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Big Business: Home Depot Gets its Reward

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How deeply gratifying : )

WEST PALM BEACH — When a Home Depot executive was told inventor Michael Powell might have a claim against the hardware giant for stealing an invention that keeps store employees safe, his reaction was swift and vulgar.

"(Expletive) Michael Powell," the executive said. "Let him sue us."

The crass response typifies the company's attitude toward Powell, who crafted a simple, yet ingenious, way to keep Home Depot employees from slicing off their fingers while they're cutting wood for customers, a federal judge said Monday.

"Home Depot knew exactly what it was doing," U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley said. "They simply pushed Mr. Powell away and they did it totally and completely for their own economic benefit."

Calling the company callous and arrogant, he ordered it to pay the former Boca Raton man $3 million in punitive damages. That's on top of the $15 million a jury in March said the company should pay him for stealing his so-called "Safe Hands" gadget that is now affixed to radial saws at nearly 2,000 Home Depots nationwide.

The damages for Home Depot don't end there. Hurley also ordered the firm to pay Powell's attorneys the $2.8 million they say they are owed, and to pay Powell an estimated $1 million in interest annually on the judgment. The interest began building in 2006 and will continuing accruing until Home Depot pays up.

The roughly $25 million judgment could have been avoided had the company agreed in 2004 to pay Powell the $2,000 he offered to charge for each device. That bill would have come to $4 million.

Instead, Hurley said, the firm dispatched workers to duplicate the saw guards Powell allowed them to test in eight stores in Georgia and California.

"It's sad to say, but Home Depot literally organized a theft of the Powell invention," he said.

Powell, who now lives in North Carolina, declined to comment on the verdict on the advice of his attorneys . Home Depot attorneys also declined to comment.

A company spokesman said Home Depot disagreed with the ruling and is considering an appeal.

"We have a strong commitment to dealing with our business partners fairly and with integrity, which is how we've maintained long-standing relationships with literally tens of thousands of suppliers over the past 30-plus years," company spokesman Stephen Holmes wrote in an e-mail. "We would never condone actions that intentionally violate another company's intellectual property rights."

However, Hurley said, that's not what the evidence showed during Monday's day-long hearing or during a nearly monthlong trial.

Recognizing it was a Goliath to Powell's David, the company sought to cut him out of any profit for the invention that saved the company millions in worker's compensation claims. In the year before the devices were installed, the company paid out $1 million in claims related to injuries caused by the saw. In the year after the gadgets were installed, it paid out $7,000.

He also criticized Home Depot attorneys for their handling of the case, which he described as "nasty, mean litigation." For instance, when Powell's attorney asked for records of injuries caused by the saws, Home Depot attorneys handed over 6,000 documents. In a spot check of 2,300 pages, Powell's attorneys found one document that dealt with a saw injury.

"This is the kind of activity that people look at that engenders outright disgust for the legal profession," Hurley said. "It is shameful."

Note the calibre of the defence lawyers?

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