Standing is a Sticking Point in Aunt Jemima Post-Mortem Publicity Case
Claiming to be Harrington’s great-grandsons, pro-se plaintiffs Dannez W. Hunter and Larnell Evans, Jr. filed suit against PepsiCo Inc. and the Quaker Oats Company, among others, seeking $3 billion in damages. The case stems from allegations that the companies failed to properly compensate Harrington for serving as the face of Aunt Jemima syrup and pancake batter from 1935 through the 1950s. Among other claims, the Plaintiffs asserted that Quaker Oats deprived Harrington of her right of publicity under state law and that the company breached its contract with Harrington.
According to the complaint, Harrington was a domestic worker and famed pancake cook living in Syracuse, New York when she was discovered by the Quaker Oats Company at a state fair in 1935 and recruited to play Aunt Jemima. Harrington was featured in commercials and made public appearances for 15 years for the company, but the complaint asserts that Quaker Oats took advantage of Harrington’s lack of education and convinced her to sign an unfair contract. Harrington’s contract provided that she would receive a percentage of sales proceeds as well as royalties for the use of her image; however, the Plaintiffs contend that no royalties or other revenues were ever paid to Harrington’s estate. Moreover, the Plaintiffs allege that Quaker Oats stole Harrington’s pancake formula.
The Court noted a litany of potential problems with the suit, including seeking relief for some causes of action, such as claims under the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, that are not actionable; the filing of numerous meritless motions by the Plaintiffs; and failure by the Plaintiffs to respond to the Defendants’ motion to dismiss.
Most critically, however, the Court noted that the Plaintiffs failed to allege that they were authorized to act as executors or administrators of Harrington’s estate, or even that such an estate exists or ever existed. Such authorization is a legal requirement under state law in both New York and Illinois (the relevant jurisdictions in the case). Ultimately, the Court found that the Plaintiffs had largely failed even to establish a family connection to Harrington and dismissed the case with prejudice.