Bad actors in patent litigation can face serious consequences. Infringers who are found to “willfully” infringe may be subject to trebled damages. Patentees who assert weak claims in bad faith can be ordered to pay the defendant’s attorneys’ fees. These remedies are of such importance to the patent system today that the Supreme Court reinvigorated both of the respective doctrines in back-to-back landmark decisions in 2014 (Octane Fitness) and 2016 (Halo Electronics).
Those decisions have helped district courts more effectively punish and deter misconduct. But the Supreme Court neglected to address a critical part of these remedies — whether and to what extent they should be tried to a jury. Under current law, willfulness can be tried to a jury but bad-faith enforcement cannot. This means that plaintiffs alone can legitimately cast aspersions at defendants that profoundly color the case and the jury’s views of it.
It has long been held that willfulness is an issue triable by jury, but courts have reached that conclusion without conducting the proper analysis, which requires delving into the historical treatment of the issue. This article performs that analysis, finding that the Seventh Amendment does not guarantee a right to try willfulness to a jury. Nor does the Seventh Amendment require that questions of bad-faith enforcement be tried to juries. Both issues lack clear historical antecedents or analogues that would suggest juries decided the issues when the Seventh Amendment was ratified.
Whether such issues should be tried to juries likely comes out in the negative as well. Juries are ill-equipped to appreciate the proper significance and context of evidence touching on willfulness and bad-faith enforcement, which typically includes matters of claim construction, discovery, legal interpretation, or settlement discussions. And evidence about a party’s culpability can easily bleed into the threshold liability and damages determinations, resulting in unsupportable compromise verdicts on those issues.
The best practice would be to try neither issue, but as it is, with willfulness being submitted to juries, a separate question is whether that alone justifies trying bad-faith enforcement to juries as well. This article demonstrates that basic fairness, as well as evidentiary practicalities for how such issues are proven, compels that both issues be tried together, and to the same jury, to ensure that juries hear both sides of the story before they assign moral blame.