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A federal jury in Minneapolis has returned a $7.4 million verdict for an inventor whose patent for a utility meter-reading device was willfully infringed upon by a Spokane, Wash.-based company. In 1999, Ralph Benghiat, a 74-year-old computer scientist who had worked for the U.S. Navy, Marines and Air Force, approached the company, Itron Inc., about licensing his patent for a meter-reading device that used an algorithm designed to allow greater flexibility in the collection of water, gas and electrical-use data. After declining even to discuss licensing, Itron invited Benghiat and his lawyer to its Minneapolis office to talk about conflicts between his patent and a meter-reader that was currently in Itron’s product line. At that meeting, Benghiat opened the back of a third party’s reader given to him by Itron, that the company claimed predated Benghiat’s 1981 patent application. He discovered inside a chip bearing the date 1983 that operated on an analogous algorithm. Nonetheless, Itron sued, seeking a declaration that the prior art voided Benghiat’s patent claim. He countersued for infringement. Itron asserted that its device was qualitatively different from Benghiat’s. His lawyer, David C. Bohrer, a partner at Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly, successfully countered that the only difference was that Itron’s chip had more memory, a function of the rapid increase in memory available for such devices that occurred in the years after Benghiat’s filing. The algorithm, which defined the patent, had remained the same, Bohrer said. On Dec. 20, the jury unanimously found that Itron had willfully infringed on Benghiat’s patent. Based on an expert-established royalty rate of 5.25 percent, the jury awarded $7.4 million in damages covering April 1993 to December 2002. That award may yet be trebled by the court. The willfulness finding also entitles Benghiat to attorney fees, estimated at more than $1 million. Bohrer said, “This is a classic case of David beating Goliath.” Itron’s attorneys, the Minneapolis firm of Thuente, Skaar & Christensen, did not return calls seeking comment.

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