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Jury Says Suzuki Stole Cycle Invention : ‘Garage Inventor’ Wins $19-Million Patent Suit

Times Staff Writer

A youthful motorcyclist who developed a new, rough-terrain suspension system for his cycle won an award that could total $19 million from Suzuki Motor Co. Friday when a jury decided that the mammoth Japanese manufacturer had stolen his invention.

A federal court jury in Los Angeles decided Don Richardson, a lifelong motorcycle enthusiast, should be entitled to worldwide royalties for the unique floating shock absorber that he designed at the age of 19.

“Suzuki just couldn’t acknowledge that a young, American garage inventor could actually do better than their in-house people. This trial has proved them wrong,” his attorney, Theresa Wagner Middlebrook, said of Richardson’s seven-year legal battle over patent rights to the device.

The jury, deliberating after a seven-week trial in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, found that Suzuki had infringed on Richardson’s 13-year-old patent and had also misappropriated two trade secrets with which he had refined the shock absorber.

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Suzuki may have sold as many as 1.7 million motorcycles equipped with the floating suspension system that allows the bike to travel smoothly and rapidly over rough terrain without bottoming out--a boon to both weekend dirt-bike enthusiasts and professional off-road racers.

Lawyers for the manufacturer said they will consider an appeal.

“My attitude right now is, I’m not that upset with the verdict,” except for its provisions that Suzuki appropriated two trade secrets, without which the verdict would only have been about $500,000, Suzuki lawyer Richard Rockwell said.

“My position is, Suzuki didn’t take anything from the gentleman,” Rockwell added.

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Richardson, now a 31-year-old building contractor from Pine Grove, a town 50 miles east of Sacramento, was a teen-age motorcycle hobbyist when he invented the floating shock absorber and obtained a patent on it.

“I was--I don’t want to say obsessed--really into motorcycles,” he said. “My spirit was broken when Suzuki took advantage of me.”

According to another of his attorneys, Richard W. Driscoll, Richardson had done much of the initial development work on his own, spending his college tuition money to form a small company with a partner, Guy Cazort.

Eventually, Suzuki approached Richardson about developing his invention for commercial use on its motorcycles, signing an option contract with him that would allow them to use the device if it proved adaptable.

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Flown to Japan

After the first tests were successful, Suzuki flew Richardson to Japan, took him to the best restaurants and put him in contact with in-house engineers for final development work.

“They were doing the final adjustments in 1979, when headquarters advised him they had terminated the option . . . it turned out they had been secretly testing their own version,” Driscoll said.

Suzuki began production of two “full-floater” models in 1981, using a suspension system that the jury decided was based on Richardson’s patented invention. Since then, an estimated 500,000 to 1.7 million of the motorcycles have been sold.

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Evidence introduced at the trial, Driscoll said, showed that Suzuki engineers took notes on Richardson’s plans for the suspension system, then altered the notebooks when he filed his patent suit in 1980.

Option Canceled

Lawyers for the manufacturer say they canceled Richardson’s option because they learned his floating suspension system was very much like other suspension systems used over the years--enough so that they believed his 1974 patent was not valid.

“Also, we believe our full-floaters are different” than the system Richardson designed, Rockwell said.

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U.S. District Judge William P. Gray ruled earlier in the trial that Richardson’s patent was valid.

A key part of the verdict was the jury’s finding on Friday concerning Richardson’s claim that Suzuki had misappropriated 11 trade secrets--essentially, special ways of manufacturing the device which could not be patented but which were well enough beyond the state-of-the-art of motorcycle design that he had a right to protect them from other builders.

The jury found that Suzuki had misappropriated two such secrets, entitling Richardson to a $12 royalty on each motorcycle in addition to the 50-cent royalty he was awarded for patent infringement.

The total amount of the award depends on the number of motorcycles sold, which also will be determined during post-trial motions. Lawyers for both sides agreed that it will range from $6 million to $19 million.

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Richardson earlier obtained undisclosed settlements from two other Japanese motorcycle makers, Yamaha and Kawasaki, which he also claimed had violated his patent.

“This has been a seven-year ordeal for a young inventor trying to enforce a contract,” Middlebrook said.


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