In an 8-1 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that the doctrine of willful blindness can be used to establish liability for actively inducing the infringement of a patent. Global-Tech Appliances, Inc. v. SEB S.A. No. 10-6 (U.S., decided May 31, 2011). The issue arose in a case involving a design patent for a deep fryer. The alleged infringer claimed that it did not learn about the relevant patent until it received notice of the infringement lawsuit filed against the company (Sunbeam) for which the fryer was designed, and, thus, the jury lacked sufficient evidence to find induced infringement. Two lower courts rejected that argument, with the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals determining that the evidence showed “Pentalpha deliberately disregarded a known risk that SEB had a protective patent,” and that this disregard “is a form of actual knowledge.”

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the Federal Circuit’s decision but rejected the “deliberate indifference” standard, ruling that “the evidence in this case was plainly sufficient to support a finding of Pentalpha’s knowledge under the doctrine of willful blindness.” As formulated by the Court, this doctrine, which “surpasses recklessness and negligence,” requires a showing that a defendant took “deliberate actions to avoid confirming a high probability of wrongdoing” and “can almost be said to have actually known the critical facts.” Here, the defendant copied an overseas model of the plaintiff’s fryer, which model lacked U.S. patent markings, for sale in the United States and did not inform the attorney asked for a right-to-use opinion that the product to be evaluated was a knockoff.

According to Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, “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.”

Dissenting Justice Anthony Kennedy was concerned that the Court’s adoption of the willful blindness doctrine in this civil case would have significant ramifications for any alleged knowledge-based criminal offense.