The inventor who some believed would die before a court would ever find in his favor finds swift justice.
By B. Collins
The criminal complaint reads more like an international industrial espionage thriller than a case from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
You have the aging, earnest protagonist – an inventor of specialized tires for mining equipment, who kept his secret designs under lock-and-key and used color coded documents only certain employees could view.
You have the weasel turncoat villain, willing to place profit over friendship and principle.
And you have the Middle East and Chinese corporations, looking to make a killing off ill-gotten goods.
The story begins in 1997, when Jordan Fishman, 72, designer of underground mining tires and founder of Medley, Fla.-based Alpha Tyre Systems, hired Sam Vance as the company’s marketing manager – a man Fishman had known for more than 20 years.
Alpha Tyre was the only company in the world to develop specialized mining equipment tires that were thicker on the outside wall – an asymmetrical design that better withstood the constant bump and grind against the jagged sides of mines.
Conventional wisdom held that tires needed to be symmetrical to run right. But as an inventor and entrepreneur, Fishman bucked convention.
Since 1960, Fishman had designed and developed about 600 drawings for molds for high-end industrial tires. Manufacturers of original mining equipment traditionally bought their specialized underground mining tires from giants such as Goodyear or Michelin. As these companies became less interested in producing small quantities of specialized tires, Fishman and Alpha invested extensively to fill the need. Some of Fishman’s mining tires stood as tall as a grown man, could shoulder 50 tons and sold for upward of $6,000 apiece.
Vance was one of just three employees, including Fishman, who had access to all of Alpha’s trade secrets, including the one-of-a-kind, copyrighted and trademarked blueprints of Fishman’s special breed of mining tires.
By early 2005, Vance had stolen Fishman’s blueprints. Working with Alpha’s China-based joint venture partner and tire manufacturer, China-based Guizhou Tire Company or GTC, Vance encouraged Alpha’s customers to cancel their orders with Alpha and place their orders directly with GTC.
Fishman got wind of the scheme and fired Vance. In June 2005, Alpha filed a lawsuit against Vance in Florida state court, seeking to hold him liable for wrongful conduct. Little did Fishman know at the time that Vance had cooked up an even bigger conspiracy.
During discovery in the Florida litigation, Fishman found out Vance also had met secretly in early 2005 with Surender Kandhari, the chairman and managing director of Dubai-based tire distributor Al Dobowi, and John Canning, a consultant for the company, at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Va. Canning had known Fishman for many years and previously worked at Alpha.
“It’s an inescapable irony that this meeting was at the Jefferson Hotel,” Fishman’s attorney later would comment, noting that Thomas Jefferson founded the U.S. patent system and laid the foundation of modern intellectual property protection.
Heretofore, Al Dobowi was not in the business of specialized mining tires.
At the meeting, Vance offered to provide Al Dobowi with Alpha’s customer lists, pricing information, customer databases and – most important – the proprietary blueprints drawn by Fishman necessary to make molds of Alpha’s highly specialized tires.
After the Richmond meeting, Vance, Kandhari and Canning traveled to China, where the Shandong LingLong Rubber Co. agreed to make the tires. Al Dobowi would distribute them.
Vance began working for Al Dobowi in the summer of 2005 from his office in Tazewell, Va. Meanwhile, LingLong copied Fishman’s blueprints – clearly labeled as proprietary documents – so it could make molds and produce the tires.
By the end of the first quarter of 2006, Al Dobowi and LingLong were producing nearly the full range of Alpha’s underground mining tires and were filling orders for customers once loyal to Alpha – all without Fishman’s knowledge.
Fishman, in fact, came across the forged tires at a tradeshow in Las Vegas in 2006. The tires used the same specs, markings, tread design and even the same size designation – a size that Fishman had conceived and were not based on any conventional tire sizing. The only difference was a variance of the name. Fishman called his tires the Mine Mauler. LingLong called its tires the Mine Handler.
“I saw our tires on display at the LingLong booth,” Fishman tells Inventors Digest. “There were about 25 of them on display. I never experienced something like this before. I pulled the tires out onto the floor and took pictures of them.
“These are my tires,” Fishman recalls telling the fellows in the booth. “They may have a different name, but their mine! They’re not copies, they’re clones.”
“The booth guys,” Fishman adds, “were embarrassed.”
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Yet the scheme “resulted in a tremendous loss of business for Alpha, which in turn caused Alpha to shrink from a company with 25 employees and 14 distributors, to one with just five employees and three distributors,” according to court documents.
The conspiracy soon unraveled.
On Jan. 24, 2008, the Florida court found that Vance provided Al Dobowi with Alpha’s trade secrets, including Alpha’s tire drawings, profit-margin reports, production schedules and buying prices and enabled Al Dobowi to enter the market for underground mining tires.
The court also found that Alpha suffered irreparable damage because of Vance’s theft of Alpha’s trade secrets. The court awarded Alpha $19.6 million compensatory damages and $39.3 million in exemplary damages.
But Vance fled to China, where he reportedly now resides. He’s appealing the $59 million ruling on grounds that Florida lacked jurisdiction, among other things.
On Oct. 28, 2009, based on evidence found during the Florida litigation against Vance, Fishman filed an unfair trade and competition lawsuit against Al Dobowi in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia to recover losses as a result of the conspiracy. Fishman retained the services of Washington, D.C.-based law firm Gilbert LLP.
The complaint later added TyreX International, TyreX International Rubber Co. and Qingdao TyreX Trading Co., China-based companies that acted as agents of Al Dobowi.
During the trial, witnesses admitted that they believed Fishman didn’t have the money to wage a protracted legal battle and said the old man would die soon anyway.
Fishman’s law firm evidently did a superlative job. On July 21 this year, less than nine months after filing the complaint, the court found in favor of Fishman. It awarded him $26 million.
“This case should serve as a bellwether for foreign multinational corporations who
believe they can act with impunity, stealing intellectual property from a small U.S.
business, and then avoid the reach of our judicial system,” lead attorney August Matteis, Jr. said after the verdict.
Although Al Dobowi and the Chinese companies argued during the trial that the Virginia court lacked jurisdiction, as of the time this article went to press they had yet to file an appeal.
Fishman is optimistic he’ll get the money. He’s less upbeat about his fellow man.
“I’ve learned that we’re dealing with a different world than when I grew up,” he tells Inventors Digest. “It used to be you shook hands and had a deal. That was the end of the story. And if you didn’t do what you said you were going to do, people didn’t do business with you anymore.”