|July 24, 2014|
Previously published on July 22, 2014
Judge Claude M. Hilton of the Eastern District of Virginia recently issued a Memorandum Opinion following up on his June 27, 2014 order (on which we previously wrote here and here) dismissing the complaint filed against the power tool industry by SawStop, LLC.
To recap, according to the February 2014 complaint, in 2000, Stephen Gass, inventor of “SawStop” and a patent attorney, began licensing negotiations with several companies now named as defendants in the lawsuit. As a result, the companies allegedly held a vote on how to respond to SawStop and shortly thereafter ended their individual licensing negotiations with Gass. The complaint also alleges the companies conspired to alter voluntary standards to prevent SawStop technology from becoming an industry standard.
In his opinion dismissing SawStop’s antitrust claims, Judge Hilton wrote:
"An alleged antitrust conspiracy is not established simply by lumping ‘the defendants’ together.
Judge Hilton found no evidence that any of the named manufacturer defendants conspired through their industry organization, the Power Tool Institute, Inc. (PTI), not to license SawStop’s safety technology. Judge Hilton also found that the conspiracy allegations were belied by SawStop’s admissions in the complaint that it was actively negotiating with Emerson, Ryobi, and Black & Decker “well after the alleged group boycott began in October 2001,” concluding that “[s]uch history fails to show an agreement to restrain trade.”
The judge also pointed to other contradictions in SawStop’s complaint, including evidence that Ryobi signed an agreement with SawStop regarding royalties related to SawStop’s technology licensing during the time period of the alleged conspiracy. In addition, the judge ruled that Black & Decker’s proposed a licensing agreement with the SawStop, which was negotiated 6 to 8 months after the alleged conspiracy was formed, similarly contradicted SawStop’s allegations. The judge further dismissed SawStop’s arguments that Black & Decker’s 1% royalty payment offer was disingenuous, noting that even if that were the case, such actions do “not sufficiently infer conspiratorial conduct” and cannot be characterized as refusals to deal.
Finally, the judge found that SawStop failed to adequately plead that the defendants corrupted the standard setting process or otherwise agreed to a boycott, pointing out that the complaint alleged that only 5 of the 24 defendants had representatives on the relevant standards-setting committee. Moreover, the court found SawStop’s allegations of competitive harm resulting from the conspiracy (lost sales and profits from UL failing to mandate its safety technology on the market) insufficient, stating:
"‘Lost sales’ do not amount to competitive harm because [users] were not ‘in some way constrained from buying [SawStop’s] products’ . . . and failing to mandate [SawStop’s] proposed safety standard does not thereby harm their market access.
Finding no support for an inference that defendants had entered into an agreement to boycott SawStop’s product or otherwise restrain trade, the court dismissed SawStop’s complaint in its entirety.
In addition to the antitrust lawsuit, SawStop technology is at the center of an ongoing rulemaking by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).