In 2008, former Mayor of Washington, D.C., and then council member Marion Barry became ill with a kidney disease. To survive the illness, Mr. Barry required a kidney transplant, and one of his friends, Ms. Kim Dickens, came to his aid and donated one of her kidneys. Although the transplant helped Mr. Barry survive for several more years, he passed away in November 2014. Ironically, Mr. Barry’s widow is now suing Ms. Dickens.
In a lawsuit filed by Cora Masters Barry against Kim Dickens, Mrs. Barry alleges that Ms. Dickens has unlawfully used her late husband’s celebrity identity in order to promote the “Barry Dickens Kidney Foundation,” a charity formed by Ms. Dickens. According to the website of the Barry Dickens Kidney Foundation, Marion Barry played a role in the formation of that group, and the website even features photographs of Mr. Barry along with a detailed story of how Ms. Dickens came to donate one of her kidneys to Mr. Barry.
Mrs. Barry’s claims against the Foundation are not without legal precedent. In 1993, Wheel of Fortune hostess Vanna White sued Samsung Electronics of America in connection with a television ad which depicted a robotic version of Ms. White to promote sales of Samsung’s video cassette recorder. Ruling in favor of Ms. White, the Court of Appeal determined that television and other media create “marketable celebrity identity value,” and a celebrity has an exclusive right to exploit this value by prohibiting unauthorized commercial exploitation of their identity.