A jury Wednesday ruled against two former UC Davis scientists who sued the university over control of a priceless collection of strawberry-breeding plants they’d developed over more than two decades. Capping five days of testimony, the jury found that the two scientists had violated their agreements with UC Davis by using the breeding plants without the university’s permission.
UC Davis hailed the verdict as a victory for its plant-breeding program, and the scores of farmers in California and elsewhere that rely on the university’s know-how.
The berries developed in UC Davis’ greenhouses generate roughly half of California’s $2 billion-a-year strawberry crop, and have produced tens of millions of dollars in royalty payments for the university over the years. UC Davis considers itself the breeder of choice for the mom and pop farmers of California, offering its technology at a discount.
“This federal jury decision is good news for public strawberry breeding at UC Davis and all strawberry farmers throughout California and the world,” said Helene Dillard, dean of UC Davis’ College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, in a prepared statement.
The strawberry custody fight revolves around Douglas Shaw and Kirk Lawson, who were stars of UC Davis’ plant-breeding system. Over two decades, they developed a host of plumper and sweeter strawberries and helped solidify California as the world leader in strawberry production.
Relations with the university soured, though, and they quit in 2014 to form their own company, California Berry Cultivars, in Orange County. The company is run by a former secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, A.G. Kawamura.
After leaving the university, Shaw and Larson tried to obtain a license to use the breeding plants. The university refused. That led to lawsuits, with Shaw and Larson demanding $45 million in damages and accusing UC Davis of stifling innovation.
For its part, UC Davis accused its former employees of violating their “duties of loyalty” to the university by taking some of the UC Davis plants to Spain, cross-breeding them, and bringing the offspring back to California for commercial use, according to university lawyer Jacob Appelsmith.