MANHATTAN (CN) – A longtime worker claims Topps trading card company humiliated him by depicting him without permission as folk legend John Henry, a former slave turned working-class hero – and firing him before the John Henry card came out.
Christopher Holmes sued the Topps Co. in New York County Court.
Holmes began working for Topps in 1994, and became a brand manager during his 17 years with the company, he says in his complaint.
In July 2011, a Topps employee told him “that Topps wanted to take a picture of him in association with another trading card promotion that Topps was contemplating,” according to the complaint.
Topps did take his picture, but Holmes says he “expressly prohibited the use of his picture in any manner until such time, if ever, that plaintiff was informed of the particular use of his picture, furnished a sample copy of the promotional trading card which he was to review and approve prior to any publication thereof.”
The complaint continues: “Plaintiff was never informed of the particular use of his picture or furnished with a sample copy of the promotional trading card, nor did plaintiff ever approve or consent to its use in any manner.”
But Holmes says Topps released its “John Henry Card” on Sept. 28, 2011, featuring him as John Henry.
The folk legend, and, some say, historical John Henry inspired songs, stories, plays and novels. He is usually depicted as a former slave from Tennessee, who stands up for rail workers about to be laid off due to the invention of the steam-powered hammer. John Henry challenges, and triumphs over, the machine, then dies of exhaustion.
Holmes was not flattered by the comparison.
“Topps knew, or should have known, that plaintiff did not and would not consent to the use of his likeness, image, portrait, and/or picture to depict him as a former slave,” the complaint states.
To add injury to insult, Topps fired him before printing the card, Holmes says.
“Plaintiff was terminated after his photograph was taken by Topps, but prior to the publication of the John Henry card,” the complaint states. “Plaintiff was not an employee of Topps at the time of publication.”
Holmes seeks $1 million in punitive damages for “public ridicule, degradation, humiliation, emotional distress, economic damages, and other injuries,” including civil rights violations, unjust enrichment, wrongful discharge and conversion.
He is represented by Angelo G. Garubo with Romano & Garubo.