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Judge OKs findings in Microsoft lawsuits

Plaintiffs in private antitrust lawsuits against the software giant might be able to use findings from the government's earlier case, according to published reports.

In what could be a legal blow to Microsoft, a federal judge has signaled that antitrust plaintiffs who filed recent private lawsuits against the software giant might be able to use findings from the government's earlier case, according to published reports.

The comments by U.S. District Judge Frederick Motz in Baltimore were made during a one-day hearing on a motion by plaintiffs Thursday. The plaintiffs--including number of software makers--asked that they be allowed to base their lawsuits on the antitrust violations that were established in the Justice Department's long-running case against Microsoft.

Last week, a California state court reached a similar conclusion, saying that plaintiffs in the state who have filed a suit against Microsoft can rely on the federal findings.

In this suit, some California computer owners are seeking billions of dollars in damages, claiming they were forced to pay higher prices for software because of Microsoft?s monopoly. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Paul Alvarado ruled that the jurors in the case should be briefed on the federal judge's findings in the government's antitrust case.

A settlement in the federal antitrust case is pending, as is related litigation led by a number of state attorneys general.

In his Thursday ruling, Motz said AOL Time Warner's Netscape division, Sun Microsystems, Be and would not have "a hard case to prove" if he were to grant the motion, according to reports in The Wall Street Journal and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

The motion, in effect, would rule out having to start the next round of antitrust litigation from the very beginning. The judge, however, did not specify which prior facts determined by U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson would be applied to the cases brought by more than 60 private plaintiffs.

"Do I have to sit here and listen to all the facts again?" Motz asked, according to the reports. "(Judge Jackson) found that Microsoft did some pretty bad things."

In April 2000, Jackson ruled that the software giant violated antitrust laws by exploiting its operating system monopoly to dominate the market for Web browsers, where Netscape had held a leading position. A federal appeals court a year later vacated Jackson's order calling for the breakup of Microsoft but upheld the monopoly ruling.

Microsoft, however, said that many of the facts determined by Jackson were voided by the appeals court ruling when it narrowed the company's antitrust liability.

"The question is how and to what extent it is proper to extend the findings of the DOJ case to cases brought by other parties, covering different markets, different claims, different time periods," said Jim Desler, a Microsoft spokesman.

Relying largely on Jackson's findings, Netscape sued Microsoft in January. Sun filed suit in March, in part over Microsoft's handling of Sun's Java software, and is seeking damages that could reach more than $1 billion. Burst, meanwhile, has accused the software giant of bullying and theft.

Several private class-action lawsuits also have been filed.

Motz did not set a date for when he would rule on the motion. While the trial for the class-action suits is set for sometime in April, no dates have been set for the software makers' lawsuits.