Patent Watch: Accent Packaging, Inc. v. Leggett & Platt, Inc.

by BakerHostetler

"[A] device does not infringe simply because it is possible to alter it in a way that would satisfy all the limitations of a patent claim."

On February 4, 2013, in Accent Packaging, Inc. v. Leggett & Platt, Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (Rader, Prost,* Reyna) reversed-in-part, affirmed-in-part and remanded the district court's summary judgment that Leggett did not infringe U.S. Patents No. 7,373,877 and No. 7,412,992, which related to a wire tier device used to bale recyclables or solid waste for easier handling. The Federal Circuit stated:

Claim terms are generally given their ordinary meaning as understood by persons skilled in the art in question at the time of the invention. "The claims, of course, do not stand alone." "[T]he specification 'is always highly relevant to the claim construction analysis. Usually it is dispositive; it is the single best guide to the meaning of a disputed term.'" Having considered all of the parties' arguments, we agree with Accent that the district court erred in construing the asserted claims of the '877 patent. Leggett can only arrive at its added limitation requiring four elongated operator bodies by construing "each" and "a respective one" to require that each of the elongated operator bodies correspond to one and only one of the gripper, knotter, cutter, and cover. But in the preferred embodiment of the invention, two elongated operator bodies are operably coupled to both the knotter and the cover. Put differently, the preferred embodiment features an elongated operator body that is operably coupled to one or more operator elements. We have held that "a claim interpretation that excludes a preferred embodiment from the scope of the claim is rarely, if ever, correct."

Nor are we persuaded that the asserted claim language explicitly requires that each elongated operator body be coupled to one and only one operator element. Nothing in the claim language compels that result. It is true that "each" operator body must be coupled to "a respective one" of the gripper, knotter, cutter, and cover. But that does not necessarily prevent an elongated operator body from being coupled to a second or even a third operator element as well. At first glance, the term "one" appearing directly after the phrase "a respective" might be viewed as limiting. In this case, however, the specification substantiates a construction that allows for an elongated operator body to be operably coupled to one or more operator elements. Again, the only embodiment described in Accent's patents features two elongated operator bodies that are each operably coupled to two distinct operator elements -- the knotter and the cover. And while the specification discloses a knotting device with four elongated operator bodies, the asserted claim language is not so limited. . . . Because the district court erred in its claim construction, we reverse the district court's grant of summary judgment to Leggett with respect to claims 1-4 of the '877 patent and remand to the district court to enter summary judgment in favor of Accent on those claims.

The asserted claims of the '992 patent claim "a mount for [the] cover permitting the cover to be pivoted away from said knotter to a knotter access position remote from said wire-maintaining position and through a pivot arc of at least about 90°." [T]he SafeLatch™ stop cannot be ignored when determining whether the Pinnacle's mount actually permits its cover to be pivoted through a ninety-degree arc. Here, it is undisputed that the Pinnacle's mount, by virtue of its interaction with the SafeLatch™ stop, does not and cannot permit the cover to be pivoted through the requisite ninety-degree arc.

Accent also argues that Leggett infringes the '992 patent simply because the Pinnacle's SafeLatch™ stop can be easily removed by the user. We disagree. "[A] device does not infringe simply because it is possible to alter it in a way that would satisfy all the limitations of a patent claim." To be sure, "if a device is designed to be altered or assembled before operation, the manufacturer may be held liable for infringement if the device, as altered or assembled, infringes a valid patent." Accent contends that Leggett's own patent application and promotional materials indicate that Leggett intends for the SafeLatch™ to be removed before operation. These materials, however, simply reflect the unremarkable fact that the stop is attached to the Pinnacle's frame with screws. Screws are a widely used fastener, but their use does not, by itself, evidence an instruction or intention that the Pinnacle be altered or dissembled in any way prior to operation. Rather, the Pinnacle manual and marketing materials consistently illustrate a cover that, because of the SafeLatch™ stop, does not and need not pivot through an arc of more than approximately sixty-eight degrees. Indeed, the SafeLatch™ serves the critical safety and service function of maintaining the cover in its open and locked position during service or removal of the CORE™ module.

"The fact that it is possible" to alter the Pinnacle so that the cover can be pivoted through a ninety degree arc "is not enough, by itself, to justify a finding that the manufacture and sale" of the Pinnacle device infringe Accent's patent rights. Accordingly, we affirm the district court's grant of summary judgment of noninfringement in favor of Leggett with respect to claim 5 of the '877 patent and all of the asserted claims of the '992 patent.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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