Federal Circuit Chooses Absurdity Over Judicial Claim Redrafting
By Chinh Vo – Edited by Jad Mills
Haemonetics Corp. v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., No. 2009-1557 (Fed. Cir. June 2, 2010)
On June 2, 2010, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed the claim construction of the District Court for the District of Massachusetts and vacated a jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff in a patent infringement suit.
Haemonetics Corp. (“Haemonetics”) had filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Fenwal Inc. (“Fenwal”) alleging infringement of its patent for a compact blood centrifuge device. The district court, after construing the last two references to the term “centrifugal unit” in claim 16 as referring to only the centrifugal vessel and not also its adjoining tubing, had awarded over $11.3 million in lost profits damages and over $4.3 million in reasonable royalty damages. The appeals court disagreed with the district court’s claim construction, noting that language from the claim preamble clearly defined a centrifugal unit as including both “a centrifugal component and a plurality of tubes.” The court then vacated and remanded the jury verdict, the district court’s grant of judgment as a matter of law (“JMOL”) that claim 16 was not indefinite, the district court’s denial of JMOL that claim 16 was neither anticipated by prior invention nor obvious, and the district court’s award of prospective remedies, finding that all of these determinations relied on the district court’s erroneous claim construction.
At issue was claim 16 of U.S. Patent 6,705,983. While the claim’s premble defined a “centrifugal unit” to be the combination of both the vessel and the tubing, the district court construed the claim’s subsequent references to “centrifugal unit”, including one in the context of “height” and “radius” limitations, to refer only to the vessel. The district court reasoned that, because the vessel and the tubing together are always larger than the vessel alone, giving “centrifugal unit” a construction that includes the tubing in the context of the dimensional limitations “would yield an absurdity.”
The appeals court found this reasoning unconvincing. Writing for the panel, Judge Lourie noted that “[p]atent claims function to delineate the precise scope of a claimed invention and to give notice . . . of the patentee’s right to exclude.” As a result, the court must “construe claims with an eye toward giving effect to all of their terms, even if it renders the claims inoperable or invalid.” (internal citations omitted). Here, the court found the plain language of the claim “could hardly be clearer.” The preamble of claim 16 explicitly defined “centrifugal unit” to include the vessel and the tubing for the entire claim. Furthermore, according to the court, the fact that this interpretation of “centrifugal unit” was inconsistent with the term’s use in one of the patent’s other claims was irrelevant given claim 16’s explicit definition of the term.
The appeals court then vacated the district court’s grant of JMOL that the claim was not indefinite. Fenwal had claimed that the patent was indefinite because the term “radius” and “height” used to define the centrifugal unit could be measured at different places, and the patent did not disclose where to measure. The appeals court found that, because both parties had based their arguments in this matter upon the district court’s erroneous construction of “centrifugal unit,” it did not have sufficient evidence in the record to make its own determination and remanded to the district court. By the same reasoning, the court vacated and remanded the jury’s finding that the patent was not invalid due to anticipation or obviousness and the district court’s award of prospective remedies.
The Federal Circuit’s decision reinforces the notice-giving function of the patent system and sends a message cautioning patent-seekers to draft the language of their claims with utmost care. Though the court acknowledged that an error may have occurred in drafting claim 16, it refused to show mercy to Haemonetics, noting that the error was “what the patentee claimed and what the public is entitled to rely on.” The court added that it “do[es] not redraft claims to contradict their plain language in order to avoid a nonsensical result.”
Chinh Vo is a 2L at the Harvard Law School.