Morrison & Foerster litigators got an extra-sweet jury trial win in California on Wednesday, May 24 in an unusual patent infringement lawsuit over ownership of strawberry plants.
The law firm represented the University of California Davis in a lawsuit against two strawberry breeders formerly employed by the university, as well as the private company they formed to breed new strawberry plants using plants developed by UC Davis.
The jury unanimously found that the two breeders willfully infringed the UC patents for the strawberries, and also used unpatented plant material owned by the university’s Strawberry Breeding Program without permission, all to build a strawberry breeding program at their new company that would compete with the University’s program.
The verdict follows a five-day trial in the US District Court for the Northern District of California, in which jurors learned that strawberries generate more than $2.5 billion of revenue in California annually, making the fruit the state’s fifth most valuable crop. UC Davis’s school of agriculture has itself developed nearly five dozen separate commercially grown strawberry varieties since 1945, including particular strains that yield larger strawberries and stay fresh longer, with better taste, than conventional varieties. The UC strawberry plants also yielded up to six times more fruit per acre.
At trial, MoFo lawyers presented evidence that the two former employees—Douglas Shaw and Kirk Lawson, together with their new company—used both patented and unpatented strawberries developed by many generations of UC breeders in order to make cross-varietal versions in Spain for their own private breeding company. Evidence demonstrated that Shaw and Larson harvested the seeds from those UC varieties and other material, and sent them back to California to produce new strawberry plants without the school’s knowledge or permission.
“We were honored to represent the University in this case and pleased that the jury decided unambiguously that UC Davis’ property rights should be respected,” said Rachel Krevans, a partner at Morrison Foerster.
“I am pleased that our team could bring the combination of trial skills, technical knowledge, and intellectual property experience needed to help the University protect this important asset for California.”
Morrison & Foerster partner Matthew Chivvis added, “We are delighted that the jury was able to understand the intricate science behind this high-profile, high-stakes case. This decision is good for the California strawberry industry and will provide future guidance to academic institutions on protecting their assets against infringement.”
Morrison & Foerster’s trial team was led by partners Rachel Krevans, Wesley Overson, Matthew Chivvis, and Scott Llewellyn, and also included associates David Scannell, Jake Ewerdt, Elizabeth Patterson, Alex Hadduck, Rachel Dolphin.
UC Davis announced the verdict later that evening: https://www.ucdavis.edu/news/strawberry-breeding-lawsuit-settled.
The case returned to court on May 31, when the presiding judge will consider remedies that weren’t for the jury to decide.