BODUM USA v. LA CAFETIERE, INC. (September 2, 2010)

In 1991, Bodum Holding purchased the stock of a French company whose principal product was a french-press coffeemaker sold under the name “Chambord.” One of the principal investors in the French company also owned Household, a British company that sold a very similar looking French-press coffeemaker under the “La Cafetiere” name. The parties negotiated over Household's ability to continue selling its coffeemaker after the sale. An early draft of the sales agreement allowed it to sell the La Cafetiere only in England. The later, signed version allowed it to sell the La Cafetiere anywhere in the world except France. In 2006, Household began distributing the La Cafetiere in the United States. Bodum filed suit under state and federal law. Judge Kennelly (N.D. Ill.) granted summary judgment to Household. Bodum appeals.

In their opinion, Chief Judge Easterbrook and Judges Posner (concurring) and Wood (concurring) affirmed. The only issue the Court addressed was the meaning of the contract, which was governed by French law. Although FRCP 44.1 allows the use of expert testimony as an aid to the interpretation of foreign law, the Court criticized the practice. Instead, it noted its preference for treatises. Here, the Court relied on the plain language of the contract and its "straightforward" negotiation history in concluding that Household was within its rights to sell its product in the United States. It rejected Bodum's argument that a provision in the French Civil Code required a trial to determine the actual intent of the parties.

Judge Posner agreed with the disposition on the merits but wrote a separate concurrence even more critical than Chief Judge Easterbrook of the practice of using experts to aid the court in foreign law interpretation. In his judgment, courts should rarely rely on expert testimony for the meaning of foreign law. Judge Posner has expressed this view in the past, as well (see his opinion in Sunstar, Inc. v. Alberto-Culver Co. - and my post).

Judge Wood also agreed with the disposition of the case on the merits and also wrote separately on the subject of Rule 44.1. Judge Wood, however, disagreed with the harsh criticism from her colleagues. In her judgment, experts are frequently necessary to ensure that a district court judge completely understands the nuances of foreign law.