Supreme Court Limits Laches Defense
In SCA Hygiene Products Aktiebolag et al. v. Quality Baby Products, LLC, et al., No. 15-927, 580 U.S. ___ (2017), the Supreme Court held that the defense of laches is not appropriate when suit is brought within the six year limitations period for patent infringement.
Laches is an equitable doctrine used to limit the recoverability of damages when a suit is filed after unreasonable delay. In patent law, damages are already limited by a “statute of limitations” set forth in 35 U.S.C. § 286, which limits damages to only cover infringement that occurred within the six year period prior to the filing of the complaint. Contrary to typical limitations periods, the limitations period of 35 U.S.C. § 286 is counted backward from the filing of a complaint, not forward from the time of infringement. However, this existing limitation on damages weighed heavily in the Court’s ruling. The Court found that a laches defense would override the statutory damages period set forth by Congress.
The highly-anticipated ruling mirrored that of Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., 572 U.S. ___ (2014), which addressed the defense of laches in copyright law. On its face, the ruling looks to be favorable for patent owners by eliminating a defense in infringement proceedings and allowing plaintiffs to bring suit at a time of their choosing, which will likely be after a favorable six years of damages have accrued.