Treble Damages

The term “treble damages” is used to describe the court’s ability to award three times the damages in certain cases. For example, treble damages are triple the damages that a court would normally award in a similar case. However, in some cases, treble damages are awarded in addition to the other damages awarded to the Plaintiff in the case. To explore this concept, consider the following treble damages definition.

Definition of Treble Damages

Noun

  1. A statute that allows a court to award triple actual or compensatory damages to plaintiffs in certain cases.

Origin

1275 – 1325     Middle English (treblen)

Treble Damages False Claims Act

The False Claims Act (FCA) was created for the government to recoup damages after suffering a loss as the result of fraud. Any fraud committed for the purpose of getting the government to pay out money can be considered under the FCA. As a result of the potential for a number of different cases being decided under the FCA, the damages awarded in such a case can vary wildly from one case to the next.

One such provision under the FCA states that any entity who violates provisions of the FCA can be ordered to pay treble damages, otherwise known as “enhanced damages”:

“Any person who [knowingly commits or conspires to commit fraud against the government] is liable to the United States Government for a civil penalty of not less than $5,000 and not more than $10,000…plus 3 times the amount of damages which the Government sustains because of the act of that person.”

The healthcare industry sees a lot of violations under the False Claims Act. Some of the more common violations include:

  • Facilities, like dental facilities, etc., billing for services that were not provided, or inflating the cost of the services that were provided
  • Nursing homes charging for care that was provided unnecessarily
  • Drug companies offering incentives, like gifts and kickbacks, to doctors to encourage those doctors to promote their products
  • Companies billing for professionals when non-professionals were used instead (i.e. a dentist bills, at his normal rate, for services provided by his hygienist)

Sherman Act Treble Damages

The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 was the first law that worked to outlaw business practices that promoted a monopoly. Under federal antitrust law, any company or person who suffers as the result of conduct that prohibits competition can seek treble damages. In addition to treble damages, they can also request an award of legal fees and an injunction, which is an official warning from the court not to engage in similar behavior going forward, else the perpetrator will suffer the consequences.

For example, treble damages may be awarded against a company that is caught engaging in “price fixing,” which is the act of agreeing with competitors on a price they will all charge for the same product. This is a violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, and it is a crime that can be prosecuted as a felony.

The Sherman Act isn’t the only antitrust act to punish people for unscrupulous business practices. There is also the Clayton Act, which is an amendment that was passed by Congress in 1914 and which serves to clarify the Sherman Act.

The Clayton Act specifically states that “any person who shall be injured in his business or property by reason of anything forbidden in the antitrust laws may sue” for treble damages and other costs, including legal fees. State and local governments are also considered to be “persons” under the law and, as such, are permitted to sue for treble damages as well.

RICO Treble Damages

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (also known as “the RICO Act” or, more simply, “RICO”), is a federal law that was created to as a way to fight back against organized crime in the U.S. Those who are prosecuted under the RICO Act can be charged with both criminal and civil crimes for racketeering acts they performed while part of a criminal organization, like the mob.

Interestingly, in most cases, a defendant does not need to be convicted yet for a plaintiff to file for RICO treble damages in the civil matter against the defendant. The statute merely requires that the crimes the person is being charged with under state or federal law are indictable. So while the defendant’s criminal case is still ongoing, he can then be handed a lawsuit in a civil matter wherein the plaintiff is asking for an award of treble damages.

Treble Damages Example Involving Patent Infringement Cases

Examples of treble damages can be found in patent infringement cases that have been decided since 2016, when the Supreme Court changed everything with its ruling in the matter of Halo Electronics, Inc. v. Pulse Electronics, Inc.

In this case, both Halo and Pulse acted as suppliers of electronic parts. Halo sued Pulse Electronics in 2007, claiming that Pulse had infringed upon Halo’s copyright for a particular electronic part. This stems from two letters that Halo had sent to Pulse back in 2002, offering to license their patents to Pulse. Pulse had decided that Halo’s patents were actually invalid and continued selling the allegedly infringing parts.

After a trial in the matter, the jury concluded that Pulse had infringed upon Halo’s patents, and that it was very likely that Pulse had done so on purpose (willfully). The District Court, however, refused to award treble damages, concluding that Halo had failed to show that Pulse had been reckless as defined by the law.

Ultimately, the decision of the court was that Pulse had infringed upon Halo’s patents but had not done so willfully. The matter went up on appeal, whereupon the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision that Pulse did not commit willful infringement.

The matter was then escalated to the U.S. Supreme Court. In addition to this case, the Court also reviewed a similar case: Stryker Corporation v. Zimmer, Inc. In the latter case, the situation was very similar, only the parties were suppliers of medical equipment. Zimmer was found liable for patent infringement after trial, and Stryker was awarded treble damages.

When this matter went up on appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit overturned the trial court’s decision, saying that Zimmer – like Pulse – had not willfully infringed upon Stryker’s patents, and so should not be forced to pay treble damages.

The question for the U.S. Supreme Court then, in both cases, was whether the U.S. Court of Appeals erred in deciding that treble damages should not be awarded in either case. Specifically, the Court had to decide whether the precedent the Federal Circuit court had relied upon in making both decisions should indeed have been the governing factor in either case.

Ultimately, the Court decided – unanimously – that yes, the Federal Circuit was wrong in making the decisions that it did. Specifically, the Court held:

“Respondents are correct that patent law reflects ‘a careful balance between the need to promote innovation’ through patent protection, and the importance of facilitating the ‘imitation and refinement through imitation’ that are ‘necessary to invention itself and the very lifeblood of a competitive economy.’ (Citation omitted) That balance can indeed be disrupted if enhanced damages are awarded in garden-variety cases. As we have explained, however, they should not be. The seriousness of respondents’ policy concerns cannot justify imposing an artificial construct such as the Seagate test on the discretion conferred under §284.

Section 284 gives district courts the discretion to award enhanced damages against those guilty of patent infringement. In applying this discretion, district courts are ‘to be guided by [the] sound legal principles’ developed over nearly two centuries of application and interpretation of the Patent Act. (Citation omitted). Those principles channel the exercise of discretion, limiting the award of enhanced damages to egregious cases of misconduct beyond typical infringement. The Seagate test, in contrast, unduly confines the ability of district courts to exercise the discretion conferred on them. Because both cases before us were decided under the Seagate framework, we vacate the judgments of the Federal Circuit and remand the cases for proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Conviction – A formal declaration made by a jury or judge that the defendant in a court case is guilty of the crime(s) he has been charged with.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Fraud – A false representation of fact, whether by words, conduct, or concealment, intended to deceive another.
  • Indictment – A formal charge of a serious crime.
  • Infringe – To willfully break the terms of, as in a law, agreement, or patent.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
  • Racketeering – Dishonest and otherwise fraudulent business practices conducted for the purpose of illegally taking in money.

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