She claims she's providing British Columbia drivers with valuable information in a province where a Crown corporation has had a 36-year monopoly on car insurance.
But the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC) is not amused with Penny Stainton's advice-driven website. It's called www.ICBCadvice.com, and it walks users through the sometimes-daunting terrain of dealing with the publicly owned insurer.
ICBC says that the website's name infringes on the company's trademark, and it has launched legal action against Ms. Stainton's company.
Ms. Stainton, 43, who plans to fight the suit in court, said she believes that what ICBC really dislikes is her critical content - not her company's name. She said she believes the lawsuit is an attempt to muzzle her because her website urges users to question and double-check ICBC advice. It also urges users to buy her claims-advice publication for about $20.
"It comes down to what I'm providing - not the name," said Ms. Stainton, a former high school marketing teacher who launched the site three years ago.
However, ICBC accused Ms. Stainton's site of swiping the well-known ICBC name to shill her products.
"We have no quarrel with the content, none whatsoever," said ICBC spokesman Mark Jan Vrem. "People are free to take advice from anyone they want when they're dealing with ICBC."
However, Mr. Vrem added: "It's a fact that they're using our name to sell a product. They're selling a claims guide. You've got to bite the bullet at some point and take action and that's what we've decided to do."
Last spring, ICBC sent a cease-and-desist warning to Ms. Stainton ordering her to remove the ICBC name from her website. She ignored the warning and the car insurer filed a lawsuit in the B.C. Supreme Court.
The suit claims that her company, Stainton Ventures, "promoted and directed public attention to its business, wares and services in a manner that misleads or is likely to mislead the public into believing that its business, wares and services are approved, authorized or endorsed by ICBC, or that a business association exists between Stainton Ventures and ICBC."
Ms. Stainton disagreed.
She noted in an interview that her website tells users right at the top of the page that it is not affiliated with the car insurer.
Among other things, it provides free legal advice for some preliminary questions and carries about 70 articles on a range of topics from what to do if ICBC denies coverage to whether a claimant is duty bound to hand over past medical information.
It also provides the names of doctors, chiropractors, physiotherapists and lawyers, one of whom is Ms. Stainton's husband.
Generally, the website urges users to be leery of taking ICBC advice at face value.
Ms. Stainton said she believes the case is a freedom-of-speech issue and she won't be cowed by the public insurer. In B.C., she said, the name ICBC is similar to a word like "Kleenex," which is a brand name for a tissue but has seeped into everyday language. Similarly, ICBC means auto insurance to people who live in B.C.
She also noted that other websites use ICBC in their domain names and questioned why she has been singled out.
However, Mr. Vrem said the car insurer, in the future, will take a harder line against websites that use its name.