Lightlab Wins Trade Secret Case, Recovers No Damages

by Lee Gesmer on August 6, 2014

This case, decided by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on July 28, 2014, shows how difficult it can be to recover damages in a trade secret case. The facts (boiled down) are straightforward. Lightlab manufactures optical coherence tomography systems (OCT). Lightlab had a joint development/non-disclosure agreement with Axsun. Axsun disclosed Lightlab secrets to Volcano, a competitor to Lightlab and would-be acquiror of Axsun. Lightlab obtained a preliminary injunction enjoining the use of its trade secrets by Axsun and Volcano, and also enjoining Volcano’s acquisition of Axsun until after the Lightlab/Axsun agreement expired in 2014, more than five years later.

At trial Lightlab was able to obtain a verdict for trade secret misappropriation (and related claims) from a Massachusetts Superior Court jury.

However, the trial was bifurcated, and before presenting its damages case to the jury Lightlab first needed to run the gauntlet of expert disqualification thrown down by the defendants (Axsun and Volcano). It failed to do this – outside the presence of the jury the trial judge questioned Lightlab’s damages expert for three days, following which she disqualified the expert, leaving Lightlab with no damages case to present.*

*[note] In business and intellectual property cases damages are almost always established through the testimony of a damages expert.

Lightlab had some unfavorable facts to overcome in order to prove damages. The trial judge held Lightlab’s damages experts’ proposed testimony to be speculative (and therefore inadmissible) based on her findings that Lightlab –

  • had no profitable sales of its OCT device since it began sales in 1999
  • was unable to prove it had lost any sales as a result of the infringement

In addition to these key facts, Lightlab –

  • had no guaranteed funding from its parent company to develop the new version of its product that was the basis for the expert’s damages theory
  • had not (as of the time of trial in 2010) obtained FDA (or non-U.S.) regulatory clearance for its newest product
  • had not yet invented the new generation of its product that was the basis for the expert’s anticipated damages testimony

The trial court judge also found that the expert had performed no market study to support certain assumptions he made concerning Lightlab’s market share through 2038, the 28 year period for which the expert claimed to have calculated damages.

The trial judge closed out the case with no trade secret damages awarded to Lightlab. Lightlab appealed, and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) affirmed the trial judge’s decision

It is notoriously difficult for a start-up company such as Lightlab, which had no history of profitability, to recover trade secret damages based on “future” lost profits. In an important sense Lightlab was a victim of its own success – it obtained a preliminary injunction against the use of its trade secrets before the defendants could utilize them, so the defendants never profited directly from the misappropriation.

Given the early preliminary injunction and the factors listed above Lightlab was faced with a seemingly near-insurmountable challenge to recover damages. To overcome this obstacle Lightlab advanced some cutting-edge arguments, the most interesting of which was that as a result of the misappropriation Lightlab had lost the “first mover advantage.” The “first mover advantage” theory is not described in any detail by the SJC in the Lightlab decision, but it is described by Pearson Education as follows (link):

The basis of first-mover advantage is [that] by being the first to enter a new market, the business gains an advantage over its actual and potential rivals. . . . If the business is first into a market, so the thinking goes, it can establish what the military thinkers would call ‘defensible ground’. First, it can capture market share much more easily without having to worry about rivals trying to capture the same customers. Second, when the rivals do come along – as they inevitably will – the first-mover and its management team will have advantages in the ensuing competition, such as familiar products, brand loyalty, the best retail outlets, up-and-running distribution systems, and so on. By beating rivals into the market, the first-mover can consolidate its position and compete more effectively, not only defending its previously acquired share but even continuing to expand.

However, the SJC found that Lightlab was able to cite almost no judicial authority in support of this damages theory: “Significantly, [Lightlab’s expert] acknowledged that nothing in the economic literature supports quantifying lost profits based on first mover advantage. … [The trial judge’s] conclusion that [the expert’s] use of first mover advantage in his methodology rendered that methodology incapable of being validated and tested was well within her discretion.”

Before closing out its opinion the SJC expressed its “concern” that traditional lost profits analysis may not be an adequate model for analyzing harm caused by misappropriation of trade secrets of a “start-up” business. “This fact,” the court stated, “should not render them ‘damage proof.'” The court stated that “other theories of damages may lend themselves to misappropriation of trade secret cases and that such theories may be ripe for testing in our courts.” However, the court did little to indicate what these “other theories” might be and, for Lightlab, this was too little too late.*

*[note] The court’s only citation in connection with this comment was to a 2002 ABA publication, “Enforcement of Trade Secret Rights and Noncompetition Agreements”, pp. 23-32 (link)

There are other important issues addressed in this opinion, not touched on here, relating to damages, the judge’s role in excluding expert witnesses and the scope of injunctive relief in trade secret litigation. Trade secret decisions from the Supreme Judicial Court are few and far between, so Lightlab will be closely studied in trade secret litigation in Massachusetts for many years to come.

Lightlab Imaging, Inc. v. Axsun Technologies, Inc. (SJC, July 28, 2014)

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