Thursday, June 1, 2023

Collaboration of Counsel in Preparing Expert Reports

dTechs EPM Ltd v British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority 2023 FCA 115 Gauthier JA: Mactavish, Leblanc JJA varg 2021 FC 190 Fothergill J

2,549,087 / Electrical Theft Detection System

Gauthier JA’s decision for the FCA in dTechs involves “the application of known principles to a very unusual set of facts” [7]. While it did not set out new law, the unusual facts provided an opportunity for a helpful discussion of the principles and procedure related to the introduction of new evidence on appeal [20]–[30], and the proper role of counsel in preparing expert reports [32]–[37]. There is also a helpful nugget on claim construction.

The patentee, dTechs, lost comprehensively at trial: see here. During the costs assessment, dTechs obtained invoices and working agreements relating to BC Hydro’s expert witness, Mr. Shepherd, which led dTechs to believe that Shepherd did not author his reports. dTechs formed the view that the reports had instead been ghostwritten by a Mr Falany, the President of the corporation which provided Shepherd’s services [41]. There was also some suggestion that first drafts of the reports may have been written by counsel for BC Hydro [45]. dTechs consequently argued that the trial decision was unreliable as it was based on tainted evidence.

A motion to allow these documents to be introduced as new evidence on appeal was granted by a motion judge. Gauthier JA’s extensive discussion on the law and practice relating to the role of the motion judge on such a question [20–[30] will be essential reading for anyone pursuing a similar motion in the future.

Gauthier JA then went on to address the role of counsel in the preparation of expert reports. She noted that “In patent cases, it is not unusual for expert reports to be prepared in close collaboration with counsel in an effort to present the substantive opinion of the expert in a manner and format that is helpful to the Court in light of the complexity of the issues raised” [32], and “[a]s a practical matter, it is known that extensive notes are taken during meetings with experts to help prepare the draft reports, and that counsel are actively involved in putting these reports together” [33]. However, “[t]his does not inevitably mean that those drafts do not reflect the substantive and objective opinion expressed by the expert during those meetings.” A “high level of instruction by lawyers to expert witnesses” is not necessarily objectionable in patent cases [53]. While there are limits to the involvement of counsel, the important point is not who puts the words to paper: “I know of no cases where an expert report was excluded in a patent case on the sole ground that the first draft of said report was penned by counsel after meetings with the expert to discuss their opinions in detail” [34]. The key point is that “the Court must ultimately be presented with the substantive and objective opinion of the expert” [34].

Gauthier JA also noted that any potential overstepping of the proper limits on the role of counsel will normally be revealed on cross-examination at trial, and that is the appropriate place to raise such objections, so that it may be considered by the trial court in assessing the evidence [34]–[35]. The FCA will not be sympathetic to parties trying to raise this kind of argument on appeal [37].

Further, the degree of involvement of counsel will go to weight rather than admissibility, unless it is established that the expert “is unable or unwilling to comply with the duty to give fair, objective and non-partisan opinion evidence” [49]. Consequently, “[t]he Federal Court could not conclude that there was a reasonable basis for refusing to admit Mr. Shepherd’s expert evidence simply because the first drafts of his reports were penned by counsel after many hours of consultation with him” [55]. However, the fact that Shepherd might not have drafted the reports himself might have affected the weight that the trial court would have given to his evidence [56].

The weight to be given to the evidence is a matter for the trial court, not the FCA [56], but even so, the fact that the new evidence might have affected the weight to be given Shepherd’s reports was not in itself sufficient to require sending the matter back for redetermination [57]. There is a second question, whether the trial conclusions would remain unchanged, taking the view most favourable to dTechs. Gauthier JA therefore considered whether “based on the other evidence adduced at trial, the distinct findings and conclusions of the Federal Court would remain unchanged, such that the outcome of the trial would not be affected” [57], even if no weight were given to Shepherd’s evidence [58].

Gauthier JA therefore turned to the question of whether the result would have been the same without Shepherd’s evidence. This required a detailed look at the construction of the claims. While most of the discussion turned on the facts and evidence, Gauthier JA made some more general points.

The most basic point is that claim construction is ultimately a matter of law [68]. “[T]he role of the expert is not to interpret the patent claims per se, ‘but to put the trial judge in the position of being able to do so in a knowledgeable way’” [69], primarily by providing evidence to the court as to the meaning of technical terms. Conversely, this means that the interpretation of non-technical terms, or a fortiori, legal terms of art, are for the court, not for experts. This point arose in considering the term “further comprising”. After hearing evidence on this point, the trial judge had remarked that “certainly claim construction is a matter for the Court, and I’m not sure that terms like ‘further’ or ‘wherein’ require the input of an expert witness” [78]. Gauthier JA affirmed that “I fully agree with the trial judge that if the words ‘further comprising’ are terms of the art, it is in the art of claim drafting, one that none of the experts were qualified to opine on, and in respect of which the judge did not require expert guidance” [80].

On the facts, Gauthier JA concluded that giving Shepherd’s evidence no weight could not have impacted the holding that the 087 patent was not infringed, but it might have affected the validity of one claim (Claim 4), which had been attacked by way of counterclaim. The appeal on infringement was therefore dismissed, but the appeal on validity was allowed in part, amending the judgment to the extent that Claim 4 is not declared to be invalid [118]–[120]. The defendants are entitled to a retrial on the validity of Claim 4, if they so chose.

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