In France, two defendants Thales and Astronics have succeeded in invalidating a Lufthansa patent, which covers an invention intended to increase passenger safety when using in-flight power supplies. While Lufthansa had previously fared better in the UK and Germany, all three companies are now subject to damages proceedings across the various jurisdictions.
7 March 2023 by Konstanze Richter
In its dispute with Thales, Astronics and Panasonic over a patent for an electrical power supply device, Germany’s flag carrier airline Lufthansa has suffered a second-instance defeat. The Paris Court of Appeal has now ruled that the aircraft manufacturer’s patent is invalid due to lack of inventive step. This confirms an initial ruling, which the first instance Paris Judicial Court handed down in 2020.
Lufthansa’s EP 08 81 145 covers an invention that aims to provide safety to the passenger plugging into their device, by detecting if a person has inserted a plug or foreign object. In aeroplanes, safety precautions are necessary due to the high level of voltage the plug socket permits. The patent expired in May 2018.
Astronics AES is a subsidiary of US aerospace company Astronics, with the company creating a similar technology used for in-flight electronics plugs. Thales Avionics develops and produces in-flight entertainment systems for airlines. It integrates products from Astronics into these systems. Japanese communications company Panasonic also creates in-flight entertainment and installs power sockets as part of this remit.
However, while Lufthansa has twice been unsuccessful in France, it has previously achieved some success in other European countries.
In Germany, Lufthansa sued Astronics for infringement at Mannheim Regional Court. The latter party responded with a nullity suit. The Federal Patent Court anulled claim 1 of EP 145 for lack of inventive step, but upheld claims two and three. Lufthansa has maintained the patent in an amended form consisting of a combination of claims one and two.
In 2015, the Regional Court Mannheim found that Astronics AES had infringed the part of Lufthansa’s EP 145 that the Federal Patent Court had upheld. In autumn 2016, the Higher Regional Court Karlsruhe confirmed this decision. Then, in the dispute over damages, the Federal Court of Justice ruled in 2019 that Astronics must pay damages to Lufthansa.
In the UK, Lufthansa brought an infringement action against Astronics and Panasonic before the High Court. In summer 2020, the first-instance court found claims one, two and three of EP 145 valid and infringed. The Court of Appeal then upheld this decision in January 2022.
However, Lufthansa was also unsuccessful in the US, where the company initiated infringement proceedings at the Western District Court of Washington in Seattle. It based this case on patent US 6 016 016, which covers the same invention as EP 145. The court dismissed the claim in July 2016, a decision which the Federal Court of Appeal confirmed in October 2017.
In France, Lufthansa also directed its lawsuits against Thales, as well as Astronics and Panasonic. The defendants responded with a nullity suit, directed in particular against claims one, two, three and seven of the French part of EP 145.
Following seizures initiated by Lufthansa at the French sites of Panasonic and Astronics AES in spring 2018, the Judicial Court heard cases against all defendants together.
To protect trade secrets, the defendants requested that the court not disclose certain documents in the course of proceedings. The Judicial Court initially shelved this question and focused exclusively on the validity of the patent.
In late 2020, the first-instance judges declared claims one, two, three and seven of the patent invalid due to lack of inventive step (case ID: 18/04501). While Lufthansa appealed the decision, the 2nd Chamber of the Court of Appeal has confirmed it (case ID: 20/18820).
Since the disputed patent has now expired, the main issues in France, Germany and the UK are costs and damages.
Lufthansa relied on US law firm Jones Day from the beginning of the proceedings. Munich partner Gerd Jaekel brought the client to the firm from his time at Latham & Watkins in Hamburg in 2010.
Thus, Jaekel was also involved in the German case and coordinated the cross-border proceedings. London partner Alastair McCulloch conducted the proceedings in the UK, with Thomas Bouvet running litigation for Lufthansa in Paris. Astronics and Panasonic also relied on Hogan Lovells in the UK and Germany, with partner Daniel Brook and Stephen Bennett leading the case in London.
Plasseraud represented Thales, which was only a defendant in the French part of the international dispute. The company has a long-standing relationship with Sandrine Bouvier-Ravon.
She brought the client with her when she moved from Cousin & Associés to Plasseraud earlier this year.
Jones Day (Paris): Thomas Bouvet (partner), Eddy Protière (counsel)
Lexavoue (Paris/Versailles): Matthieu Boccon-Gibod (patent lawyer specialised in appeal procedures)
For Astronics AES and Panasonic
Hogan Lovells (Paris): Stanislas Roux-Vaillard (partner)
Plasseraud (Paris): Sandrine Bouvier-Ravon (partner)
Teytaud Saleh (Paris): François Teytaud (patent lawyer specialised in appeal procedures)
Court of Appeal, Paris, 2nd Chamber
Véronique Renard (presiding judge), Agnès Marcade, Déborah Bohee