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It is fitting that the historic March 28 decision in Evans v. General Motors — the first ruling in the United States specifically holding that trade-secrets cases are entitled to a jury trial — arises from historic Anglo-American precedents. The ruling by the Connecticut Supreme Court reverses a lower court decision that inventor John Evans isn’t entitled to have his spellbinding tale of treachery and missed opportunity unfold before a jury. Evans seeks more than $125 million in lost royalties for General Motors’ alleged theft of his design for a cooling system that first appeared in the 1992 Corvette Stingray. Evans claims he didn’t realize his idea was pirated until he read a magazine story in the fall of 1991 and deduced that it was most likely learned during a confidential demonstration at a GM testing facility. On two days in March 1989, he had the car locked away under a “black box” arrangement to show how the cooling system performed. When he saw a floor panel had been moved, GM engineers assured him it was just routine maintenance. When Evans later tried to get the device patented, GM claimed that he’d missed the deadline. A single June 1991 advance order of one Corvette by a Michigan auto dealer had rolled back the one-year period to file a patent once an invention is introduced in commerce. Although he appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Evans lost his chance for a patent. Now Evans’ main claim arises from the Connecticut Uniform Trade Secrets Act, which is silent on the issue of a jury trial. The Connecticut Constitution, enacted in 1818, says that the right to a jury trial “shall remain inviolate.” That phrase has been interpreted as continuing the jury trial right in those cases previously tried to juries, but not for cases previously tried to a judge. There were no trade-secrets cases in Connecticut before 1818. So Justice Peter Zarella, writing for a unanimous court, looked to English law. In the 1817 case of Newbery v. James, the plaintiff sought an injunction against disclosure of a manufacturing secret. The court sent the litigants to a jury trial. Other analogous matters also “were tried before juries in eighteenth century courts of law,” Zarella wrote. The court rejected GM’s claims that Evans hadn’t preserved the jury trial issue, that he had waived a jury trial, and that there was no appealable final order on the jury issue. Evans’ lawyer, Frank Porcelli of Boston’s Fish & Richardson, says, “Mr. Evans has been asking for a jury trial for the past 12 years because the power of the jury is its ability to figure out who is lying and who is telling the truth.”
Thomas B. Scheffey is a senior writer for The Connecticut Law Tribune , an ALM publication where this article first appeared.

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