Halo Electronics v. Pulse Electronics: More Discretion of District Courts in Granting Enhanced Damages

Tianxiang (Max) Zhou, MJLST Staffer

The recent US Supreme Court case, Halo Electronics v. Pulse Electronics, grants district courts more discretion in determining “enhanced damages.” The previous clear standard of the enhanced damages became murkier after this case and left much room for lower courts to decide what constitutes enhanced damages.

Section 284 of the Patent Act provides that, in a case of infringement, courts “may increase the damages up to three times the amount found or assessed.” Enhanced damages are appropriate only when the patentee proves, by clear and convincing evidence, that the infringer “willfully” infringed the patent. Prior to Halo, courts adopted a bifurcated approach to enhanced damages established in In re Seagate: First, the patentee must show the infringer’s recklessness by clear and convincing evidence, that “the infringer acted despite an objectively high likelihood that its actions constituted infringement of a valid patent.” If the objective standard of recklessness is satisfied, then patentee must demonstrate that the risk was either known or so obvious that it should have been known to the accused infringer.

In Halo, the jury in the district court found a high probability that the infringement was willful. However, the district court refused to grant an enhanced damages based on the two-part test, and found as a matter of law, that the patentee did not prove objective recklessness of the infringer. The Federal Circuit Court affirmed the decision.

However, the Supreme Court reversed the Appeal Court’s decision, and rejected the two-part test set forth in In re Seagate. Specifically, the Supreme Court, citing Octane Fitness LLC v. ICON Heath & Fitness, Inc, found that the test is “unduly rigid, and it impermissibly encumbers the statutory grant of discretion to district courts.” Though rejecting the two-part test, the Supreme Court did not give a clear guideline for lower courts to follow. Halo provides that, “[a]s with any exercise of discretion, courts should continue to take into account the particular circumstances of each case in deciding whether to award damages, and in what amount.” According to the Supreme Court, district courts are “‘to be guided by [the] sound legal principles’ developed over nearly two centuries of application and interpretation of the Patent Act.” Besides, the Supreme Court found that the prior two-part test, which requires a finding of objective recklessness, excludes discretionary punishment of “wanton and malicious pirate” who intentionally infringes another’s patent, and a district may grant enhanced damages even in the absence of a finding such objective recklessness.

Overall,  Halo broadened district courts’ discretion in evaluating facts of patent infringement and granting enhanced damages. While the Halo decision will definitely increase the unpredictability of patent infringement lawsuits, it is still unclear whether the broad discretion of district courts will open the gate of flood of enhanced damages. Besides, before we think about the standard of enhanced damages, it is also worthy to consider the policy implications of enhanced damages, and to ask whether and when enhanced damages are appropriate. Anyway, it would be exciting to see a clearer standard of enhanced damages in future cases, or amendments of laws and regulations.

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