Former MU professor sued for over $3 million, trial nearing end

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COLUMBIA - A jury ruled in favor of the University of Missouri Wednesday night in a lawsuit against a former professor.

Curators accused the professor of interfering with marketing of an innovative antifreeze product.

The university sought $3.7 million in damages, and the jury granted $600,000. The jury said former professor Galen Suppes violated the university's intellectual property rights.

Suppes was a chemical engineering professor of 16 years.

The university was signed on to an exclusive deal with Senergy Chemical to produce a type of propylene glycol made from soy diesel byproducts, a project that Suppes and his company, Renewable Alternatives, were involved in.

The lawsuit said Suppes:

  • Delayed the business relationship between UM, Missouri Soybeans and Senergy Chemical
  • Refused to recognize the University's rights to the product
  • Attempted to profit from the invention himself

Suppes' defense team countered by saying it was negligence and incompetence on the part of the university and its business partners that eventually tanked the deal.

The university's lawyer, Russell Jones, said Suppes ignored his employment contract to sell the product on his own.

"Good fences make good neighbors, and the fences here are the rules," Jones said.

Under University of Missouri rules and regulations, if a faculty member creates an invention in "the scope of his or her duties," the university will have complete ownership and control of the invention. However, when a manufacturer comes to the university with a production deal, the inventor gets one-third of the university's royalties.

Suppes filed a long list of patent applications on his own for the invention under Renewable Alternatives, claiming full intellectual property over the product.

Jones said, when Missouri Soybean approached Suppes over whether he had full rights over the product, he used Renewable Alternatives to assure Missouri Soybean that everything was compliant.

"He started Renewable Alternatives, he owned Renewable Alternatives, he signed the contract for Renewable Alternatives," Jones said.

The prosecution presented more than 50 instances of Suppes deleting or changing language on invention disclosure forms to prevent giving intellectual property rights of propylene glycol to the university.

Defense lawyer George Smith argued the damages the university was seeking against Suppes were much too high.

"It is absurd. It is outrageous," Smith said.

Smith said the university's claimed losses are only speculative, and that the prosecution never mentioned a monetary figure for the cost of production delays or lost patents. Though initial projections for the antifreeze placed production at over four million pounds, only 20 pounds were ever produced

"If there's any money to be given for failure, what's 80 cents times 20? $16," Smith said.

Another point of contention was an abandoned patent that was key to the production of the antifreeze technology. Suppes failed to sign documents getting the patent off the ground, and the university claims he refused to sign despite its reaching out.

The jury was asked to agree with these points presented by the university's attorneys:

  • Suppes failed to execute the assignments requested by the university
  • Suppes filed a patent application without a written waiver from the university
  • Suppes used his company, Renewable Alternatives, to sell Missouri Soybean the new technology while claiming full ownership
  • Suppes was aware of and interfered with business relationships between Missouri Soybean and the university
  • Suppes acted in direct competition with his employer over rights of propylene glycol technology, and therefore breached his duty of loyalty
  • Contract obligations were not performed
  • The university was damaged

[Editor's note: We have edited this story with a verdict.]