The Federal Circuit’s recent decision in Exmark v. Briggs & Stratton echoes the central point in our prior analysis of Halo v. Pulse that timing matters in determining whether an accused infringer did so willfully. The case leaves us with two key practical implications:
- Early investigation of patent threats can help avoid a finding of willful infringement; positions developed at the time of litigation are too late and irrelevant.
- Prior art-based invalidity positions can form the basis for a subjective intent sufficient to defeat willfulness.
Exmark sued Briggs for infringement of U.S. Patent No. 5,987,863, relating to high-end lawn mowers. After a jury trial, the Nebraska district court awarded $48 million to the plaintiff after doubling the damages as a result of willful infringement. Notably, the trial took place before the Supreme Court’s decision in Halo v. Pulse, which meant that the district court applied the now-overruled Seagate standard for willfulness. After determining that Briggs’ defenses were objectively unreasonable, the trial court precluded Briggs from presenting prior art evidence at trial. Briggs’ hope was to use the prior art evidence to support a subjective state of mind that lacked willfulness.
On appeal, the Federal Circuit held that the trial court’s finding of objective unreasonableness did not comport with the Halo standard, which only requires consideration of subjective intent. The court further found that Briggs should be allowed to present prior art evidence in a new trial, conditioned on the timing at which Briggs considered it:
The district court must reconsider its decision to exclude evidence of the prior art during the jury trial on willfulness to determine whether Briggs had developed any views about the prior art at the time of accused infringement or whether the evidence only relates to Briggs’ litigation-inspired defenses.
The Federal Circuit vacated the damages award and the enhancement due to willfulness, and remanded to the district court for a new trial on those and other issues.
The Exmark case is a straightforward but significant application of the willfulness doctrine after the Supreme Court’s standard-shifting decision in Halo v. Pulse. In Halo, the Court made it easier for a patentee to obtain enhanced damages from a willful infringer by rejecting the “objectively reckless” prong while also lowering the burden of proof from “clear and convincing” to “preponderance of the evidence.” In practice, the former standard allowed even blatant copiers to escape liability for enhanced damages if they could come up with a reasonable non-infringement or invalidity position at the time of litigation. Now, the focus is on the subjective knowledge, intent, and behavior of the infringer at the time of infringement.
Cases following Halo have begun to shape the new willfulness doctrine. While Exmark does not include an extensive discussion regarding willfulness, the takeaways are clear. If Briggs could have shown that it had developed prior art-based invalidity positions when it allegedly committed the infringement, then it would have been able to use that evidence to prove a lack of subjective willfulness and avoid enhanced damages. But if no pre-litigation analysis had taken place, then the trial court would exclude the prior art evidence, and Briggs would likely be liable for up to three times the jury’s damages verdict.
Other Recent Cases
In Presidio Components, Inc. v. Am. Tech. Ceramics Corp., 2016-2607 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 21, 2017), the Federal Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of enhanced damages even when the jury determined that the defendant willfully infringed. An engineer for ATC knew about the patent-in-suit for years, which knowledge contributed to the jury’s finding that ATC behaved with reckless disregard. However, due to a later re-examination that resulted in amended claims, the period of infringement was set to begin on a later date — a time when the parties were already well into litigation (the court had issued claim constructions and ATC had developed its defenses). So while the jury found that ATC’s conduct was willful, the district court recognized these “unique circumstances” and ultimately declined to enhance damages because, looking at ATC’s conduct after the relevant date, the case was a “garden-variety” patent infringement action. Had the patent not undergone a re-exam that ended up resetting the infringement period, logic suggests that enhanced damages would have been much more likely.
In Tinnus Enterprises, LLC, Zuru Ltd. v. Telebrands Corporation, 6:16-cv-00033 (E.D. Tex. Nov. 21, 2017), several defendants are currently staring down the barrel of potential liability of up to $36 million (if trebled) after a recent jury verdict of willful infringement. The facts of the case relating to willfulness have not yet come to light, as much of the briefing and trial records are under seal, but we will monitor the case as it makes its way through post-trial motions and appeal. This is a high-profile case against a so-called “knock-off company” that has garnered much attention.
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