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California Supreme Court Overturns Punitive Damage Award Against Genentech

Written by on Thursday, April 24th, 2008

The California Supreme Court has overturned a $200 million punitive damage award against Genentech in the City of Hope National Medical Center case.  A copy of the opinion is attached.

The San Francisco Business Times reported on the ruling as follows:

Because of the court’s decision, Genentech (NYSE: DNA) will still pay out about $475 million in the second quarter of 2008, which includes $300 million in compensatory damages and interest since the original jury decision in 2002. . . . the removal of punitive damages will save Genentech about $315 million when interest is factored in.

The suit, filed in 1999, was over a 1976 research agreement in which Genentech paid royalties to the hospital. A first trial ended in a hung jury in October 2001. In a retrial verdict in 2002, South San Francisco-based Genentech was ordered to pay $300 million in royalties and $200 million in punitive damages.

The California court’s decision will likely be viewed with a sense of relief by the California business community, which was stunned by the 2005 damage award against Genentech for breach of contract..  It is highly unusual for punitive damages to be awarded in a breach of contract case, and of course, the concern was that this decision would set a new precedent. reported on the history of the dispute between the parties:

The dispute between Genentech and City of Hope involves a research relationship more than 30 years ago. Doctors Arthur Riggs and Keiichi Itakura, who began working under contract with Genentech in 1976, produced human insulin two years later. The contract gave Genentech, then a fledgling company, the patents on the techniques used by Riggs and Itakura. In exchange, City of Hope was to receive a 2 percent royalty on sales of products that resulted from the patents. A dispute arose over the products covered by the contract.

City of Hope said it deserved royalties from 35 patent license agreements between Genentech and 22 other companies including Shering-Plough Corp. and American Home Products Corp. The center sued Genentech for breach of contract and fiduciary duty in 1999.

Genentech said in 2002 that it owed royalty payments to City of Hope only for sales of products made using DNA produced by the center and containing the patented technology from the sponsored research. The company said it paid City of Hope more than $300 million over 20 years.

A jury ruled against Genentech and awarded City of Hope compensatory damages and punitive damages. A state appeals court in Los Angeles upheld the jury’s verdict in 2004 and the California Supreme Court agreed to review the case in 2005.

What was the basis for today’s California Supreme Court ruling?  An excerpt from the opinion explains the Court’s decision as follows:

[W]e conclude that the trial court erred here in instructing the jury that a fiduciary relationship is necessarily created when a party, in return for royalties, entrusts a secret idea to another to develop, patent, and commercially develop.  Because fidicuary duties do not necessarily arise from this type of relationship, City of Hope’s only theory at trial for claiming a fiduciary relationship with Genentech was legally invalid, and therefore the judgment against Genentech is defective insofar as it is based on the jury’s finding that Genentech breached fiduciary duties owed to City of Hope. . . . .The only other ground for the jury’s imposition of liability against Genentech was the jury’s finding that Genentech had breached its contract with City of Hope.  Because punitive damages may not be awarded for breach of contract. . . .the award of punitive damages must be set aside.

The Recorder noted in an article that it ran last fall that the case between Genentech and City of Hope had been plagued by delays:

 Both parties [in the case] had fully briefed the case by December 2005, and 21 amicus curiae briefs had been filed and responded to by April 2006. Still, the court hasn’t set an oral argument date for City of Hope National Medical Center v. Genentech Inc., S129463.

Some court watchers are baffled by how long the case has languished. . . .Other than death penalty cases, which take years to process, only two out of 135 pending California Supreme Court cases — both criminal — have been awaiting oral argument longer than City of Hope.

Why were there so many delays in this case?  The Recorder offered some possible explanations:

Paul Utrecht, a partner in San Francisco’s Zacks Utrecht & Leadbetter who filed an amicus brief supporting Genentech for the Washington Legal Foundation, said the court’s justices could be proceeding cautiously because of the money involved. . . .Utrecht also said the legal issue — whether a breach of contract rises to despicable conduct that merits punitive damages — is so important that the court might be examining the case from all angles. . . . .It’s also possible the justices haven’t decided what to do with the case, and are still trading memos in the hopes that a tentative majority will emerge.

While Genentech cannot possibly be happy with the 2005 verdict and damage award, today’s ruling will at least take the some of the sting out of the verdict.  A $200 million reduction in damages is certainly not "chump change" and will surely help with the company’s bottom line. 

For the rest of us in California, today’s decision is similarly significant because it reaffirms that punitive damages cannot be awarded in contract cases–there must be a fiduciary relationship.  More importantly, for the biotech community (and even the high tech and medical device communities in California), we now have clarification from the California Supreme Court  that licensing relationships do not establish fiduciary relationships and therefore will not  incur punitive damages if they are breached.    

Category: Biotech Disputes, Biotech Legal Disputes, Biotech Patent Licensing  |  Comments Off on California Supreme Court Overturns Punitive Damage Award Against Genentech

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