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Federal judge sours on fight over California strawberries

A quarrel over lucrative California strawberry strains withered in court Tuesday after a federal judge picked apart a corporate seller’s patent infringement lawsuit against the former chief of a legendary breeding institute.

Driscoll’s, the self-proclaimed “world’s fresh berry leader,” claims when Douglas Shaw split from the University of California in 2014 to form his own business, he took some of the company’s proprietary strawberry varieties. In its lawsuit, Driscoll’s says Shaw used at least four of its strains to crossbreed a competing brand of strawberries.    

The case stems from an underlying dispute between the University of California, Davis, and Shaw, in which a federal jury found Shaw stole plants to kickstart his strawberry startup. Shaw and another renowned UC Davis researcher started California Berry Cultivars and began producing varieties without the university’s consent.

UC Davis responded with a conversion and patent infringement suit and the jury eventually found Shaw infringed on nine strawberry patents. Under a settlement, Shaw agreed to return certain plants and seeds and allow UC Davis to test future varieties for university-owned DNA.

While UC Davis’ lawsuit against Shaw grew into a high-profile trial, Driscoll’s’ isn’t yet coming to fruition. On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Troy Nunley tossed all the patent allegations and let just one claim for declaratory relief survive. He cast the complaint as vague, saying Driscoll’s didn’t clearly allege when or how Shaw “personally took part in the commission.”

“Driscoll’s, therefore, fails to adequately plead sufficient facts to find Shaw personally liable for patent infringement,” Nunley’s 16-page order states.

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