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Sunday, May 19, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Court Fight Features Rin Tin Tin & Lassie

LUFKIN, Texas (CN) - The ongoing fight over who holds rights to movie star Rin Tin Tin took a surprise turn when a Texas dog breeder claimed that Lassie's trainers are refusing to return dogs bred from the Rin Tin Tin bloodline.

Daphne Hereford sued former officers of her business Rin Tin on Thursday in a federal civil complaint for breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, common law trademark infringement, unfair competition, trademark dilution and conversion.

Hereford - defendant in an ongoing legal dispute in Los Angeles over the rights to the Rin Tin Tin trademarks - claims that Kathy Carlton and Terry "T.C." Carlton, of Alexander, Ark., and Lassie trainers Carol Riggins and Chelsea Riggins, of Canyon County, Calif., plan to breed seven dogs from Rin Tin Tin's bloodline without her consent.

In addition to damages and costs, Hereford wants a judge to order the defendants to return the dogs: Denali, Caramello, Snoopy, Godiva, Clark, Quanah and Baby Ruth.

She also seeks a permanent injunction that bars the Riggins and Carltons from breeding the dog or using them in advertising.

U.S. Lt. Lee Duncan found the original Rin Tin Tin in a litter of puppies while serving in France during World War I.

Duncan wrote the screenplay for Rin Tin Tin's first movie, "Where North Begins," after he returned to the United States with the dog. The 1923 silent film reportedly helped save Warner Bros.

Rin Tin Tin and his descendants went on to appear in more than 27 movies and a television show in the 1950's. The star of the TV show was Rin Tin Tin IV.

Hereford claims that in 1957 Duncan gave her grandmother, Jannettia Brodsgaard, one of Rin Tin Tin's puppies. Duncan gave her his blessing to breed the dogs "to carry on the bloodline of Rin Tin Tin for future generations," Hereford says in her lawsuit.

A dog from the Rin Tin Tin line can fetch as much as $50,000, Hereford says in the complaint.

In addition to breeding dogs, Hereford owns a Crockett, Texas museum dedicated to the movie icon, with 800 pieces of memorabilia.

She registered two copyrights that she says allow her to use the Rin Tin Tin trademark and trade name.

Those marks are at the center of the California lawsuit filed by retired stuntman Max Kleven in 2013, who claimed exclusive intellectual property rights for Rin Tin Tin and made a claim against Hereford for $5 million in damages.

Along with Rin Inc., Kleven accused Hereford and Rin Tin Inc. of "hijacking" the Rin Tin Tin mark, and using unlawful trademark registrations to sell clothing, dog accessories, children's books and other products.

In the new Texas lawsuit against the former Rin Tin Inc. officers, Hereford says that because of health problems she decided to mentor the Riggins and Carltons to help her with her Rin Tin Tin breeding program, registering American Kennel Club certificates in their name for several dogs.

"Defendants, each of them, were aware that the execution of the AKC [American Kennel Club] certificates was never intended to transfer any ownership of the dogs nor affect the ownership rights reflected in existing contracts and by the policies of Rin Tin Incorporated," the Feb. 12 lawsuit states.

Hereford says that in summer last year, she decided to appoint the Riggins and Carltons as officers of her business. But it wasn't long before things started to turn sour, she says.

Hereford says that within months she became entangled in a "financial dispute" with the new officers. As a result, Kathy Carlton filed a small claims action to terminate Rin Tin Inc., according to Hereford.

"(S)ome or all defendants also attempted to restructure the Rin Tin Tin Line Dog breeding and training program in a manner that would be detrimental to the famous lineage, and attempted to take over the corporation's social media accounts," the complaint states.

Hereford says she removed the Riggins and Carltons as officers in October 2014.

When the Riggins and Carltons took possession of the dogs they signed contracts that barred them from breeding the dogs or using them for promotional activities or ads, Hereford says in the lawsuit.

Despite those written conditions, the defendants have refused to return the dogs and are trying to breed them, Hereford says.

She also claims that the Riggins are using the Rin Tin Tin marks without her permission on their website Reel-Dog.

Hereford's recent adversary in the L.A. litigation, Max Kleven, last week accused his co-plaintiffs of attempting to wrest control of his alleged rights in Rin Tin Tin.

After a jury trial late last year in Kleven's case against Hereford, he filed an unopposed motion to dismiss the federal case. He claimed in a Feb. 9 Superior Court complaint that his co-plaintiffs defrauded him of his stake in the intellectual property and froze him out of legal proceedings.

The Federal Court has yet to rule on the case in Los Angeles. But in a Feb. 12 brief to the court obtained by Courthouse News, Kleven asked U.S. District Judge Andre Birotte to dismiss his co-plaintiffs for lack of standing.

If Birotte agrees, that will spell the end of that case.

Kleven's attorney Catherine R. Lombardo last week declined to comment on whether her client intends to make another claim against Hereford.

Hereford's new complaint seeks a jury trial, damages and costs.

She is represented by Daniel A. Noteware with Potter Minton, of Tyler, Texas.

The Riggins did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

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