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September 15, 2022

A Window into Trade Secret Damages: R&D Costs Can Quantify Unjust Enrichment

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The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed a district court's finding of damages in a trade secrets case under Pennsylvania's version of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act. The Third Circuit explained that it is appropriate to quantify damages under the unjust enrichment standard by considering the trade secret owner's research and development costs as an indicator of the research and development costs that the defendant avoided but would have incurred if not for its misappropriation. PPG Indus. Inc. v. Jiangsu Tie Mao Glass Co. Ltd. et al., Case No. 21-2288 (3rd Cir. Aug. 30, 2022) (Jordan, Porter, Phipps, JJ.)

PPG is the maker of OpticorTM, a novel plastic for airplane windows. PPG sued Jiangsu Tie Mao Glass (TMG), asserting trade secret misappropriation, among other things. PPG alleged that TMG persuaded a former PPG employee to provide TMG with a treasure trove of trade secrets and that TMG used the trade secrets to begin making plans to produce Opticor-quality windows and to build a factory to manufacture its product. After TMG failed to appear in the case for more than a year, the district court entered a default judgement for PPG. Only then did TMG show up. The district court declined to set aside the default judgment and ultimately awarded damages for TMG's unjust enrichment totaling about $9 million, which it then trebled to $26.5 million, and issued a permanent injunction against TMG. TMG appealed.

The Third Circuit began by analyzing whether TMG was unjustly enriched as a result of its acts. Trade secret damages are commonly determined either by calculating actual loss to the plaintiff or by quantifying the defendant's unjust enrichment from the use of the trade secret. The Court found that although TMG did not sell products containing the Opticor technology, TMG was unjustly enriched by its use of the trade secrets. For example, TMG used PPG's proprietary drawings (minus PPG's name and logo) to ask a subcontractor to "manufacture for TMG the same molds that it did for PPG." TMG also was building, or had plans to build, a production facility to manufacture its version of the Opticor technology. The Court determined that TMG was unjustly enriched because TMG used PPG's trade secrets to completely skip the research and development phase of its version of the Opticor technology and instead move directly to the phase of preparing for production.

Next, the Third Circuit considered whether the damages amount awarded to PPG was appropriate. Unjust enrichment requires the defendant to pay the plaintiff the value of the benefit conferred from the use of plaintiff's trade secrets. This benefit can be a cost that was avoided and may include development costs. The Court found it appropriate to consider the research and development costs PPG incurred in developing the Opticor technology as an indicator of the research and development costs TMG would have sustained to develop its own version of the Opticor technology in the absence of misappropriation. In short, "[t]he costs a plaintiff spent in development . . . can be a proxy for the costs that the defendant saved."

Finally, the Third Circuit found that an award of both monetary damages and a permanent injunction did not amount to a double recovery in this case because the damages periods covered by these two forms of relief did not temporally overlap. The damages award covered only TMG's prior bad acts. Specifically, the damages award remedied the benefit TMG received from its past misappropriation that had allowed it to completely skip research and development and move straight to soliciting molds and designing its production facility. The permanent injunction prohibited TMG from obtaining any future benefit from potential use of PPG's trade secrets.

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