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The University of California wins a jury verdict in strawberry case, then gets blasted by the judge

The University of California wins a jury verdict in strawberry case, then gets blasted by the judge
Subjects of a bitter custody battle: California strawberries on sale at a roadside stand in Watsonville. (Rita Beamish / Associated Press)

The University of California secured a resounding victory Wednesday from a federal court jury in a lawsuit claiming that two former professors had infringed on its strawberry patents.

But UC didn't have much time to celebrate its triumph. A few seconds after dismissing the jury with his thanks, Federal Judge Vince Chhabria of San Francisco uttered words no litigant probably likes to hear. They were: "Now, I have something to say."

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Chhabria proceeded to rip into the university. Although he accepted the jury's verdict against the professors, he said the trial had come about "almost as much because of the university's bad conduct as the defendants' bad conduct."

If you really care about California’s Strawberry Breeding Program, you would figure out a way...to avoid subjecting them to this custody battle.


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He left no doubt that he wants to see a settlement, but quick. According to a transcript of Wednesday's court proceedings, Chhabria warned that in the next phase of the trial, scheduled to start Wednesday, the decision on remedies for the patent breach will be entirely up to him. "And during that phase we are going to spend some more time discussing the university's conduct." He set a preliminary hearing for Thursday afternoon.

"He was telling us very clearly that he thinks the parties should work this out," says Greg Lanier, an attorney for the professors and their strawberry breeding firm.

The university echoed that sentiment. "We would like to see a settlement as well, and we share the judge's frustration that one has not yet been reached," said Jacob A. Appelsmith, a lawyer for UC Davis, late Thursday. But he added that the university aimed to ensure that the former professors, Douglas Shaw and Kirk Larson, cease "using UC's patented plants in violation of UC patent law" and return plants belonging to UC to the university.

To recap, the case involves the strawberry breeding program at UC Davis. As we reported earlier this month just before the trial began, until a few years ago the program was run by Shaw and Larson, two highly respected breeders.

In 2013, Shaw and Larson announced they would soon retire. That's when their relationship with UC Davis began to look like an ugly divorce, with custody of millions of dollars' worth of strawberry plants at stake.

UC said the professors had stolen patented plants from the university to continue breeding on their own; the professors contended that they had left UC in part because it seemed to have lost interest in the strawberry program. Nevertheless, they said, UC had taken illicit steps to block them from continuing their breeding efforts through their private firm. The professors had received patents on the plants but assigned the patents to UC, as is required of faculty members.

The jury found that Shaw, Larson and their company, California Berry Cultivars, had infringed those patents, and rejected the professors' counterclaim that the university had acted in bad faith against them.

Much of the state's $3-billion strawberry industry watched the battle uneasily. Independent growers have been hoping that both parties — the university and the professors' firm — continue their breeding efforts aimed at improving California's varieties and keeping its strawberries at the forefront of the worldwide market.

Chhabria, in his remarks from the bench, said he concluded that the professors were correct in one respect.

"It's obvious from the evidence," he said, "that the university did not know what was going on with the strawberry breeding program … and did not communicate well with the professors or with the Department at UC Davis about its intentions."

He admonished both sides, "If you really care about California's strawberry breeding program, you would figure out a way — and you would have by now figured out a way — to avoid subjecting them to this custody battle. … You'd figure out a way that's acceptable to both sides for how to move forward with the program, rather than leaving it to a federal judge who is much less qualified to make that decision."

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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UPDATES:

2:15 p.m.: This post has been updated to reflect that the court verdict was handed up, and Chhabria made his remarks, Wednesday rather than Thursday.

6:21 p.m.: This post has been updated with a statement from UC Davis.

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