KESSLER v. ELDRED

No. 196.

206 U.S. 285 (1907)

KESSLER v. ELDRED.

Supreme Court of United States.

Decided May 13, 1907.


Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. Robert S. Taylor and Mr. Elwin M. Hulse for Kessler.

Mr. Charles C. Linthicum and Mr. Louis K. Gillson for Eldred.


MR. JUSTICE MOODY, after making the foregoing statement, delivered the opinion of the court.

The industry of counsel has not discovered any decision on the exact questions presented by the certificate, and they agree that those questions are not settled by controlling authority. The decision of the case turns upon the effect of the judgment in the suit which Eldred brought against Kessler. Both manufactured and sold electric cigar lighters. Eldred, being the owner of a patent issued to one Chambers for an electric lamp lighter, brought a suit against Kessler, in which it was alleged by the plaintiff and denied by the defendant that the cigar lighters manufactured by Kessler infringed each and all of the claims of the Chambers patent. On the issue thus joined there was final judgment for Kessler. This judgment, whether it proceeds upon good reasons or upon bad reasons, whether it was right or wrong, settled finally and everywhere, and so far as Eldred, by virtue of his ownership of the Chambers patent, was concerned, that Kessler had the right to manufacture, use and sell the electric cigar lighter before the court. The court, having before it the respective rights and duties on the matter in question of the parties to the litigation, conclusively decreed the right of Kessler to manufacture and sell his manufactures free from all interference from Eldred by virtue of the Chambers patent, and the corresponding duty of Eldred to recognize and yield to that right everywhere and always. After this conclusive determination of the respective rights and duties of the parties, Eldred filed a bill for an infringement of the same patent against Breitwieser, on account of his use of the same kind of Kessler cigar lighter which had been passed on in the previous case, and Kessler has assumed the defense of that suit. Whether the judgment between Kessler and Eldred is a bar to the suit of Eldred v. Breitwieser, either because Breitwieser was a privy to the original judgment, or because the articles themselves were by that judgment freed from the control of that patent, we deem it unnecessary to inquire. We need not stop to consider whether the judgment in the case of Eldred v. Kessler had any other effect than to fix unalterably the rights and duties of the immediate parties to it, for the reason that only the rights and duties of those parties are necessarily in question here. It may be that the judgment in Kessler v. Eldred will not afford Breitwieser, a customer of Kessler, a defense to Eldred's suit against him. Upon that question we express no opinion. Neither it nor the case in which it is raised are before us. But the question here is whether, by bringing a suit against one of Kessler's customers, Eldred has violated the right of Kessler. The effect which may reasonably be anticipated of harassing the purchasers of Kessler's manufactures by claims for damages on account of the use of them, would be to diminish Kessler's opportunities for sale. No one wishes to buy anything, if with it he must buy a law suit. That the effect to be anticipated was the actual effect of the Breitwieser suit is shown by the statement of facts. Kessler's customers ceased to send orders for lighters, and even refused to pay for those which had already been delivered. Any action which has such results is manifestly in violation of the obligation of Eldred, and the corresponding right of Kessler, established by the judgment. Leaving entirely out of view any rights which Kessler's customers have or may have, it is Kessler's right that those customers should, in respect of the articles before the court in the previous judgment, be let alone by Eldred, and it is Eldred's duty to let them alone. The judgment in the previous case fails of the full effect which the law attaches to it if this is not so. If rights between litigants are once established by the final judgment of a court of competent jurisdiction those rights must be recognized in every way, and wherever the judgment is entitled to respect, by those who are bound by it. Having then by virtue of the judgment the right to sell his wares freely without hindrance from Eldred, must Kessler stand by and see that right violated, and then bring an action at law for the resulting damage, or may he prevent the infliction of the unlawful injury by proceedings in personam in equity? If Eldred succeeds in his suit against one of Kessler's customers, he will naturally bring suits against others. He may bring suits against others, whether he succeeds in one suit or not. There may be and there is likely to be a multiplicity of suits. It is certain that such suits if unsuccessful would at the same time tend to diminish Kessler's sales and to impose upon him the expense of defending many suits in order to maintain the right which by a judgment has already been declared to exist. If the suits are successful the result will be practically to destroy Kessler's judgment right. Moreover, though the impairment or destruction of Kessler's right would certainly follow from the course of conduct which Eldred has begun, it would be difficult to prove in an action at law the extent of the damage inflicted. An action at law would be entirely inadequate to protect fully Kessler's unquestioned right, and under these circumstances, though there may be no exact precedent, we think that the jurisdiction in equity exists. Nor do we see any good reason why Kessler's interposition for the defense in the suit of Eldred v. Breitwieser debars him from his remedy in equity.

It follows from the foregoing reasoning that the first and second questions certified should be answered in the affirmative, and the third and fourth in the negative, and

It is so ordered.


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