Eli Lilly Loses in Chapter 11 NAFTA Arbitration over Drug Patents

By Gabriel M. Lentner

On 16 March 2017, the NAFTA tribunal issued its final award in the case of Eli Lilly v Canada, dismissing the claim.

Two patents of the U.S. pharmaceutical company known as ‘Eli Lilly’ were invalidated by the Canadian federal courts based on judicial interpretations of the utility requirements contained in the Canadian patent statute (referred to as the ‘promise utility doctrine’). Eli Lilly alleged that these interpretations, and in particular the courts’ adoption of the promise utility doctrine, departed dramatically from prior Canadian patent law. On this basis, Eli Lilly initiated proceedings against Canada under Chapter 11 of NAFTA claiming that the invalidation of its patents amounted to unlawful expropriation of its intellectual property (NAFTA Article 1110) and a violation of the Minimum Standard Treatment (NAFTA Article 1105).

The Tribunal dismissed the alleged breaches stating that the Claimant had not met the required burden of proof. However, it noted inter alia that, contrary to what Canada argued, not only may a denial of justice serve as a basis of liability for judicial measures, but also other conduct which ‘may also be sufficiently egregious and shocking, such as manifest arbitrariness or blatant unfairness’. It held that invalidation under naturally evolving patent laws is not a breach of legitimate expectations but also suggested that a violation could take place when ‘a fundamental or dramatic change in Canadian patent law’ occurs.

Finally, the Tribunal noted that the evolution of the Canadian legal framework, in relation to Claimant’s patents, could not sustain a claim of arbitrariness or discrimination amounting to a violation of NAFTA Articles 1105 or 1110.

The award comes at a time of heightened interest (and criticism) surrounding the use of Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) for the protection of intellectual property rights (see cases of Philip Morris v Australia and Philip Morris v Uruguay).The Tribunal was careful not to dismiss out of hand IP-based ISDS claims, but similarly did not provide any further clarification regarding such cases and the applicable legal standards for IP protection. Thus, this case will not necessarily serve to reduce the uncertainties in this area of law, and as a result, as one commentator put it, it rather further opened the door to such claims.

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