By Jason Rantanen, Visiting Scholar at UC Hastings School of Law
Wordtech Systems, Inc. v. Integrated Networks Solutions, Inc. (Fed. Cir. 2010)
In most patent cases, companies are the ones sued as alleged infringers. But sometimes individuals—particularly corporate officers—are also named as defendants. While this often occurs when the company accused of infringing appears to be merely the officers’ alter ego, corporate officers can be liable for indirect infringement even when the corporate veil is not pierced.
In Wordtech, the patentholder (Wordtech) sued both a corporation (INSC) and the two principal employees of that corporation. A jury found the claims infringed both directly and indirectly by the corporation’s products, and awarded damages against all three defendants. The jury also returned a verdict of willful infringement of the asserted patents, and the trial judge trebled the jury’s damages award. The two employees appealed the verdict of liability entered against them, and all three defendants appealed the damages determination and district court’s denial of a motion for leave to amend their answer.
Generally, the “corporate veil” shields officers from liability for tortious conduct occurring in the regular course of their employment, and the employees in Wordtech filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law (“JMOL”) based on this doctrine. The district court denied this motion, allowing the jury to find that the employees infringed the patents.
Individual Liability for Direct Infringement
On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed the denial of the motion for JMOL with respect to direct infringement because Wordtech presented substantial evidence during trial that the corporation was nonexistent under Nevada law and, even if it existed, the corporate veil should be pierced. However, the appellate court agreed with defendants that the lack of any instruction on corporate status constituted plain error, and remanded for further proceedings on personal liability for direct infringement.
Individual Liability for Indirect Infringement
The most interesting aspect of the opinion was the Federal Circuit’s ruling on the indirect infringement claims against the employees. Although the court addressed inducement and contributory infringement separately, it applied virtually identical reasoning to both.
The panel began by affirming the denial of the defendants’ Rule 50(a) and 50(b) motions based on the corporate veil theory, pointing out that “corporate officers who actively assist with their corporation’s infringement may be personally liable for inducing infringement regardless of whether the circumstances are such that a court should disregard the corporate entity and pierce the corporate veil.” Slip Op. at 12. It applied the same reasoning to contributory infringement, concluding that “a corporation does not shield officers from liability for personally participating in contributory infringement.” Slip Op. at 14. Under these rules, the court rejected the individual defendants’ corporate veil defense as irrelevant to issues of inducement and contributory infringement.
Nevertheless, the panel concluded that the employees were entitled to a new trial due to flawed jury instructions, which asked only whether the accused product induced or contributed to infringement. Because a product cannot possess the necessary mens rea elements of inducement or contributory infringement, and there were no jury instructions that might have mitigated the error, the court vacated the verdict of liability.
Addressing the issue of excessive damages in the context of its review of a denial of a motion for a new trial, the panel considered the evidence supporting the jury’s damages finding, which was based on a reasonable royalty under a hypothetical negotiation theory. The panel reviewed the licenses Wordtech relied upon for the hypothetical negotiation and concluded that the verdict was not supported by the evidence and based solely on speculation and guesswork. This portion of the opinion is noteworthy for the court’s detailed discussion of the licenses and its rejection of them on an array of different grounds.
Denial of Motion to Amend
In a curious twist, the trial and subsequent appeal involved no substantive invalidity issues. This was due to defendants’ failure to raise an invalidity defense in their answer, apparently relying on the fact that a previous co-defendant school district had included the defense in its answer. After INSC and its two employees learned that the school district had settled with the patent holder, they moved to amend their answer to add invalidity defenses. The Federal Circuit declined to find that the district court abused its discretion in denying the motion, as it was filed months after the close of discovery despite the defendants’ prior knowledge of the invalidity defenses they intended to raise.
- Ultimately, the favorable result for the individual defendants turned not on the legal question of whether officers can be liable for patent infringement, but rather on flawed jury instructions. This suggests two lessons from this case: first, be aware of potential employee liability, especially for indirect infringement, and second, make sure your jury instructions accurately reflect the elements of the issues being presented to the jury.
- Although the opinion describes the individual defendants as employees, the rules it applies refer to corporate officers. This may be reconciled by the fact that Wordtech presented evidence at trial supporting the conclusion that they were officers. See Slip Op. at 11. Nevertheless, this opinion arguably could be used to apply indirect infringement claims to employees, provided that the necessary mens rea elements are present.
 The panel also noted that Wordtech failed to identify proof of elements required for contributory infringement, including the existence of any direct infringement corresponding to the alleged contributory actions. With respect to inducement, although the opinion is silent on who the officers were inducing to infringe, the patentee’s brief indicates that its theory was that the officers induced the corporation’s direct infringement, similar to the circumstances in Power Lift, Inc. v. Lang Tools, Inc., 774 F.2d 478 (Fed. Cir. 1985).
About Jason: After spending several years in practice as a patent litigator, Jason Rantanen is now looking at law from the academic side and is currently a Visiting Scholar at UC Hastings. His recent research focuses on the concept of mens rea in patent law.