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To the plaintiffs, it was a case of the little guy being hoodwinked by a big corporation but winning out in the end. To the defense, it was a case of a runaway jury acting like Robin Hood. In what is being called the biggest civil verdict in Virginia history, a federal court jury has awarded $116 million in damages to the inventors of a fire-escape ladder who alleged that their design, originally created for a college business class, was stolen by a major maker of fire-safety products. The award, recently handed down in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Norfolk, included $21 million in compensatory damages and $95 million in punitives. “This sort of case reaffirms your belief in the jury system,” said plaintiffs’ lawyer Bob Tata of the Norfolk, Va. office of Hunton & Williams. He added that no one he has talked to had heard of a larger civil verdict than the one in X-IT Products v. Walter Kidde Portable Equipment Inc., No. 2:00-CV-513. STRANGE TALE Verdict or no verdict, the story of how plaintiffs Aldo DiBelardino and Andrew Ive crossed paths with the defendant sounds like something out of a novel. While attending Harvard Business School in 1996, Ive, who lived on an upper floor of a dormitory, got the idea for a lighter, stronger and more portable escape ladder to be used in case of fire. They worked out the details in their product development class, then found financial backing and formed X-IT Products. In 1998 they filed a patent application for the ladder, whose packaging even has a back story. The two men built a wall with a window and photographed DiBelardino’s sister-in-law and nephew climbing out of the window on to their ladder, then used that picture on the box, said Tata. According to the lawsuit, Kidde of Mebane, N.C., a subsidiary of a large British company, approached X-IT of Virginia Beach to buy the rights to the ladder. They began negotiations and, said Tata, Kidde agreed not to use information from X-IT to design its own ladder. But in 1999, according to Tata, X-IT found that Kidde was selling X-IT’s ladder, right down to using the picture of DiBelardino’s relatives on the box. They also found Kidde promoting the new ladder at a national hardware show in Chicago, in competition with X-IT. X-IT lost much of its business and filed suit against Kidde, charging copyright infringement, false advertising, breach of contract, trade dress infringement, misappropriation of trade secrets and unfair trade practices. The case is before Senior Judge Robert G. Doumar. Tata said the judge is evaluating the verdict and the award.According to Tata, the key for the jury was evidence and expert testimony on flame retardance. The webbing of X-IT’s ladder is flame-resistant. But in Kidde’s rush to get its Chinese-made ladder on the market, he said, the webbing Kidde initially used was not flame-resistant, according to burn tests. Kidde sold 16,600 of those early ladders, Tata said, but did not recall any of them to change the webbing. Kidde’s attorney, Laura Luger of Moore & Van Allen in Durham, N.C., declined to discuss most aspects of the case, pointing out that it isn’t final. She said it was premature to talk about an appeal because the judge had invited post-verdict motions, which could take 80 to 120 days. She also said the judge had indicated that the jury might have misinterpreted his directions. Finally, Luger said that the defense had twice moved for a mistrial over judicial conduct in the case. She said she had “no doubt” the jury had gotten carried away by dramatic aspects of the case.

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