Nation & World

Chris Farley's family sues Trek for using his 'fat guy' image for fat-tire bikes

The family of late comedian Chris Farley has sued bike maker Trek over a line of fat-tired bikes it named "Farley." The family says the bikes play off Farley's persona as a "fat guy." Farley an "SNL" cast member, died in 1997 at age 33.
The family of late comedian Chris Farley has sued bike maker Trek over a line of fat-tired bikes it named "Farley." The family says the bikes play off Farley's persona as a "fat guy." Farley an "SNL" cast member, died in 1997 at age 33. Associated Press file photo

The family of late comedian Chris Farley is suing Trek Bicycle for trading on his brand of "fat guy" comedy by naming its line of rugged, fat-tired bikes "Farley."

The lawsuit pits two Wisconsin families against each other. Farley, who was 33 when he died in 1997, was born and raised near Madison, where he had a reputation as the class clown in Catholic grade school. The Burke family's Trek is headquartered in Waterloo.

The $10 million lawsuit was filed by Make Him Smile Inc., a company that says it owns the comedian's name, likeness and other intellectual property. The company's president is reportedly Kevin Farley, the comedian's younger brother and an actor.

The bike company has called the lawsuit "groundless."

"Frankly, we were really surprised by this lawsuit. Trek has never used Chris Farley’s likeness, image or endorsement in connection to its Farley line of bikes," company spokesman Eric Bjorling told Bicycle Retailer & Industry News last year after the lawsuit was filed on Sept. 11 in L.A. County's Superior Court.

"In fact, Trek owns a registered trademark for Farley for bicycles registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

"Trek remains willing to try to resolve any concerns with the Farley family’s representatives in an amenable manner. If necessary, however, we will vigorously defend ourselves against this groundless lawsuit."

On Friday, at Trek's request, a California judge agreed to move the case to U.S. District Court in Madison, Wisconsin, closer to the involved parties, witnesses and evidence, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

Where Farley lived at the time of his death could prove key to the suit.

According to the Journal, Trek says the case will depend on whether Farley was a resident of California when he died, which would make the use of his name and image subject to California laws governing publicity rights of dead celebrities.

Trek's lawyers argue that Farley, who died in Chicago, was an Illinois resident when he died.

The comedian was found dead in his apartment in Chicago's John Hancock building by his younger brother, John, on Dec. 18, 1997. The Cook County Medical Examiner ruled that he died of an overdose of cocaine and morphine,

Bicycle Retailer reported that Trek had been in negotiations with Farley's family before the lawsuit was filed in September, and was unsuccessful in getting the suit thrown out of California court.

According to the Journal, Trek's motion to dismiss the case as was denied partly because the company could not prove Farley lived in Illinois at the time of his death. Trek's lawyers argue that under Illinois law, "no postmortem right of publicity exists for persons who died before 1999," the Journal reported.

The lawsuit claims Trek named the bike Farley to make a connection for customers between the bike and the "fat," "loud," "Midwestern" qualities that Farley carefully cultivated, "a very powerful brand" recognized by "millions around the world."

When doctors told him to lose weight during the last years of his life, the lawsuit says, Farley worried that slimming down could jeopardize his ability to get roles and "dilute" his brand of comedy.

"For his entire adult life, Farley was overweight," the lawsuit says. "When he died on December 18, 1997, he was five feet nine inches tall, and weighed approximately 400 pounds. Farley spent his entire career building, then capitalizing on, his unique brand of fat guy humor and acting style."

The name Farley is now, "and has been for nearly three decades, linked and associated with his Farley's persona and his identity as a fat comic actor willing to go into comic territories others would not seek to traverse."

The suit also says that the Farley and Burke families have known and socialized with each other for many decades — even belonging to the same country club — and that the company knew what it was doing and the kinds of connections it was drawing when it used the name Farley for its bikes.

In its response to the lawsuit, Trek claims that the families knew one another, the Journal reported.

While Trek marketing does not directly indicate the bike was named for Farley, Bicycle Retailer reported, the suit says bicycle magazine reviews regularly made the connection between the bike and the comedian, and Trek has never corrected that.