In a 7-1 decision, the United States Supreme Court has held that laches cannot be invoked as a defense against a claim for patent infringement damages within § 286’s six year statute of limitations period in SCA Hygiene Products v. First Quality Baby Products. Laches is an equitable defense which may bar certain claims if Plaintiff acted unreasonably or delayed in the enforcement of its rights.
The case arose from a dispute between two adult diaper manufacturers. In 2003, SCA Hygiene sent a cease and desist letter to First Quality, alleging that First Quality’s adult diapers infringed its patents. First Hygiene responded that one of its own patents pre-dated, and thus invalidated, the SCA Hygiene Patent. In 2004, SCA Hygiene instituted a re-examination proceeding of the First Quality patent, which was subsequently confirmed as valid by the USPTO in 2007. Three years later, SCA filed a patent infringement claim against First Quality in 2010. First Quality moved for summary judgment on the affirmative defenses of laches and equitable estoppel. The district court granted the motion on both grounds. Through various appeals to the Federal Circuit, the disposal of the case on laches was upheld. SCA appealed to the Supreme Court.
In finding that laches cannot bar a patent infringement claim for damages brought within the allotted six year statute of limitations, the Court reasoned that codified statutes of limitation reflect a congressional determination that “timeliness is better judged by a hard and fast rule instead of a case-specific judicial determination.”
In a similar ruling in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., a 2014 case involving the “Raging Bull’ film, the Court stripped the laches defense from copyright infringement cases brought within the three year allotted statutory limitation period for copyright infringement claims. Interestingly, the Lanham Act, which governs trademark infringement actions, has no express statute of limitations. Federal courts often look to analogous state law statutes for time limitations in trademark cases. The defense of laches still remains a viable defense to a claim of trademark infringement.