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Maker of Stair Machine Claims It’s Been Stepped On

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Laguna Tectrix Inc., a small manufacturer of exercise equipment, has filed a patent infringement lawsuit against a larger rival in Utah.

In a suit filed in federal court in Los Angeles, Irvine-based Laguna Tectrix is asking the court to stop Pro-Form Fitness Products Inc., of Logan, Utah, from marketing its Pro-Form 3001 STX step-climbing machine. Laguna Tectrix claims that a friction-breaking device used to regulate climbing speed in the Pro-Form product violates a Laguna Tectrix patent.

The suit, filed last week, seeks unspecified monetary damages.

William Dalebout, a Pro-Form vice president, said Tuesday that he was unaware of the lawsuit. “It is not our policy to infringe the legitimate intellectual property of another company,” he said.

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Laguna Tectrix sells its ClimbMax machines, which retail for $2,995, to fitness clubs. Pro-Form’s 3001 STX sells for about $700 and is sold to major retailers such as Sears, Roebuck & Co., Price Club, J.C. Penney and Best Products.

Michael Sweeney, Laguna Tectrix’s president, said his company received a patent on the friction-break device July 3, 1990. In February, 1990, he said, Dalebout and another Pro-Form executive, Wallace J. Smith, visited Laguna Tectrix’s manufacturing facility to discuss a possible licensing agreement and purchase of ClimbMax stair-climbers.

Sweeney said that Pro-Form’s price was much too low and that the Utah company’s plan to sell the ClimbMax to health clubs would have competed directly with Laguna Tectrix.

Sweeney charged that Pro-Form, a Weslow Inc. subsidiary, has “a reputation for copying other manufacturers.”

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Dalebout conceded that his company sells some similar products as other companies but denied that any of those products infringe on patents. “There’s a great deal of activity in the market for stair climbers. We produce half a dozen kinds of different steppers all using different mechanisms similar to other products in the market.”

This is the second patent infringement case in eight months involving companies in the lucrative step-climber equipment industry.

At stake is an estimated $320-million market for the high-tech, low-impact aerobic machines that have been billed as an alternative to walking and running.

Last November, Tri-Tech Inc. of Tulsa, Okla., doing business as StairMaster Exercise Systems, alleged that its 1987 patent on a step-climber was violated by Tru-Trac Therapy Products Inc., a Temecula, Calif., maker of the Aero-Step product.


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