A warning against warnings

Today is April 3. Too late for an April fools’ post this year, sorry. My enthusiasm for pranks may have somewhat dwindled lately – maybe a side effect of the overdose of the “fake news” debate that has been going on lately.

As a result, this post will be as unfunny as can possibly be. In fact, the main topic of today – warning letters –  ranks second only to computation of damages, in terms of starkness. You have been warned.

In the case at hand, UK-based Becton Ltd. was the owner of European patent No. EP 1836111 directed to an “apparatus for storing and for independent dispensing of a plurality of packages, in fact a robot for the dispensing of drugs in a pharmacy.

A pharmacy robot training for dispensing drugs.

Back in 2011, Becton sued three French companies, Mekapharm, Phi-Concept and Automatic Logistic, for infringement of the French part of the EP’111 patent, after two initial saisies-contrefaçon (infringement seizures). This was in fact before the patent was even granted, in 2012.

Mekapharm filed an opposition against the patent at the EPO, and requested a stay of the infringement proceedings together with the two other defendants, in view of the opposition. The case was withdrawn from the court’s records in 2013 – probably because Becton did not reply to the request for stay. In February 2014, the opposition division revoked the EP’111 patent. The patent proprietor appealed. In 2015, Becton filed submissions in front of the Tribunal de grande instance (TGI) in order to reinstate the case. They did so on the last possible day before the proceedings would definitively expire.

This also turned out to take place just a few weeks before the oral proceedings in front of the Board of appeal. Unfortunately for the plaintiff, the revocation of the patent was confirmed by the Board. This led Mekapharm and its co-defendants to file a number of counterclaims in front of the TGI.

The first counterclaim concerned the validity of the infringement seizures, and was easily dealt with: due to the retroactive revocation of the patent, the infringement seizures were necessarily invalid and the seized evidence had to be returned to the defendants.

As a second counterclaim, the defendants requested damages because Becton had sent warning letters to their customers. The warning letters were sent by Becton’s patent attorney a few weeks after the infringement seizures. The recipients of the warning letters were the customers identified in Mekapharm’s database, that Becton had had access to owing to one of the seizures.

The court issued its judgment on January 13, 2017. It started by reminding that, pursuant to article L. 615-1 Code de la propriété intellectuelle, infringement acts committed by someone else than a manufacturer of the claimed product only give rise to liability if the infringer is aware of the infringement. This is the usual justification for allowing warning letters in French practice.

On the other hand the court also made it clear that the sender of a warning letter can be held liable if the letter “is sent in a wrongful manner, notably in case of bad faith or obvious abuse“.

Here is now the court’s analysis of the patent proprietor’s behavior:

[…] Further to the infringement seizure conducted on July 22, 2011 at the headquarters of Mekapharm, Becton Ltd. seized Mekapharm’s customer database and sent a […] letter to all of them on September 19, 2011, […] mentioning in particular [the EP’111 application]. The French translation of the claims was enclosed. The recipients’ attention was drawn to article L.615-1 Code de la propriété intellectuelle, the letter being a warning letter under this article. The letter was concluded by an invitation to check whether the equipment of the recipients’ establishment did not infringe the patent rights defined by the apparatus and method claims based on which the EPO intended to grant a European patent. 

The wording of the letter is objective and moderate and therefore does not by itself entail any wrongdoing. However, the premature sending of the letter before the grant of the patent […] and the systematic sending to all of Mekapharm’s customers, whose addresses were obtained a little bit more than one month before, owing to the seizure (these customers being asked to check if the equipment that they acquired from Mekapharm infringed a not yet granted patent) are two circumstances which constitute a dishonest behavior towards Mekapharm, its main competitor on this segment, or at least wrongful negligence

Among the two incriminating circumstances mentioned by the court, one is certainly much more serious than the other. In fact, the sending of warning letters based on a patent application should probably not be considered as misconduct by itself. Indeed, rights can be derived from a patent application: this is called provisional protection; as a result, it should be lawful to make non-manufacturing infringers aware of such protection, in particular so that damages can start accruing.

On the other hand, the use of the seized customer database for the sending of warning letters was clearly questionable. More generally, it is probably fair to say that any use of seized evidence for any purpose other than what is strictly necessary for the demonstration of infringement raises a risk of abuse.

Mekapharm claimed 1,386,000 euros of damages of lost profits, and its co-defendant Phi-Concept claimed 277,000 euros.

The amounts awarded by the TGI were much lower, but certainly not insignificant: 335,000 euros to Mekapharm and 72,600 euros to Phi-Concept.

Mekapharm filed three affidavits from different pharmacies proving that their owners had given up on buying Mekapharm’s robots further to Becton’s warning campaign. The court was therefore convinced that Mekapharm suffered a loss because of the warning letters.

The court also relied on an analysis of sales between 2009 and 2016, showing that Mekapharm’s sales decreased in 2013 and 2014. The judges came to the conclusion that those were lost sales. As the sales picked up again in the following years, no further lost sales were acknowledged.

The figure of 335,000 euros was computed based on Mekapharm’s margin applied to the turnover that should have been generated by the lost sales. Phi-Concept on the other had was the company in charge of marketing Mekapharm’s robots. Its lost profits corresponded to the percentage of the lost sales’ turnover which was specified in the agreement between the two companies.

As a complement, Mekapharm was awarded 20,000 euros for the harm done to its image. On the other hand no abuse of proceedings was acknowledged by the court.

All in all, this judgment is probably a warning letter of its own to patent proprietors, who should always be very careful when they exercise their rights.

CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre 2ème section, January 13, 2017, Becton Dickinson Dispensing UK Ltd. v. Mekapharm et al., RG No. 15/03165.

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