Tillman Wins Lawsuit

April 27, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Local business owner and developer Roosevelt Tillman feels vindicated after a jury unanimously voted in his favor, ending a two-year legal battle with an Ohio firm that accused his Veteran Medical Products company of patent infringement and misappropriation of trade secrets. 

Bionix Development Corp., a global manufacturer and supplier of medical devices and radiation therapy products, attempted to stop Tillman’s fledgling medical device company from manufacturing and marketing an ear curette product, a device used to clean wax from the ear canal.

Tillman refers to it as “a clear case of David versus Goliath.”

Originally, Bionix charged that Veteran Medical’s Clean Ear Disposable Ear Curette was basically a carbon copy of its patented Bionix Safe Ear Curette. The main difference between the two was that Tillman’s product had a ribbed handle for better gripping. As the case evolved, the judge threw out the copycat aspect before the case went to trial, said Tillman’s counsel, Eugene Rath III of Grand Rapids-based Price, Heneveld, Cooper, DeWitt & Litton LLP.

Tillman Industries is responsible for project management and the manufacture of all Veteran Medical products. The ear curette was the first product Tillman’s medical device company had developed, and it was done in partnership with Spectrum Health. Spectrum served as the research and development arm for Veteran Medical in the development and testing of the product, and clinical staff input led to several refinements in the curette’s design. Chris Baskel, director of supply chain management for Spectrum Health, said after four refinements, the clinicians believed they had “the perfect ear curette.” Baskel connected Tillman with VHA, a large group purchasing organization serving more than 2,400 leading health care organizations nationwide.

Tillman launched Veteran Medical’s ear curette in the summer of 2005. In early September 2005, Andrew Milligan, Bionix founder and president, began contacting Tillman, accussing him of patent infringement and demanding that he cease infringement. Milligan accused Classic Die, a local supplier of tooling to Veteran Medical, of infringement, as well.

A few weeks later, Milligan added misappropriation of alleged trade secrets to the charge, claiming Veteran Medical, five of its employees and Tillman Industries had stolen its business plan information on its patented ear curette. Bionix maintained that Veteran Medical developed its curette line based on the design used by The Tech Group, a Grand Rapids-based contract manufacturer that was producing Bionix products. Five former Tech Group employees had jumped ship and moved over to Veteran Medical before the the legal ruckus started.

“Bionix had early on in the case — and throughout much of the case — alleged patent infringement against my clients, and actually called my clients and a local supplier threatening patent infringement lawsuits,” Rath said. “Bionix did end up bringing that charge into the lawsuit and later conceded there was no infringement.”

Upon being threatened with lawsuits, Tillman’s group filed suit in late September 2005 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan against Bionics and its president, charging that Bionix had unfairly competed in the marketplace by accusing Veteran Medical and the other plaintiffs of patent infringement and misappropriation of trade secrets, Rath said. The plaintiffs asked the court for a declaratory judgment action that would prohibit Bionex, its officers, agents and affilitates from continuing to make false statements to suppliers, customers or prospective customers of Veteran Medical. About a week later, Bionix filed a counter suit in Ohio’s Northern U.S. District Court. The Ohio case never really went forward, Rath said.

Right before the jury trial began, two of the five employees named in the case were voluntarily dismissed by Bionix, Rath noted. The jury trial got under way in the Western District just this month, on April 14, and the verdict was handed down April 18. The jury deliberated only three and a half hours and unanimously agreed that Bionix had engaged in unfair competition. Tillman’s companies and the three individuals involved were awarded damages totaling $199,000. Rath is filing a motion this week to try to recover Tillman’s legal expenses, as well. 

“If you look at the transcripts from the trial, he (Milligan) had nothing — zero,” Tillman said. “He actually dropped the patent infringement before we went to summary disposition because he was wrong. Thank God we had the resources to stay the course and to fight, because we were right.”

Tillman noted that Milligan has tried to sue other manufacturers of ear curettes, as well. 

“The product has been around a long time. He can’t say he owns the market and keep everybody out of the market. He tried to do that to us,” Tillman remarked.

Tillman believes his reputation and that of his company have been harmed by Bionix’s efforts to pursue charges against them.

“A lot of people in town know me,” Tillman said. “When they saw the article about the lawsuit, they wondered, ‘What’s going on with Roosevelt?” he said. “We’re small and just trying to build traction in this industry, and that was the last thing we needed.”

Baskel has been a lead proponent of Veteran Medical and its development of the ear curette product, and he continues to work hand in hand with Tillman. He, too, was disheartened when Bionix leveled charges against Tillman. 

“The bottom line is there are few, if any, African American medical device manufacturers in this country,” Baskel said. “It’s not easy for a black entreprenuer to get going in this industry. That’s why I’m determined to work with Roosevelt. To me it’s about diversity in health care because that’s what I believe in.”

Veteran Medical’s ear curette was patented in March 2007.

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