection, it uses its other corporate name, "Vertical Factory Outlet," in dealing with suppliers.

Vertical Connection stresses in its lawsuit that it incorporated the subsidiary called Vertical Factory Outlet in May 1990. The company provided documents with its complaint showing that it registered the name with the state Department of Assessments and Taxation in August 1993.

Mr. Fishbein acknowledges that his client did not record the second name until several years after Modern Interiors opened its own shop called Vertical Factory Outlet in the 9100 block of Red Branch Road.

But he argues that the competitor never obtained official registration of that name.

Modern Interiors, meanwhile, also uses the name Vertical Factory Outlet for its operation, which includes manufacturing and sales. Its signs say in smaller print that the shop is a division of Modern Interiors.

Mr. Pollack said he moved his shop to Columbia in the late 1980s, after being in business in Randallstown under the name Modern Interiors since 1976. He said he didn't know where Vertical Connection was located when he moved to Columbia.

"It was a shock to me when I found out he was around the corner from me," Mr. Pollack said.

In its lawsuit, Vertical Connection claims that its business has been hurt because of the alleged confusion.

The company says that, with the help of extensive advertising, it became became well-known in Columbia and did good business before the Vertical Factory Outlet opened.

But since Modern Interiors opened its shop, many customers have bought merchandise from Vertical Factory Outlet believing they were doing business with the Vertical Connection, Mr. Fishbein contends.

The attorney said that customers have complained to Vertical Connection operators about merchandise bought at Modern Interiors' shop, believing that the shops were related.

Vertical Connection has requested a jury trial. The case has been assigned to Judge Cornelius Sybert Jr., but no proceedings have been scheduled yet.

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