What Is Laches Defense?

Laches defense is a legal defense that you can claim in a civil dispute if an unreasonable amount of time has passed since the incident has actually occurred. Laches defense prevents someone from ambushing another person by failing to make a legal claim in a timely fashion. 

Purpose of the Doctrine of Laches

In many cases, a delay in filing a lawsuit prevents the opposing party from putting up a fair defense. If too much time has passed, witnesses are lost, evidence disappears, and people's memories can deceive them. The doctrine of Laches protects the defendant from this and stops people from recovering their claim if they wait too long to file their lawsuit.

Asserting a Defense of Laches

To claim Laches as a defense, a defendant needs to show that his status has changed because of the unreasonable delay in filing the lawsuit. He also needs to show that the delay is putting him in a worse position than if the claim had been filed in a reasonable amount of time. If they can show any of these, they may be able to assert a defense of Laches.

  • The potential for the award of damages to be much larger than if they had filed the claim earlier.
  • An inability to pay any monetary damages because all of their cash assets are being used or sold to cover legal fees incurred from this case.
  • The property that the plaintiff wants to recover has already been sold.
  • Witnesses or evidence are no longer available.

Difference Between Laches Defense and Statute of Limitations

While the doctrine of Laches looks like the same thing as a statute of limitations, the two are different in several ways. A statute of limitations is a definitive time limit set by law in which an individual may make a legal claim or a prosecutor may file criminal charges.

The purpose of both Laches and statutes of limitations is to make sure that legal claims are brought forward in a reasonable time period so that witnesses and evidence can be gathered easily. However, statutes of limitations only focus on whether the statutory time period has passed.

The doctrine of Laches is more worried about the delay in filing the legal action. Laches is case-specific and relies on the judge's decision as to whether a plaintiff waited too long and the defendant can't put together a reasonable defense because of their inaction.

For example:

The statute of limitations in Arkansas for rape is six years. Eight years after being raped at a party, Melanie brings the crime to the district attorney and asks for charges to be filed against the rapist. Since the crime was reported after the six-year time limit, no charges can be filed against the rapist. 

If Melanie had waited only five years and the defendant then called for the Laches defense because too much time has passed and he will be unable to get witnesses and evidence to defend himself, the judge must decide whether or not the case will go forward.

Examples of Laches Defense

1. Mary has a legitimate claim of sexual harassment against her university science professor, but she waits seven years to file a lawsuit. In that time, the professor has moved to teach at another university, other students who were witnesses have scattered to other states, and the school's administration has had major changes.

Both the professor and the university can claim the doctrine of Laches in their defense against the lawsuit. This tells the court that, because Mary waited so long to file her claim, they have been put in an unfair position. They will find it very difficult to put up a defense because so many years have passed since the supposed incident. If the defendants can convince the just that they are unable to find witnesses and evidence, he can dismiss the case based on the Laches defense.

2. In the true case of Buie Versus Estate of Buie, a New Jersey court asserted the doctrine of laches when they dismissed claims made by a surviving spouse in an estate dispute. In the case, the deceased left his house in New Jersey to be divided equally amongst his six children.

14 years later, the surviving spouse filed a suit demanding a share of the estate. The court ruled that the spouse was barred from filing a suit by the doctrine of Laches since too much time had passed.

3. During the 2012 U.S. presidential election, a few Republican candidates did not get their names on the Virginia primary ballot. They did not submit the required 10,000 signatures by the December 22 deadline.

Four of the candidates then filed a civil lawsuit on December 27 of the same year. The federal district court dismissed their claims on the basis of Laches. They said that rather than filing their claim as soon as they knew there was a problem, the candidates waited until after the deadline had passed.

The court said that this showed an unreasonable and inexcusable time delay which could significantly harm the defendants. 

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Affirmative Defense – The introduction of evidence into a trial that might cancel out the defendant's legal responsibility for the alleged act.
  • Civil Lawsuit – Any lawsuit brought about in court in which one person says they have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Damages – The monetary award given as compensation for a financial loss, a loss of or damage to personal property, or because of an injury.
  • Defendant – The person or party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court. The defendant can also be a person accused of or charged with a crime or offense.
  • Equitable Remedy – An action ordered by the court for a party to complete his or her duties under a contract. This is usually used when an award of damages does not sufficiently rectify the situation.
  • Estoppel – A legal principle that stops someone from saying something that is contradictory to an already established truth.
  • Plaintiff – The person who brings legal action against another person or entity in a civil lawsuit or criminal proceeding.

U.S. Supreme Court Removes Laches Defense From Patent Infringement Cases

For many years, defendants accused of patent infringement could use the defense of Laches if too much time passed since the original patent was filed.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of SCA Hygiene Prods. AB v. First Quality Baby Prods. LLC, basically eliminated Laches as a defense in patent infringement cases.

In the case, First Quality tried to assert a defense of Laches. They argued that SCA Hygiene accused First Quality of infringement back in 2003, but then delayed filing until 2010. This was more than three years after the United States Patent and Trademark Office completed SGA Hygiene's reexamination of their patent and confirmed its validity. The district court granted First Quality and allowed them to assert the doctrine of Laches.

SCA Hygiene appealed. The Federal Circuit held that the Laches defense remained available to accused infringers.

SCA Hygiene eventually brought their appeals all the way to the Supreme Court where it was overturned in a 7–1 decision, with only Justice Breyer dissenting. The case required the Court to decide whether the defense of Laches was a viable defense to patent infringement actions even though the charge of patent infringement was brought within the six-year statute of limitations. The Supreme Court found that the defense of Laches was an inappropriate claim.

The Supreme Court stated that Laches could not be used as a defense to any claim brought under the statute of limitations period. 

Again in 2014, the Supreme Court held in the case of Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, that Laches could not be used as a defense to throw out the claim for copyright infringement.  The key issue in Petrella was the fact that the Copyright Act has a three-year statute of limitations for claiming for damages. The Supreme Court stated that the statute of limitation trumps any other defense, including the Laches defense.

With these decisions, patent owners will be able to bring lawsuits against potential infringers. They can wait 10 to 15 years to file a patent infringement lawsuit and still be able to receive substantial damages for the six years period prior to filing the lawsuit. Defendants who are accused of patent infringement will have to look into defenses other than the Laches defense.

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