Southwestern Energy Production Co. v. Berry-Helfand

On July 10, 2013, a Texas Court of Appeals affirmed a jury’s award for damages in a trade secret misappropriation case stemming from proprietary data for natural gas extraction locations. The plaintiff, Toby Berry-Helfand, had conducted extensive geological research to determine locations likely to contain natural gas deposits. After sharing her findings under a confidentiality agreement with defendant Southwestern Energy Production Company (SEPCO) in hopes of forming a partnership, SEPCO declined to partner with Helfand, but commenced drilling in the locations recommended by Helfand’s research.

In affirming the jury’s award of $11,445,000, the court held that the jury had correctly applied the reasonable royalty approach in reaching this figure. Reasonable royalty, a measure of damages borrowed from patent law, is used in trade secret cases where there is no way to quantify the loss to the plaintiff. The approach attempts to determine what the parties would have agreed to as a reasonable licensing fee for the use of the trade secret, calculated at the time the misappropriation occurred.

Here, the court found that the damages awarded, roughly 3% of the revenue SEPCO generated from the drilling sites identified in Helfand’s research, represented a reasonable licensing fee for that information. While courts consider a number of factors in calculating a reasonable royalty, the court here gave particular weight to several factors. Specifically, the court noted that rates used in agreements between Helfand and other drilling companies for comparable information, the extent to which SEPCO made use of Helfand’s trade secrets, and the portion of the profit attributable to Helfand rather than to SEPCO were of particular importance.

While the court affirmed the jury’s award, it also held that the equitable remedy of disgorgement was not appropriate in this case since there was no fiduciary relationship between Helfand and SEPCO.

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