Richardson v. Suzuki Motor Co., Ltd.

Citation868 F.2d 1226,9 USPQ2d 1913
Decision Date16 February 1989
Docket Number87-1498,87-1502,88-1083 and 88-1084,Nos. 87-1497,s. 87-1497
PartiesDonald G. RICHARDSON, Plaintiff/Appellant, v. SUZUKI MOTOR CO., LTD. and U.S. Suzuki Motor Corporation, Defendants/Cross- Appellants, Kawasaki Heavy Indust. Ltd., Kawasaki Motors Corp., Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd., Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A., Kayaba Industry Co., Ltd. and Kayaba Industry Co., Defendants.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

Theresa A. Middlebrook, Wagner & Middlebrook, Glendale, Cal., and Robert W. Driscoll, Driscoll & Tomich, San Marino, Cal., argued for plaintiff/appellant. With them on the brief was John E. Wagner.

John A. Fogarty, Kenyon & Kenyon, New York City, argued for defendants/cross-appellants. With him on the brief were Richard S. Gresalfi and Dawn M. DiStefano. Also on the brief were Richard S. Rockwell, Tustin, Cal., Duffern H. Helsing and Halina F. Osinski, Santa Ana, Cal., of counsel.

Before SMITH, Circuit Judge, SKELTON, Senior Circuit Judge, and NEWMAN, Circuit Judge.

PAULINE NEWMAN, Circuit Judge.

This appeal and cross-appeal are from the judgment of the United States District Court for the Central District of California, and involve issues of patent validity, infringement, breach of contract, fraud, misappropriation of trade secrets, and several related issues. 1 We affirm in part, reverse in part, vacate in part, and remand.

The Invention

The invention that led to this litigation is a motorcycle rear-wheel suspension system that smooths the ride over rough terrain, of interest particularly in off-road motorcycle riding. The roughness of the ride is due to bumps and dips in the terrain, transmitted from the wheels to the frame. An optimum rear-wheel suspension will maintain tire contact with the ground despite deflection by irregularities, will avoid "bottoming out" (an unsafe rising of the suspension), yet will achieve a smooth ride without reduction in safety. In 1974 even the best available suspensions did not maintain adequate tire contact with the ground in conjunction with attempts to eliminate bottoming out.

In mid-1974 Donald G. Richardson, a young mechanic in California, devised a solution to the problem, a modified suspension system that he installed in his own motocross motorcycle. Richardson replaced the conventional two-spring shock absorber suspension system with a system consisting of a single shock absorber plus a linkage consisting of a bell crank and connecting rod. This linkage generated a "rising rate" 2--a characteristic critical to the issue--and produced a far superior ride, even as it eliminated the dangerous bottoming out. Richardson testified about his first ride, at a hilly construction site near his house, as "utopia. I mean it was incredible"; over hard bumps it was "uncanny because it was so smooth"; "[t]he rear end didn't kick up. It just didn't bottom out and stayed down"; an "unbelievable feeling".

On November 25, 1974 Richardson filed a United States patent application on his invention, and on September 23, 1975 the application issued as United States Patent No. 3,907,332 (hereinafter the '332 or Richardson patent). Patent claim 9, which incorporates claim 1, is the only claim in suit. Claims 1 and 9 follow:

1. A suspension for two wheeled vehicles comprising:

a frame for the vehicle comprising a generally closed shape including upper and lower portions and

a swing arm pivotally connected to the lower portion of said frame;

said swing arm comprising a pair of arms rotatably supporting a wheel about a horizontal axis generally at the end of said swing arm;

the pivotal mounting of said arm to said frame being about a generally horizontal axis whereby said wheel is both rotatable about its own horizontal axis and deflectable in a generally vertical direction about the axis of said swing arm;

spring means having a first end pivotally secured to said frame;

a link member including an intermediate point pivotally mounted on said frame about an axis, parallel to the axis of said swing arm at a point spaced therefrom;

pivotal connection means between said link member and the second end of said spring;

a bar pivotally connected at one end to said swing arm and at the opposite end to said link member at a position spaced from said spring connection;

said spring, bar, swing arm and link connected whereby deflection of said swing arm displaces said bar and rotates said link member to compress said spring.

9. The combination in accordance with claim 1 wherein said assembly provides a rising spring rate as a function of deflection of said swing arm.

Figure 2 of the '332 patent specification is illustrative:

NOTE: OPINION CONTAINS TABLE OR OTHER DATA THAT IS NOT VIEWABLE

As the rear wheel is deflected upward by bumps in the terrain, the swing arm (32) that is pivotally connected at (34) to the motorcycle frame (21) rotates upward, pushing the compression rod (41) into the bell crank (42) that is pivotally secured (31) at its intermediate point to the motorcycle frame. The bell crank rotates on its pivot (31) and compresses, downward against the frame, a spring (46) that is pivotally connected at one end (45) to the bell crank, and at its other end (52) to the motorcycle frame. The interaction of these interconnected parts increases the force on the spring, increasing the rate of resistance to deflection of the wheel with increased movement of the wheel. This varying resistance is the "rising spring rate" of claim 9, and is illustrated in Figure 5 of the '332 patent:

NOTE: OPINION CONTAINS TABLE OR OTHER DATA THAT IS NOT VIEWABLE

The Contract with Suzuki

In October 1978 Richardson entered into a one year Option and License Agreement with the Suzuki Motor Co., Ltd. of Japan ("Suzuki").

The Agreement gave Suzuki the exclusive right to test and evaluate Richardson's suspension, and the exclusive option to acquire an exclusive license to the '332 patent and Richardson's "proprietary technical information, know-how, inventions, and use data", collectively defined in the Agreement as the "Licensed Rights."

The Agreement required Richardson to disclose to Suzuki all technical information, know-how, inventions, use data and design specifications for his suspension, that he possessed or that he acquired during the option period. Suzuki agreed to preserve all such information in confidence, and not to use any of it "for any purpose other than to evaluate for commercial feasibility of manufacture and marketing during the Option Period." Suzuki agreed that this obligation of confidence continued if Suzuki did not exercise the option. Excepted from the confidentiality obligation was all information previously known to Suzuki or at any time generally known to the public.

The Agreement required Richardson to make prototypes of his suspension system for Suzuki's evaluation. Richardson installed his suspension in Suzuki's sample 1978 and 1979 model production motorcycles, and disclosed to Suzuki the technical information and know-how that he possessed, including improvements and other information that he developed during this period. He met frequently with Suzuki engineers and other Suzuki personnel in the United States and in Japan to communicate this information and generally to improve performance and to facilitate testing and evaluation.

There was testimony at trial of initial incredulity on the part of Suzuki engineers concerning Richardson's suspension, of Suzuki's past failures in designing a suspension with the desired characteristics, and of Suzuki's favorable response to the performance of Richardson's suspension. The evidence included internal Suzuki documents made while Suzuki was testing Richardson's suspension, stating that it would "take a long time", perhaps three years, for Suzuki to develop a satisfactory suspension.

In early 1979 Richardson and a colleague Cazort conceived an improvement in the linkage-generated rising rate suspension, which they called the "Alternate Shock Mount" and which they disclosed to Suzuki, accompanied by drawings and blueprints made by Cazort. The difference from the structure described in the '332 patent is that in the Alternate Shock Mount the lower end of the spring is pivotally secured to the swing arm which is pivotally secured to the frame, instead of being pivotally secured directly to the frame, resulting in increased strength.

In May 1979 Richardson's first prototype for Suzuki, wherein Richardson, aided by Cazort, installed his suspension in a Suzuki 1978 production model, was successfully tested in Japan. Testimony at trial included statements attributed to Suzuki's test riders that they could see the bumps but not feel them, and other commentary evidencing a highly favorable reaction to Richardson's suspension.

It was a stipulated fact that after these tests Suzuki made the decision to place the linkage-generated rising rate suspension system into production, and started development work for this purpose.

On October 16, 1979 Suzuki filed a patent application in Japan. The corresponding United States patent, filed on October 8, 1980, claims the Alternate Shock Mount suspension as disclosed by Richardson, and also claims a modification made by Suzuki called the "criss-cross". Suzuki named two of its engineers, Hirohide Tamaki and Manabu Suzuki, as the inventors.

Suzuki twice requested and was granted one-month extensions of its Option and License Agreement with Richardson. In December 1979 Suzuki informed Richardson that it would not exercise the option.

In March 1980 Suzuki began competitive racing in the United States of Suzuki motorcycles using the Alternate Shock Mount suspension, which Suzuki named the "Full Floater". Suzuki met with marked racing success, the Full Floater receiving favorable publicity and high acclaim from the public. Extensive advertising was directed...

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