Don’t fall for lift copycats or patent law violators

Trade Secrets & Patent Infringement article: v3

A costly lesson learned by TopLift Pros: Committing to offshore manufacturing means potentially trusting your trade secrets to those with little regard for patent law.

Frederick Hall is an entrepreneur and inventor. He’s also been a Jeep Wrangler owner, and like other Wrangler owners, experienced first hand the hassles of removing and storing a Wrangler hardtop. Always the problem solver, Hall invented a device that could easily lift off a Wrangler hardtop and store the top safely above a Wrangler’s hood – a perfect solution for hardtop owners with space-challenged garages. Realizing the prospective market for his invention, Hall launched TopLift Pros.

Hall proceeded to protect his invention with a patent. The patent generally described a one- or two-legged device that allowed a single person to remove and to replace the hardtop on a convertible Jeep Wrangler. The scope of the TopLift Pro patent included hardtop lifting devices powered by motor or hand crank as Hall projected innovations and enhancements he would integrate into product variations down the road.

Patent protected, Hall began to produce TopLift Pro lifts – initially out of his garage and later through a number of domestic contract manufacturers. Unfortunately, they could not keep up with volume demands or cost caps. So Hall was forced to take production offshore. He met with John Cullinan of Lynx Precision Products Corporation, a contract manufacturer with connections in China and an office in Shanghai. On February 6, 2018, a confidentiality agreement was signed to launch the business arrangement. Soon, TopLift Pro orders were shipping across the US.

On December 6, 2018, Cullinan and Hall met again at TopLift Pro in Melbourne, Florida, to review Hall’s latest version of the TopLift Pro. With multiple witnesses at the meeting table, Hall provided Cullinan information of a one-legged lift to use as reference to build a prototype of the new hardtop lift for TopLift Pro. Once the prototype was approved by TopLift Pro, Cullinan was to manage the manufacturing of the new lifts in China as well as shipping them to the US. Heading into 2019, problems with Lynx began to arise.

First there were unexplained delays in sending the prototype to TopLift Pro. Then a prepaid shipment of 750 lift units was delayed. It was finally delivered DDU (Delivered Duty Unpaid) instead of DDP (Delivered Duty Paid) which required TopLift Pro to pay for international shipping twice. Concerns escalated even more when it became apparent that Cullinan failed in paying suppliers involved in TopLift Pro production. All of these issues began to made sense when the RollnJack lift, a product very similar to the drawing of the single-legged TopLift Pro lift, showed up for sale online.

The RollnJack lift was produced by Lynx, the same company owned by Cullinan and commissioned to produce TopLift Pro lifts. The single legged lift was clearly a slightly modified version of Hall’s concept – a clear violation of their agreement. Unfortunately, TopLift Pro’s lawyers didn’t act fast enough to effectively shutdown the patent infringement. Enforcing the patent was muddled and delayed even more when Cullinan moved to Vietnam where process servers could not reach him. While due process was being dragged out, Cullinan was marketing online and claiming that he was the inventor of the hardtop hoist. TopLift Pro was losing considerable marketshare and orders. Concurrently, RollnJack rolled in millions in sales.

By September of 2023, TopLift Pro finally had their day in court. What came out in the proceedings was telling. While under oath, John Cullinan admitted he had never owned a Jeep Wrangler and therefore had no awareness of why there would be a need or market demand for a device to easily remove and store a Wrangler hardtop. This testimony contradicted a Youtube video of Cullinan promoting the RollnJack in which he states his inspiration for inventing a Wrangler hardtop hoist was his inability to easily remove his own hardtop.

So if his statement was a lie, what was his inspiration for RollnJack? Was it the theft of TopLift Pro trade secrets that were confidentially shared with Cullinan and protected by an NDA? Other evidence came to light after testimony from former Lynx employees further damaged Cullinan’s defense. In the end, the Court ordered Lynx to cease and desist all direct or indirect advertising, selling, manufacturing, or distributing its RollnJack product within the United States. Was this ruling to be a final vindication for TopLift Pro? Not really.

Axim USA, owned by Danny Mixa located in St. Petersburg, Florida, is the company John Cullinan and Lynx commissioned to market and sell their RollnJack lifts online. Though Cullinan claimed he had no control of what Axim sells online, he admitted under oath that he was receiving half of Axim’s revenue from RollnJack sales. And because RollnJacks are still being marketed on Amazon after the court ruling, both Lynx and Axim are now in direct violation of the court order.

What’s next for TopLift Pro? At the advice of their attorneys, the TopLift Pro suit against Cullinan, Lynx and potentially Axim will now focus on theft of trade secrets instead of patent infringement. Why? In trade secret cases, TopLift Pro can not only claim lost profits and attorney fees, they can also claim unjust enrichment which opens a whole new level of damages to seek. The next federal court trial is set for September 2024. TopLift Pro may finally prevail but at what cost…something to consider for any inventor considering offshore manufacturing and the unscrupulous middlemen that sometimes come with it.