U.S. Supreme Court- Patent Suit Awards, Punitive Damages

Brent Kendall reported this week at The Wall Street Journal Online that, “The Supreme Court considered whether to make it easier to win larger financial damages in patent-infringement cases, an issue that has split the Obama administration from a number of leading technology companies.

“The justices during an hourlong oral argument spent much of their time voicing competing concerns about the consequences of the court’s eventual opinion, which will address the availability of punitive damages when someone intentionally infringes on a patented invention. Punitive damages, financial awards that go beyond actual damages, are used in patent judgments to punish particularly egregious behavior.

Justice Stephen Breyer said opening the door wider to such damages in patent cases could deter innovation and create crippling liability for small businesses and tech startups that can’t afford sophisticated patent lawyers. Patent law is ‘designed to help the small businessman, not to hurt him,’ he said.”

The Journal article pointed out that, “Raising points on the other side was Justice Elena Kagan, who said a legal standard adopted by a lower court that hears patent cases is so stringent that winning punitive damages is tough even when a company purposely copies another firm’s patented product. As long as there is some plausible legal defense for its actions, it can avoid punitive damages for bad behavior, she said.”

Mr. Kendall explained that, “Federal law says trial judges may award enhanced infringement damages up to three times the amount of actual damages in a case. The Supreme Court is deciding how much leeway judges have to conclude that such damages are appropriate.”

“A decision is expected by the end of June,” the article noted.

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