Crime & Courts

Alaska software company awarded $51.3M in judgment against Trimble Navigation

After years in court, tiny Alaska software company Recreational Data Services has won a $51.3 million verdict against GPS giant Trimble Navigation, which stood accused of stealing confidential information and creating a carbon copy of an RDS project.

On Friday, an Anchorage Superior Court jury awarded the money to RDS for lost profits, although it decided punitive damages were not appropriate in the case.

RDS describes itself as a corporation that develops outdoors-based software. In its trial brief, RDS says it holds exclusive rights to a patent for software used to identify hunting and fishing areas and display the regulations that apply to those areas.

If that sounds familiar, it's because Cabela's Recon Hunt smartphone application does much the same. Trimble and the outdoors retailer announced the launch of that product in March 2011, the same month RDS and Trimble were supposed to pitch their product to Cabela's.

The jury sided with Recreational Data Services' six claims, including breach of a non-disclosure agreement, breaking a partnership and intentional misrepresentation, among other damages.

"Overall, I'm very grateful to live in a state where jurors are unwilling to let a $7 billion company come in and take advantage of Alaskans," said Josh Fannon, a Palmer-based attorney who took on the case along with Greg Parvin when RDS' original attorney, Chris Cyphers, died in a plane crash near Big Lake in August. "I am glad I live in a community where we can stick up for each other when wrong is committed."

The case initially included Cabela's, AT&T and Alascom as additional defendants. Both Parvin and Fannon wanted to make it known that those companies were ethical in their dealings and dropped from the lawsuit. Trimble was decidedly not, they said.

The Copper Center Project

Recreational Data Services' trial brief -- the allegations in which were all proven during trial, according to Parvin -- details the companies' partnership and falling out like this:

In early 2009, RDS contacted Trimble. RDS executives had been conducting research and shopping around for a manufacturer capable of building a platform for its hunting and fishing apps, according to RDS' trial brief, and the companies agreed to work together to develop a "mobile handheld device preloaded with a suite of software applications" based on the RDS patent.

Trimble describes itself in court records as "a worldwide leader in the development, manufacture, and sale of global positioning technology, including hardware and software components." According to its 2013 annual report, Trimble's customers in 150 countries worldwide generated $2 billion in revenue in fiscal year 2012.

The two companies were joined by Remington Firearms, and the Copper Center Project began, named for a meeting held in the community that lies just west of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

According to RDS, the parties agreed that Trimble would build the hardware, RDS would build the apps and Remington would market and distribute the product. They also agreed upon profit splits, according to the trial brief. The plan moved forward between 2009 and 2011 with routine meetings and weekly conference calls. During that time, the companies also sought out "strategic partnerships" with other organizations, like AT&T and Eklutna Inc.

Remington later stepped out of the project due to a change in leadership, and RDS suggested replacing the firearms company with Cabela's. RDS set a meeting in late March 2011 to pitch its product to the retailer.

RDS claims that Trimble dragged its feet and delayed project milestones. It eventually discovered the procrastination was intentional.

"Unbeknownst to RDS or Remington, Trimble's key contact point had been simultaneously providing updates of, and information from, the Copper Center Project to Trimble's executive officers and, through them, to another division within the Trimble corporate structure," the trial brief says.

That division used confidential info from the Copper Center Project and used it to make a "carbon copy of the project with Cabela's," the trial brief says. On March 9, 2011, Trimble announced the release of its Recon Hunt app.

Despite what it saw as a betrayal, RDS said it attempted to salvage its relationship with the international company. Trimble wasn't interested, and RDS filed suit in September 2011.

A partnership in question

One of the main points of contention throughout the case has been whether a partnership between RDS and Trimble ever existed.

"No 'partnership' ever existed between RDS and Trimble," Trimble wrote in its trial brief. It further argued against the claims that upon signing a non-disclosure agreement and receiving confidential information from RDS Trimble had agreed to work as a partner, and that Trimble breached the agreement when it used the "Copper Center Project idea to develop the Recon Applications."

An actual partnership would have been at odds with the agreement, Trimble argued, as the companies preserved their right not to partner with each other, as well as the right to go ahead with another similar or competing project.

In Alaska, the legal test for a partnership involves examining the totality of the circumstances of a given relationship, said Fannon.

"At trial, of course, Trimble said 'We never intended to be partners,'" he said. "But we admitted evidence from meetings with AT&T, with Remington, and they clearly presented as partners ... It looked like a partnership even though the agreement said it's not, and the jury decided a partnership existed. The evidence was super strong in that area."

As for Trimble's conduct, Fannon said numerous internal emails admitted as evidence showed what the company was trying to do: They were drawing out the relationship long enough to announce their competing project.

"Those emails said things like, 'Hey, we can't send this over email yet. It's still secretive, so let's talk in person.' We used all those details, and (Trimble) came to court and lied ... but jurors didn't buy it," he said.

'Little Alaskans'

In a written statement sent Thursday afternoon, Trimble expressed an intent to appeal the award.

"The jury awarded damages based on claims relating to an unsuccessful business venture of the plaintiff," Trimble said in a written statement. "Trimble believes that the jury's verdict lacks any basis in law or fact, and the company will be filing motions with the trial judge to have the verdict overturned. We intend to vigorously pursue all available avenues to reverse the verdict."

But Parvin said he and his clients at RDS are happy with the outcome. The case was very complex, he said, and generated more than 30,000 pages of court documents.

"I think the jury understood a very complicated, document-intensive case and sorted it out and made the right decision," Parvin said. "A little old Alaska software company going up against someone like Trimble. It took some time."

Jerzy Shedlock

Jerzy Shedlock is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2017.