The following is excerpted from the Syllabus and Opinion from the Supreme Court of the United States' in the above-captioned case decided today, May 31, 2011, obtained from Cornell University Law School's Legal Information Institute:
After respondent SEB invented an innovative deep fryer, obtained a U. S. patent for its design, and began selling its fryer in this country, Sunbeam Products, Inc., asked petitioner Pentalpha Enterprises, Ltd., a Hong Kong home appliance maker and wholly owned subsidiary of petitioner Global-Tech Appliances, Inc., to supply Sunbeam with deep fryers meeting certain specifications. Pentalpha purchased an SEB fryer that was made for sale in a foreign market and thus lacked U. S. patent markings, copied all but the fryer’s cosmetic features, and retained an attorney to conduct a right-to-use study without telling him it had copied directly from SEB’s design. Failing to locate SEB’s patent, the attorney issued an opinion letter stating that Pentalpha’s deep fryer did not infringe any of the patents that he had found. Pentalpha then started selling its fryers to Sunbeam, which resold them in this country under its own trademarks at a price that undercut SEB’s.
SEB then sued Sunbeam for patent infringement. Though Sunbeam notified Pentalpha of the lawsuit, Pentalpha went on to sell its fryers to other companies, which resold them in the U. S. market under their respective trademarks. After settling the Sunbeam lawsuit, SEB sued Pentalpha, asserting, as relevant here, that it had contravened 35 U. S. C. §271(b) by actively inducing Sunbeam and the other purchasers of Pentalpha fryers to sell or offer to sell them in violation of SEB’s patent rights. The jury found for SEB on the induced infringement theory, and the District Court entered judgment for SEB. Affirming, the Federal Circuit stated that induced infringement under §271(b) requires a showing that the alleged infringer knew or should have known that his actions would induce actual infringements; declared that this showing includes proof that the alleged infringer knew of the patent; held that, although there was no direct evidence that Pentalpha knew of SEB’s patent before it received notice of the Sunbeam suit, there was adequate proof that it deliberately disregarded a known risk that SEB had a protective patent; and said that such disregard is not different from, but a form of, actual knowledge.
Deliberate indifference to a known risk that a patent exists does not satisfy the knowledge required by §271(b). Nevertheless, the Federal Circuit’s judgment must be affirmed because the evidence in this case was plainly sufficient to support a finding of Pentalpha’s knowledge under the doctrine of willful blindness. Pp. 10–16.
Taken together, this evidence was more than sufficient for a jury to find that Pentalpha subjectively believed there was a high probability that SEB’s fryer was patented, that Pentalpha took deliberate steps to avoid knowing that fact, and that it therefore willfully blinded itself to the infringing nature of Sunbeam’s sales.