Felix v. American Honda (Fed. Cir. 2009)
Mr. Felix sued Honda for infringement of his patent covering a truck bed with a storage compartment underneath the bed. The Honda Ridgeline advertises a "lockable In-Bed Trunk®" that appears to serve the same overall purpose. The problem is that Felix's asserted claim is rather narrow and the district court found no literal infringement and no infringement under the doctrine of equivalents. Asserted claim 6 reads as follows:
6. In combination with a vehicle including a vehicle bed, the improvement of a storage system which includes: a) an opening formed in the vehicle bed and including an opening rim; b) a compartment with an interior; c) said compartment being mounted on said bed with said compartment interior accessible through said opening; d) a lid assembly including lid mounting means for mounting said lid in covering relation with respect to said opening; e) a channel formed at the rim of said bed opening and including an inner flange; f) a weathertight gasket mounted on said flange and engaging said lid in its closed position; and g) a plurality of drain holes formed in said channel.
In particular, the accused Honda truck bed has a "weathertight gasket" mounted on the lid rather than to the flange as claimed in the Felix patent.
On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed the lower court's judgment of non-infringement – finding Honda did not literally infringe and that Felix's claim under the doctrine of equivalents (DOE) was foreclosed by prosecution history estoppel. Here, I will discuss the DOE dispute.
Doctrine of Equivalents: The patent claims spell out the boundaries of an inventor's claimed invention. However, courts may extend the scope of exclusionary rights beyond the literal claim language to capture equivalent products. In recent years, the doctrine of equivalents has been limited. This case, the doctrine of prosecution history estoppel came into play because Felix had narrowed his claims prosecution. (Actually, the applicant cancelled the broad independent claims and re-wrote the dependent claims into independent form. Under Honeywell, that process has the same estoppel effect as narrowing the independent claim.)
Tangential: The presumption of estoppel can be overcome with evidence that the reason for the narrowing amendment is no more than tangentially related to the equivalent in question. The evidentiary standard for proving the "no more than tangential relationship" is quite high. Here, Felix offered a credible alternative explanation, but the Federal Circuit rejected his argument because (1) he did not prove that his alternative was "the only reason" for the amendment and (2) he did not "explain the entire amendment."
"Because we conclude that Felix is barred by the doctrine of prosecution history estoppel from relying on the doctrine of equivalents to prove that the accused In-Bed Trunk meets the gasket limitation, we also affirm the district court's summary judgment of no infringement by equivalents."
Drafting Strategies: One interesting aspect of this case is that Felix had to go through a couple of rounds of amendments. After first amending to add the gasket, Felix then had to amend again to secure allowance. Although the first amendment did not directly lead to allowance, the narrowing amendment still created a presumption of estoppel:
"The fact that the first amendment did not succeed and that a further amendment was required to place the claim in allowable form, however, is of no consequence as to the estoppel. It is the patentee's response to a rejection—not the examiner's ultimate allowance of a claim—that gives rise to prosecution history estoppel.
We therefore hold that the presumption of prosecution history estoppel attaches when a patentee cancels an independent claim and rewrites a dependent claim in independent form for reasons related to patentability, even if the amendment alone does not succeed in placing the claim in condition for allowance."
Judge Linn also pointed to an "open question" in footnote 4:
"We leave open the question of whether the presumption of surrender would have attached as to the gasket limitation if, in response to the first office action, Felix had cancelled both claim 1 and claim 7, and had rewritten claim 8 in independent form, instead of attempting to secure the broader coverage of rewritten claim 7 as an intermediate step."
[Corrected 3:40 CST]