Cacique, Inc., a company founded in 1972 with a $1,300 investment that has become the country's largest manufacturer of Mexican-style cheese products, is awarded $23,946,788 -- including $12.4 million in punitive damages -- in its technology espionage lawsuit filed in 1993 against Stella Foods, Inc., former Stella Foods officer C. Dean Metropoulos, and a number of former Cacique employees.

At the conclusion of the 2 1/2 month trial, the jury found that Stella Foods, Inc. and other defendants misappropriated Cacique's valuable manufacturing and marketing trade secrets. After the jury entered its verdict, Judge Frank Gafkowski, Jr. of Los Angeles Superior Court issued a permanent injunction prohibiting Stella, Metropoulos, and certain former Cacique employees from using Cacique's trade secrets or revealing them to third parties.

"Six long years after we filed this lawsuit, we finally feel vindicated," said Gilbert de Cardenas, founder of Cacique, Inc. based in City of Industry, CA. "This is a victory, not just for Cacique, but for all companies who work hard to provide the public with a quality product and want to protect the secret processes they developed to make that product."

Cacique, the country's leading manufacturer of Mexican style cheese and creams, filed suit against Stella Foods (formerly Stella Cheese) of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin in 1993, claiming that manufacturing giant Stella had wrongfully acquired proprietary technology and production secrets that had taken Cacique many years to develop.

At the time of the events alleged in Cacique's suit, Stella Foods was led by defendant C. Dean Metropoulos. In 1993, defendant William Finicle, formerly Cacique's national marketing manager, joined Stella to become president of its Mexican style cheese division. Cacique's suit states that Stella Foods strategically retained the services of Finicle and other former Cacique employees in order to learn Cacique's trade secrets to assist Stella in developing its capability for manufacturing Mexican style cheese that Stella intended to sell in competition with Cacique. In making its finding that Stella had, in fact, misappropriated Cacique's trade secrets, the jury found that Metropoulos' and Finicle's misappropriation was "willful and malicious."

The jury also made a separate finding that Metropoulos and Finicle "were guilty of malice or fraud," and had induced breach of contract. The jury also found that Finicle breached fiduciary duties owed to Cacique.

The jury also entered findings that defendants Robert Fletcher, Alan Farrell, and Daniel Da Silva, as well as defendants Metropoulos, Finicle, and Stella Foods misappropriated Cacique's trade secrets and engaged in unfair competition.

Cacique was represented by Allan Browne and Benjamin D. Scheibe of Browne & Woods, Beverly Hills and George C. Salmas, Century City.

"The American jury is the voice of the public's conscience," said attorney Salmas. "In this case the jury sent a strong message to anyone who would try to wrongfully take another's trade secrets: You will be held accountable."

Cacique, Inc. manufactures more than 100 products in its state-of-the-art, computerized facility in Southern California. The company was founded in 1972 by Gilbert and Jennie de Cardenas who started Cacique with an investment of $1,300. The company's total sales this year are expected to exceed $100 million.

At press time, all of the defendants had filed appeals of the judgments against them and it is expected that the matter could be tied up in the appellate courts for as much as five more years.