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A judge has cut one of the largest civil verdicts in Virginia history — $116 million over the design of a fire escape ladder — by about $100 million. In 1999, after Walter Kidde Portable Equipment Inc. was alleged to have copied their invention, Harvard business students Aldo DiBelardino and Andrew Ive sued Kidde for alleged copyright infringement, trade dress infringement, false advertising, misappropriation of trade secrets and breach of contract. In August 2001, a federal jury awarded the students $116 million. While at Harvard, Ive and DiBelardino designed an emergency, lightweight, portable escape ladder for their product development class. In 1998, they displayed the ladder at a Chicago hardware show. After executing a confidentiality agreement, Ive and DiBelardino, who had formed X-It Products to market their invention, met with representatives from Walter Kidde Portable Equipment Inc., a subsidiary of the billion-dollar fire safety company Kidde PLC, based in Great Britain. They discussed plans of a possible sale of the product to Kidde. Within a year, however, Kidde released its own version of a fire ladder that was nearly a replica of X-It’s product. The federal jury awarded them $21 million in compensatory damages and $95 million in punitive damages. U.S. District Judge Robert Doumar of the Eastern District of Virginia reduced the verdict to $3.1 million in compensatory and $9.4 million in punitive damages. After interest, attorney fees, and pre- and post-judgment sums, the award will probably be $18 million. Doumar’s 88-page written opinion called the case an example of when “greed and the resultant pressure on corporate officers … turns those officers into vultures, devouring the very businesses which they are trying to enhance.” He asserted that the compensatory damages were reduced because the jury had awarded sums of double recovery when it awarded the plaintiffs the $3.1 million on each of their complaints. The punitive reduction stemmed mainly from the judge deciding to eliminate the $45 million award that the jury had awarded under Illinois law. He ruled that the Illinois law is only meant to protect consumers and not businesses. Some of the incidents occurred in Illinois, including the trade show where X-It first introduced its ladder. The case was filed in federal court in Virginia, the principal place of business of X-It Products. The lawyer for DiBelardino, Bob Tata of Hunton & Williams’ Norfolk, Va., office, said that he was “gratified with the jury’s verdict” and “pleased with the judge’s condemnation of the defense’s actions.” But, he added that he is appealing the reduction because he believes it is contrary to the law and the evidence. Defense attorney Patrick Herald of the Chicago office of Baker & McKenzie, called the judge’s decision a “significant reduction,” but he said he had no further comment at this time . X-It Products v. Walter Kidde Portable Equipment Inc., No. 2:00CV513 (E.D. Va.).

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