Saying Ahed’s Destruction of Evidence “Profoundly Undermines” His Credibility, Judge Issues Partial Injunction Against Robotic FX—Much of Record Sealed

UPDATED (Nov. 2, 2007, 8:45 pm): In a federal district court ruling issued tonight, Burlington, MA-based iRobot has won a limited victory over Robotic FX, the Illinois-based maker of the Negotiator bomb-detection robot. The company secured a partial injunction that an iRobot attorney says effectively prevents Robotic FX from delivering on a $279.9 million contract to build Negotiators for the U.S. Defense Department, at least in their present form.

Saying that her ruling “is unlikely to satisfy either party,” Judge Nancy Gertner of U.S. District Court in Boston found that some contested aspects of the Negotiator’s design likely violated iRobot trade secrets, but that others did not. To decide the matter conclusively, and expeditiously, she said that a full trial must begin no later than April 7, 2008.

In order to avoid disclosure of trade secrets, Gertner sealed some specifics of her ruling. She did say, however, that her finding hinged on the Negotiator’s tracks. In four days of hearings on the proposed injunction in late September and early October, Robotic FX founder Jameel Ahed testified that he had developed the entire Negotiator, including its tracks, independently. But in making her ruling, Gertner said that Ahed’s admission that he had destroyed evidence in the case “profoundly undermines” his credibility.

IRobot attorney Michael Bunis, of the Boston office of Fish & Richardson, generally praised Gertner’s ruling, despite her feeling neither side would like it. “She found 100 percent that the materials used and the process behind the development of the track were trade secrets, and she absolutely did not credit the defendant’s testimony that he independently developed the tracks,” says Bunis.

“I think we would be happier if she granted the injunction with respect to all of the evidence we put on of trade secrets, and we still think that all of the things were trade secrets,” he says. But, he adds, “given the scope of the injunction we’re pleased, because it effectively stops them from selling the product.”

Robotic FX attorney Patricia Kane Schmidt of Bell, Boyd & Lloyd in Chicago, said she was still digesting the ruling and declined to comment for the time being.

Overall, Gertner found in her 30-page public ruling that iRobot was likely enough to prevail in a full trial over the trade-secret allegations that the company was entitled to an injunction. Otherwise, she said, iRobot would suffer “irreparable harm” and Robotic FX would have a “substantial first-mover advantage” over iRobot in competition for future robotics contracts. “Allowing the Negotiator to be sold would cause the plaintiff to irrevocably lose market share to which it is entitled,” Gertner wrote.

In her ruling, Gertner said that the Negotiator’s tank-like tracks seemed to have been based on technology that Robotic FX founder and CEO Jameel Ahed illegally appropriated from the design of iRobot’s own Packbot robot when he was an employee there prior to June 2002. She enjoined Robotic FX from selling any product that embodies those secrets—meaning, in effect, that the company cannot deliver the Negotiator to the Army, or sell it anywhere else, in its current form.

Gertner found that other aspects of the Negotiator’s design likely did not infringe on iRobot’s trade secrets. Though the specifics of this part of the ruling were also sealed, Bunis said that they involved the robot’s mechanical features.

Judge Gertner had damning words for Ahed, who admitted that he had destroyed or discarded physical evidence and electronic data relating to the case. “His spoilation [sic] of evidence, along with other acts in which Ahed engaged just before he left iRobot, gives rise to a strong inference of consciousness of guilt,” Gertner wrote.

And in the end, Ahed’s credibility was at the crux of the ruling. “Where Ahed’s testimony was critical…the court finds him not to be a credible witness, and accordingly finds that the plaintiff has demonstrated a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits,” Gertner wrote.

Gertner said the precise terms of her injunction would be contained in a separate, sealed order. She told both parties to submit a proposed schedule for discovery in a full trial by November 15. She scheduled a pre-trial conference for March 26, 2008, and said that a full trial must begin no later than April 7, 2008.

To read the complete, 30-page ruling, click here.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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6 responses to “Saying Ahed’s Destruction of Evidence “Profoundly Undermines” His Credibility, Judge Issues Partial Injunction Against Robotic FX—Much of Record Sealed”

  1. Neptune Srimal says:

    As usual, you guys are first, fast and up-to-date. If there is a pulitzer for technical reporting, you should get it.

  2. Wright says:

    FYI… this article doesn’t come up on the first page if you type irobot into google’s News search. All your other articles have. Not sure if you can do anything about it, but you’ve been getting the scoop for the whole story. You should get the cred now too.

  3. Anon says:

    ha! Told you the tracks were stolen.

  4. Wright—thanks for your note. We really appreciate it! We don’t have much control over how Google reads us. In general, we’ve been doing better in Google news, so hopefully this is an aberration. We will stay on this case, so stay tuned. But again, thanks—Bob

  5. Paul says:

    This is a great site and has moved to the top of my list.