Prior to the en banc decision in Phillips v. AWH, 415 F.3d 1303 (Fed. Cir. 2005), many Federal Circuit claim construction rulings used dictionaries to determine a "plain meaning" of patent claim language (and many avoided such dictionary uses). Occasionally, a case arises when the court is challenged to find anything in the specification that uses the claim language at issue. Dorel Juvenile Group v. Graco Children's Products, ___ F.3d ___, 2005 U.S. App. LEXIS 23964 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 7, 2005) is one such case.
The patents-in-suit concerned a child's car seat assembly having a retractable cup holder. One claim required "a seat … removably secured to the base," and another called for "a base removably attached and arranged to support the seat." The accused seat had two parts "firmly held together by screws." Neither party urged that any specialized meaning applied. The district court (S. D. Ind.) had ruled that this claim language did not require easy separation, but only that (1) the seat and base must be designed to come apart at some time, and (2) after separation, the seat would remain functional.
On appeal, the Federal Circuit followed Phillips and looked primarily to the specification for guidance on how to construe the plain language of the claim. However, the specification said next to nothing about the removability of the seat from the base. It spoke of "means for coupling" the seat bottom to the base and indicated that the "seat base is configured to releasably couple to the seat bottom." Also, the patent referred to putting a "cola" in the cup holder in the seat. The Court inferred from this that the beverage would inevitably spill, and an occasional cleaning would be necessary, thus requiring an ability to separate the seat from the base, though not necessarily an easy separation. The Court specifically rejected the argument that the claims should be construed to require an "ease of separation" quality, for that would be reading words into the claims, and nothing in the patent specification suggested ease of separation. Hence, the Court affirmed the plain language claim construction of the district court, which it found to comport with the specification. The Federal Circuit nevertheless reversed the judgment, indicating that whether the parts of the accused products could be a seat and a base was a fact question that could not be decided on summary judgment.
To discuss this topic further or for information on any patent claim construction issue, please feel free to contact the author, Edward D. Manzo (firstname.lastname@example.org), at Cook, Alex, McFarron, Manzo, Cummings & Mehler, Ltd. (in Chicago).
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