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Alaska Supreme Court sides with software company, but $51.3M award doesn't stick

  • Author: Jerzy Shedlock
  • Updated: April 8, 2017
  • Published April 8, 2017

An Anchorage Superior Court judge's decision to rule against a $51.3 million verdict in favor of tiny Alaska software company Recreational Data Services has been reversed, but the state's justices decided the trial evidence does not support such a large award.

In a Supreme Court opinion issued in late March, Justice Peter Maassen sided mostly with the jury's findings in the yearslong, ongoing civil case pitting Recreational Data Services against GPS giant Trimble Navigation.

The case now returns to the lower court for a "determination of nominal damages," Maassen wrote.

Attorneys for the two Alaskans who created RDS expressed satisfaction in decision of the Supreme Court, saying their clients' allegations against Trimble were vindicated.

"We're still feeling pretty good about the whole thing. There are some bumps in the road, but we're getting to where we're going," said attorney Greg Parvin.

Parvin and his co-counsel, Josh Fannon, declined to detail how they or their clients, RDS founders Brian Feucht and Jim Belz, felt about the back-and-forth decisions. They said the focus remains on moving forward.

"The Alaska Supreme Court is tasked with preserving the precious rights granted to us through the United States Constitution and we are confident that before this litigation is over, they will do so," Feucht said in a prepared statement.

One juror who delivered the verdict against Trimble three years ago is being more vocal.

"I need it explained to me, because I don't understand how you can have A and not have B," said Andrea Conter, referring to Maassen's decision to side with the jury's verdict but not the award it calculated.

The reversal

In September 2011, RDS sued Trimble, accusing the company of manipulating business dealings to stall and steal its idea for a mobile handheld device preloaded with hunting and fishing information, like the regulations of game management units in the state. Recreational Data Services alleged breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty, as well as fraud.

A jury heard the case three years later and ruled in favor of RDS. Trimble quickly appealed, arguing the Alaska company failed to prove its claims and that the amount of money awarded was not supported by "reasonably certain evidence of lost profits," according to the opinion.

Superior Court Judge Catherine Easter agreed. She granted Trimble's motion and entered a judgment on its behalf despite the decision of the jurors — what's referred to as a "judgment notwithstanding the verdict."

The Alaska Court System does not keep data on the frequency of judgments notwithstanding verdicts as outcomes in cases, said Mara Rabinowitz, communications counsel for the court system.

"We can confirm based on the experiences of our trial court judges, that they are very rare," Rabinowitz said. "While they are rare, this is not the first time a JNOV has been issued by a trial court in Alaska."

Conter, the juror who sat through the three-week trial, said she was "infuriated" by the court's decision.

"I like to study history. An area I'm very fond of is early America, Revolutionary War, big fan of John Adams," Conter said. "To me it just goes against everything we stand for, against the Seventh Amendment."

The Seventh Amendment codifies the right to a trial by jury in certain civil cases.

Conter, who has worked as a store manager for three decades, was siding with Trimble after opening statements, she said. She thought it was a case of a small company going after the money of one much larger. But when both sides were done presenting evidence, she'd changed her mind.

"It wasn't even a question in my mind at the end," she said.

The partial reinstatement

The jury's choices on the many allegations argued at trial were correct the first time around, wrote Justice Maassen. The lower court made an error when it reversed their verdict, he wrote.

However, the opinion said Judge Easter was correct to find that the evidence at trial did not support the multimillion-dollar award. Unlike the claims, the award requires proof to a "reasonable certainty."

"The jury was instructed that reasonable certainty meant it could 'not award damages to RDS on the basis of speculation, guess, or conjecture.' But there was nothing else on which the jury could base a lost-profits award in this case," Maaseen wrote.

The attorneys for RDS, according to the opinion, relied on two sources to establish lost profits: statements generated from Remington market research data after a 2009 meeting, and a valuation sketched on a whiteboard by a Trimble employee at another meeting a year later, after Remington pulled out of the project.

The jury relied on the latter source to come up with its award. "The jury appeared to base its verdict on the 'whiteboard' numbers," Maassen wrote. Those numbers valued the project at $51.3 million, the jurors' chosen award.

Maassen said RDS gave no explanation of how the whiteboard numbers calculated the cost of producing the smartphone, its retail value or the company's estimated expenses, among other arguments.

Conter said she and other jurors, some of whom she's kept in touch with, still believe they came up with a fair award. She said jurors quickly decided Trimble was in the wrong and spent most of its time deliberating over the money.

"I mean, it was based on the evidence given to us, and well thought out," she said. "They were asking for more than $100 million and we weren't quite buying that, but let's take the numbers Trimble said the project was worth and come up with something reasonable."

If the attorneys for Recreational Data Services are distraught by the outcome, they're not expressing it.

"The court ruled the evidence was not sufficient," Parvin said.

Back to Superior Court

The case now goes back to Judge Easter for reconsideration on various aspects of the case. That includes coming up with the nominal award.

How much money will be awarded remains unknown.

"It is an award of some amount of money," Parvin said. "It acknowledges it's a legal impossibility to prove every single claim, or allegation that was made in the course of the trial and then have a finding that there was no proof of any damages."

The attorneys said the case still has a ways to go before it reaches its conclusion.

In an emailed statement, a Trimble official said the company is glad it's over.

"Trimble agreed with the trial court's findings of lack of liability as well as the plaintiff's failure to prove damages. However, we are pleased that this case has been definitely resolved."

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