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Ralph Waldo Emerson reportedly said, “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” But a California company says that when it did that, one of its competitors beat a path to China and illegally copied its invention. A federal jury last month agreed and awarded $2.7 million to AgriZap Inc. in a patent-infringement and fraud suit that accused a Pennsylvania company of stealing the design for the “Rat Zapper,” a device that electrocutes rodents. After a two-week trial in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the jury concluded that Woodstream Corp. had infringed on AgriZap’s patent and committed fraud when it sent AgriZap’s product to China to be copied and mass-produced. In his closing argument, AgriZap’s lawyer, Gregory Lavorgna of the Philadelphia office of Drinker Biddle & Reath, told the jury that Woodstream “got itself caught with its hand in the cookie jar.” On March 7 the jury awarded AgriZap $900,000 in lost profits, $525,000 in “reasonable royalties,” and nearly $1.3 million on its fraud claim. But the jury also found that the patent infringement was not “willful” — a finding of willfulness could have led to a trebling of the patent damages — and its award was just a fraction of the $6 million for which Lavorgna had argued. A NICE LITTLE TRAP According to court papers, AgriZap, a small startup company, was approached by Woodstream, a much larger competitor, about the possibility of “partnering” to distribute the Rat Zapper, for which AgriZap had received a patent in 1998. At that time, Woodstream was best known for its Victor brand mousetraps — which use the traditional wire-snap technology — but did not have an electronic trap. The two companies struck a deal: AgriZap agreed to supply its electronic device in a private-label arrangement to sell Rat Zappers under the Victor brand name. But once Woodstream had the product, Lavorgna told the jury, it set out to copy it. The evidence, he said, showed that Woodstream fraudulently misrepresented to AgriZap that it had sent the product overseas solely for a “cost evaluation” to see how the product could be made more cheaply. In reality, he said, Woodstream also sent the Rat Zapper to China to develop a new but similar device “so it could make its own product and drive AgriZap from the market.” Lavorgna contended that “Woodstream’s intent from the very beginning [was] to defraud AgriZap.” A DIFFERENT KIND OF ZAP Woodstream’s lawyer, Michael Slobasky of Washington, D.C.’s Jacobson Holman, argued that his client’s product used additional technology that was not part of AgriZap’s trap, including a computer sensor to detect the presence of a mouse. But Lavorgna urged the jury to focus on the numerous similarities between the two products. He said, “Woodstream did not invent a different way of electrocuting rodents.” In a post-verdict statement, Woodstream’s Philadelphia-based counsel, Theodore Jobes of Fox Rothschild, stressed the limited success the plaintiff had: “Of the six patent claims asserted as infringing, the jury found only one claim to be infringed.” Jobes also described the damages as “relatively small in view of the amount requested” and said the fraud claim was “without merit.”
Shannon P. Duffy is a reporter at The Legal Intelligencer , an ALM publication based in Philadelphia where this article first ran.

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