Friday, February 23, 2018

Towards Evolving a Culture of Damages: Analysing the Christian Louboutin Verdict of the Delhi High Court

On December 12, 2017, the Delhi High Court delivered a crisp 21-paragraph ex parte decree against the defendants in a suit for infringement of the “Red Sole” trademark instituted by the global luxury retail brand Christian Louboutin. Apart from granting injunctive reliefs to the brand owner/plaintiff against the defendants and declaring the Red Sole trademark well-known, the Court also awarded damages to the plaintiff to the tune of INR 1,63,000, and INR 8,63,790 as costs. While the judgement warrants analysis with respect to the Court’s reasons for declaring the Red Sole mark well-known, my primary interest is in understanding the Court’s approach to and basis for grant of damages and costs, an aspect of IP litigation I had discussed in brief almost two years ago.

The discussion on principles that govern award of damages begins at Paragraph 18 of the judgement, which extracts, for the most part, portions of a Division Bench’s judgement in Hindustan Unilever Limited Vs. Reckitt Benckiser India Limited (2014). The DB judgement in turn discussed the principles laid down in two English decisions, namely Rookes v. Barnard, [1964] 1 All ER 367 and Cassell & Co. Ltd. v. Broome, 1972 AC 1027. Both these English decisions, in effect, (a) clarified the object of award of exemplary/aggravated/punitive damages, (b) identified the circumstances for and condition precedents to grant of such damages so as to avoid ad hocism, and (b) diluted the vindictive/retributory character of such damages by underscoring the fact that ultimately the award benefited a private party.

While Rookes identified the categories of cases where award of exemplary damages was justified, the specifics of the considerations and their nuances were educatively articulated in Cassell. For instance, Cassell cautioned that in order to establish a case for exemplary damages, it wasn't sufficient for the plaintiff to merely peg his case under the categories identified in Rookes. Further, the first order of business in assessing damages was to compute actual or compensatory damages and then ask oneself whether such damages were adequate compensation to the plaintiff in light of the defendant’s conduct and the benefit it had accrued to the latter. Only when this question was answered in the negative, it would be appropriate for the Court to award exemplary damages.

Importantly, in assessing the adequacy of the exemplary damages and its intended deterrent character, the total sum i.e. damages inclusive of actual and exemplary components, must be considered, and not the exemplary component alone. In other words, computation of exemplary damages may be construed as an exercise in rounding off the final sum to an extent that the figure has a punitive punch to it, as opposed to a mere pinch. Clearly, these principles are meant to remind Courts of the nature and purpose of exemplary damages and temper any misplaced sense of retribution. In this regard, the clarification that damages remain a civil remedy, and not criminal, even when exemplary, is profound.

Notwithstanding the fact that the Hindustan Unilever judgement was delivered by the DB in the backdrop of a suit for commercial disparagement, the stellar principles distilled by it, with approval, from the two English decisions, lend themselves to general application to civil suits. Further, the DB’s express disapproval of the approach adopted in Times Incorporated v. Lokesh Srivastava makes Hindustan Unilever the new standard to be observed in award of exemplary damages, which is perhaps a banal observation as on date given that the judgement was delivered in 2014. One just hopes that the spirit of rigour and caution which typify this standard reflect in every suit where damages are awarded.

In the facts of the Christian Louboutin case, the Court did not award exemplary damages. Perhaps, the facts of the case did not warrant such an award, and to precisely drive home this point to the Plaintiff the Court chose to extract Hindustan Unilever. That being said, the computation of actual damages by the Court is based on quite a few assumptions, whose basis is unclear. Extracted below is Paragraph 19 of the judgement where computation of damages was undertaken by the Court based on affidavits filed on behalf of the Plaintiff:

19. As regards the relief of damages and costs, an affidavit has been filed by the Constituted Attorney of the plaintiff and considering the downloaded copies of facebook post of defendant No.5 exhibited as Ex.PW-1/28 (colly) it can safely be held that the defendants No.3 and 5 are carrying on the business in the infringing goods for at least 15 months. 23 and 22 pairs of infringing shoes have been recovered from the premises of defendant No.3 and 5 respectively which can be sought for in any given month of the year.

As per the independent Investigator, the pair of shoes from the shop of defendant No.3 was bought for ₹700/- and from the shop of defendant No.5 for ₹1,795/-. Thus, considering the turnover of defendant No.3 as ₹2,41,500/- for 15 months and that of defendant No.5 for ₹5,92,350/- and taking the margin of profit being 25% on the illegal turnover, the profit earned by defendant No.3 would be ₹15,093/- and that of defendant No.5 would be ₹1,48,088/-.”

Although this was an ex parte proceeding, perhaps the Court could have considered examining the Plaintiff’s Constituted Attorney and the “independent investigator” whose affidavits were relied upon for computation of damages. Further, since 23 and 22 infringing pairs of shoes were recovered from the premises of the Defendant No. 3 and Defendant No. 5 respectively, the Court assumed that the Defendants would have sold such numbers in any given month of the year. If only 10 infringing pairs each had been recovered, would the Court have treated these figures as the quantum of monthly infringing sales by the Defendants? The Court has also assumed the profit margin of the Defendants to be 25%, the basis for which has not been articulated in the decision. An ex parte proceeding may lack the adversarial push-back from the absent party, but that does not give the Court greater latitude with its assumptions either for or against the absent party or the party which is present. Or does it? Which takes us to a different, but important question of how does a Court render a balanced verdict in an ex parte proceeding. This is an issue I will address in a later post.

Coming back to the decision, while the DB’s exhortations on exemplary damages were perhaps not relevant to the case at hand, the underlying rigorous approach to award of damages advocated by the DB was certainly relevant, which, some might say, does not reflect in the Court’s application to the facts of the case.