MACHIAS, Maine — Sports had boxers Ali and Frazier.
Consumers every day watch Coke go toe-to-toe with retailing rival Pepsi.
Closer to home, 11 years and three lawsuits later, the balsam rivalry in Washington County between Worcester Wreath Co. in Harrington and Whitney Originals LLC of Machias persists, with fuel added to the fire this week by a federal court ruling in a patent infringement suit brought against Whitney by Worcester in November 2010.
The latest legal dispute centers on the design and decor used in making a miniature, tabletop Christmas tree now made by Whitney and popular with L.L. Bean holiday shoppers. For many years, Worcester filled L.L. Bean orders for tabletop trees, but lost the contract in 2008 to Whitney.
The latest Worcester lawsuit contends that Whitney deliberately copied Worcester’s minitrees design, despite existing patents and an earlier agreement between the two competing companies regarding the product.
Even though both companies operate out of Washington County, the most recent lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor, because of claims that Whitney violated federal patents.
In the suit, Worcester claims unfair competition, trade infringement, deceptive trade practices, breach of contract and patent infringement by Whitney. The suit also asked the court for a permanent injunction to prevent Whitney’s future creation and sale of the trees.
In his 14-page ruling issued May 25, U.S. District Judge George Z. Singal ruled that, while Worcester’s claims may have merit, they need to be explored in state court, not federal court. Although federal patent rights are at issue, the ruling says, the suit’s concerns focus on contract issues, which are the legal purview of state courts, not federal courts.
Worcester attorney Charles Gilbert of Bangor said Thursday the suit will be pursued on the state level.
“This summary judgment was not a dismissal of the merits of the case,” Gilbert said. “It was one of those ‘take this case to the court down the street’ rulings, which we will do.”
David Whitney, who owns Whitney Originals, said he is weary of dealing with Worcester lawsuits. He also realizes that Morrill Worcester, who owns his rival’s firm, is free to continue his 11-year history of legal actions.
“He’s filed three suits against us, and so far we’ve prevailed in each one,” Whitney said Friday. “I don’t appreciate being sued all the time, but we live in a system where anyone can sue anyone for any reason. Deep down I wish the guy well. I’m not out to make enemies; I’m out to make friends. It’s easier that way.”
Whitney says the fallout from Worcester lawsuits being filed year after year is the perception that the balsam industry is a snakepit of turmoil.
“When these legal battles come out in the paper, it makes the wreath business look bad,” Whitney said. “We look like a bunch of people who can’t get along. That’s not true. That isn’t the way of the industry. In general we do get along.”