A ruling not so Great for Manitou

In a rather exceptional move, two patent attorneys professional organizations took sides in a lawsuit between two private companies.

In fact, the CNCPI (Compagnie nationale des conseils en propriété industrielle) and the ACPI (Association des conseils en propriété industrielle) filed an intervention in an appeal on points of law in front of the Cour de cassation.

I know this may sound like a nerdy and rather unamusing April Fools’ day prank, but it is not. I have temporarily given up on those since reality has started catching up with the imagination of jesters on a daily basis (anyone up to a Brexit joke these days?).

So, yes there was indeed such an intervention, in the litigation pitching British company JC Bamford Excavators Ltd. (JCB) against Manitou BF.

How did we get there and how did this all end?

JCB specializes in the production of manufacturing equipment e.g. for construction and agriculture. Manitou is a French manufacturer of fork lifts and other heavy equipment.

JCB owns in particular two European patents (EP 1532065 and EP 2263965) that it believes have been infringed by Manitou on the French territory.

On April 26-27, 2017, JCB rented a telehandler called Manitou MT 1840 and had tests performed on this device by two JCB employees, in the presence of two French patent attorneys. These tests were aimed at demonstrating infringement of the patents at stake. The two patent attorneys involved in this testing issued a report for JCB.

On May 5, 2017, JCB filed a complaint for patent infringement against Manitou.

A few weeks later, on June 1, 2017, JCB filed a request for an ex parte order to be authorized to carry out an infringement seizure in Manitou’s premises. It is somewhat unusual for an infringement seizure to be requested after the infringement proceedings have already been initiated, but it is certainly possible to proceed in such a “reverse” order. The ex parte order was granted the next day.

On June 16, 2017, the infringement seizure was carried out by a bailiff in Manitou’s premises. It must have been a rather exhausting one for all those concerned, as it lasted until 2:15 am the next day…

The bailiff was assisted during the seizure by two patent attorneys – as is almost always the case. But the important point here is that the two patent attorneys at stake were those who had assisted JCB with the April testing.

One week later, Manitou filed a motion for canceling the infringement seizure order. The judge rejected the motion in another order dated October 5, 2017. Manitou appealed.

On March 27, 2018, the Paris Cour d’appel set aside the October 2017 order, and canceled the infringement seizure order of June 2017 – thus also canceling at the same time the bailiff’s infringement seizure report.

The court expressed the following principle:

[…] The right to a fair trial set out in article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights [ECHR] requires that the expert assisting the bailiff should be independent from the parties […]. 

The court then reasoned as follows:

Mr. […] and Mr. […] were designated twice in the same infringement lawsuit between [JCB] and Manitou; a first time on April 26, 2017, upon [JCB]’s request, to perform tests on a Manitou MT 1840 vehicle, and to hand out on May 4, 2017 a private expert report describing the features of the material which was examined; and then by way of an order dated June 2, 2017, in which they were designated as judicial experts to assist the bailiff during the infringement seizure relating again to the MT 1840 model, already examined during the private expertise, as well as to further Manitou models. Obviously, and regardless of their status which requires compliance with rules of ethics, patent attorneys cannot be designated as experts by a judicial authority while they have previously been involved as experts on behalf of one of the parties in the same case […], without violating the impartiality principle required by article 6 [ECHR]. Their designation was illegal, so that the June 2, 2017 order shall be canceled, and the October 5, 2017 order shall be set aside.

JCB filed an appeal on points of law in front of the Cour de cassation.

The Cour de cassation: the Great Manitou of French litigation.

The March 2018 ruling sent some shock waves through the French patent profession as it seemed to establish new requirements for patent attorneys to be able to assist a bailiff during an infringement seizure.

Hit by these shock waves, the two abovementioned patent attorney professional organizations stepped in, in support of JCB’s case.

Hot from the dematerialized press, here is now the judgment issued by the cassation judges a few days ago, which the Cour de cassation set aside the March 2018 ruling of the Paris Cour d’appel.

Locating the key part of a cassation judgment is a rather easy task. Such judgments are so brief that there is hardly any meat at all around the key part. So here it comes (broken down into shorter sentences):

The fact that the patent attorney of the seizing party had, on the initiative of the latter, established a report describing the features of the product at stake, does not prevent a later designation, upon request of the seizing party, as an expert to assist the bailiff in a patent infringement seizure. [Indeed], his mission is not subjected to a duty of impartiality since it is not an expertise under articles 232 and following of the Code de procédure civile. [Therefore], by ruling in this manner, the Cour d’appel breached the above legal provisions [i.e. article 6 ECHR and article L. 615-5 Code de la propriété intellectuelle].  

I bet this ruling will come as a relief for most of the patent profession.

The mistake made by the Cour d’appel seems to have been to consider the patent attorneys assisting the bailiff as court-appointed judicial experts. They are not.

They are supposed to help the bailiff find evidence of infringement, they are not there to provide an impartial recommendation to a judge regarding the outcome of a discussion.

Calling upon patent attorneys to assist the bailiff, as opposed to employees of the infringement plaintiff for instance (which is prohibited), offers a number of guarantees for the seized party, due to the rules of ethics that patent attorneys have to follow. For instance, a patent attorney should not and will not communicate to the plaintiff any confidential information that he/she becomes privy to during the seizure.

But on the other hand there is no requirement for the patent attorney not to have advised the plaintiff in the past – including regarding the case at hand.

By the way, the CNCPI and ACPI’s intervention in the appeal was found admissible.

This may pave the way for similar interventions in the future in case the rights and prerogatives of patent attorneys are at stake in a litigation.


CASE REFERENCE: Cour de cassation, ch. commerciale, March 27, 2019, JC Bamford Excavators Ltd. v. Manitou BF, appeal No. H 18-15.005.

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