Saints pick off-season fight with local casket maker

If the Saints get their way, you won’t be caught dead in the latest piece of fan gear.

A custom casket seller with an unusual storefront in the Esplanade Mall is under fire from the team over his $3,000 “Who Dat?” model casket, a black-finished steel coffin fitted with a gold satin pillow and fleur-de-lis decals.

Jonathan Lahatte, a former Orleans Parish sheriff’s deputy who opened his ’Til We Meet Again shop last fall, says he has no plans to slip away gently.

“You can be a diehard Who Dat all your life. What better way to celebrate it than be buried with it for all eternity?” Lahatte said from his store in a back corner of the mall, behind Great American Cookies. “Right now I believe I’m not doing anything illegal, so I’m going to keep it the way it is.”

The Saints beg to differ. They sent a letter Tuesday to Lahatte’s attorney — his brother Joey — asking that he stop selling or advertising the Who Dat coffin.

The move marks a morbid turn in the NFL’s enduring campaign against trademark infringement, which has long targeted sellers of knock-off T-shirts and collectibles. For a while in 2010, the league fought over the phrase “Who Dat” itself, before backing off in a fight with local retailers, some of whom had adopted the ubiquitous team slogan.

Lahatte, who once worked in Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s mounted horse unit, thought he’d slain the issue even before he opened his store in October, after the team contacted him over his fleur-de-lis design.

“We immediately agreed to change it. We sat there for like two hours. We increased the size of the middle two points, the curvature of the outer two points. We elongated the top and fattened it,” he said. “We thought we were OK.”

Lahatte began running TV ads that include both the Who Dat coffin and one licensed by the NCAA for departed LSU football fans. The 30-second clip first shows a military coffin with “Taps” playing, then moves on to the two team coffins, with chanting fans of both teams. “Our heroes. Our team,” the announcer intones. “How will you be remembered?”

The ad, and the coffin itself, crosses the line, Saints attorney Lesli Harris wrote in the letter this week.

The “redesigned” fleur-de-lis, Harris wrote, “is confusingly similar to the Saints’ federally protected trademarked fleur-de-lis image. No reasonable consumer will be able to detect any of the purported differences” that Lahatte said he made.

The ad, which runs on WWL-TV, a partner of The New Orleans Advocate, “juxtaposes the black and gold casket with the LSU casket so that both conjure an association with sports teams, particularly given the sounds of crowds chanting in the background,” the letter said. It asked Lahatte to stop using the fleur-de-lis and the black-and-gold color scheme “in connection with the casket.”

Lahatte said it was made clear to him in a phone call in October that “the NFL does not market death products.”

Greg Bensel, senior vice president of communications for the team, said nothing about that stance in an email Thursday. He said the latest letter was not a cease-and-desist order but an offer “to sit down and discuss the matter.”

“While we very much appreciate our fans and their support, we and the NFL always strive to protect our trademarks and our intellectual property at least in this world, not sure about the next,” Bensel said in a statement.

Four years ago, however, the NFL appeared to take a different tack.

“Please be advised that the NFL does not claim to have exclusive ownership rights now or at any time in the future” over the fleur-de-lis, “the colors black or gold or any combination thereof,” or “the expression ‘WHO DAT’ or ‘WHO DAT NATION,’ ” an NFL attorney wrote in a letter to several T-shirt shops.

Asked whether the new letter marks a change in that position, Bensel responded, “We are not challenging use of Who Dat.”

Mark Andrews, a lawyer who represented two retailers who faced the league’s wrath over the Who Dat moniker, said it appeared the league is getting more demanding.

“Its position was, as long as it’s not the exact Saints fleur-de-lis with the pointy flower — and you can use black or gold or both — they will not take any action unless it infringes on one of their actual trademarks, like the shield with the fleur-de-lis and the word ‘Saints,’ ” Andrews said. “It’s just this guy is doing a combination of things. This foolishness that it’s next to an LSU casket (in the ad) — what kind of lawsuit would that make?”

Still, Andrews said, federal courts have stretched the view of trademark law “to the point that if you want to show your support for a team, that support and that token of support is a trademark right that the team owns.”

Lahatte, a 30-year-old Jesuit High School graduate, launched his casket business last year on the heels of a legal victory for a St. Tammany Parish monastery seeking the right to sell caskets without a funeral director’s license. Lahatte said he quit his deputy’s job and hooked up with a Kansas company that oversees three other stores, with a business model for regional malls. He said he runs the first casket store in the state outside a funeral home.

“People walk by, see it and think, ‘What would happen if I died?’ ” Lahatte said cheerfully. “And once they start thinking about it, why not go out in style?”

Lahatte also sells a variety of cremation jewelry and urns. He’ll pack up an old fishing rod with your ashes in it, if that’s what you’d like.

“We can create anything into an urn: handgun, a shotgun, bowling balls, tennis balls,” he said.

He declined to say how many of the Who Dat caskets have been sold, only that some have. The black-and-gold model, displayed in the store window, draws visitors for photos — more even than the Kiss band coffin, a collector’s item that is not for sale.

The team’s fight over the fleur-de-lis frustrates him, Lahatte said.

“It’s been around since the 17th century. Should we be paying royalties to the French government?” he said. “I’m a small business owner with a wife and two kids, trying to live the American dream. All of my money is invested in this. If they were to sue and win, they’re just going to get caskets.”