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Bettcher Industries, Inc. v. Hantover, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Ohio, Western Division

January 9, 2018

Bettcher Industries, Inc., Plaintiff
v.
Hantover, Inc., Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Jeffrey J. Helmick, United States District Judge

         I. Background

         Bettcher Industries, Inc. makes Whizard® Trimmers, rotary trimming knives and accessories used for the commercial trimming of meat. Bettcher owns the patents relating to the housing and blades for these items. Hantover, Inc. also makes replacement parts for the Bettcher knives. It is Hantover's manufacturing and sale of these replacement parts which Bettcher claims infringes its patents and violates a 2007 settlement agreement between Bettcher and Heartland Fabrication & Machine, Inc. regarding some of the same patents at issue here. Hantover's alleged infringing items are distributed by Heartland. Although initially named as a Defendant in this litigation, on January 7, 2015, Heartland was dismissed from this litigation for lack of personal jurisdiction. (Doc. No. 28).

         Bettcher asserts five claims of patent infringement and breach of the 2007 settlement agreement against Hantover. The patents at issue include:

         U.S. Patent Nos. 6, 769, 184; 7, 000, 325; and 8, 074, 363 (Blade); and

         U.S. Patent Nos. 6, 662, 452; and 6, 978, 548 (Housing).

         The parties briefed the issues on claim construction (Doc. Nos. 33, 34, 35, 36, and 41) and submitted their Joint Claim Construction and Prehearing Statement (Doc. No. 37). I conducted a Markman hearing on July 20, 2015 and granted leave for post-hearing briefing to address an issue raised anew at the hearing. That supplemental briefing (Doc. Nos. 44, 46, and 47) is also before me. Having considered the arguments of the parties presented in both their memoranda and at the hearing, I make the following determinations.

         II. Applicable Legal Standard

         The meaning of patent claim terminology is a matter for the court and not the trier of fact. See Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 52 F.3d 967, 979 (Fed. Cir. 1995), aff'd 517 U.S. 370 (1996). As the claims of the patent, not its specifications, mark the measure of the invention, the Federal Circuit teaches that “analysis must begin and remain centered on the claim language itself, for that is the language the patentee has chosen to ‘particularly point [ ] out and distinctly claim [ ] the subject matter which the patentee regards as his invention.'” Innova/Pure Water v. Safari Water Filtration, 381 F.3d 1111, 1116 (Fed. Cir. 2004) (citations omitted).

         The Federal Circuit has consistently held “words of a claim ‘are generally given their ordinary and customary meaning.'” Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1312 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (quoting Vitronics Corp. v. Conceptronic, Inc., 90 F.3d 1576, 1582 (Fed. Cir. 1996)). “[O]rdinary and customary meaning of a claim term is the meaning that the term would have to a person of ordinary skill in the art in question at the time of the invention.” Id. at 1313.

         In ascertaining the ordinary and customary meaning, a court gives priority to the intrinsic evidence. Vitrionics, 90 F.3d at 1582. Consideration of the intrinsic record includes the claims themselves, the patent specification and prosecution history through the lens of one of ordinary skill in the art at the time of the invention. As stated by the Court in Phillips, “claims ‘must be read in view of the specification of which they are a part, ' as ‘it is the single best guide to the meaning of a disputed term.'” 415 F.3d at 1315. (Quotations omitted).

         A court may also consider extrinsic evidence which includes a variety of external resources such as testimony from the inventor or an expert as well as dictionaries and treatises. Id. at 1317. However, extrinsic evidence is given less significance than intrinsic evidence to determine “ ‘the legally operative meaning of claim language.'” Id. (Citations omitted).

         The Phillips Court also cautioned that “[t]he sequence of steps used by the judge in consulting various sources is not important; what matters is for the court to attach the appropriate weight to be assigned to those sources in light of the statutes and policies that inform patent law.” Id. at 1324.

         With this general framework in mind, I now turn to the claims in dispute.

         III. Claim Construction

         A. Frustoconical

         Bettcher proposes the term “frustoconical[1]” be given the same meaning as adopted by Judge Zouhary in related litigation[2] wherein he defined this to be “the shape of a portion of an exterior surface of a cone. Cone means a solid generated by a straight line, one end of which remains fixed while the other end moves around a closed curve.” (Doc. No. 33-8, p.4).

         Hantover proposes a construction which states “having the shape of the exterior surface of a cone with the narrow end or tip removed.” Hantover contends this construction is consistent with the dictionary definition and consistent with the drawings illustrating frustoconical bearing surfaces in the ‘325 patent.

         Bettcher contends that its proposed definition provides clarity on the definition of a cone and prevents confusion down the road on this issue. In contrast, Hantover argues in favor of a simpler description which does not define the word cone because its inclusion has the potential to confuse the jury.

         In addition, Bettcher argues against use of the description “with the narrow end or tip removed” because the drawing depicting the alleged infringing blade does not show the tip removed and that also runs the risk of confusing the jury.

         Both sides are at odds over the definition of a cone within the description and Bettcher advocates exclusion of Hantover's language regarding removal of the narrow end or tip. As there is agreement on both sides that neither the blade patents nor the prosecution history limit the definition, I turn to extrinsic resources to aid in this determination.

         Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines “frustoconical” as “of the shape of a frustum of a cone.” Webster's Third New International Dictionary 917 (3d ed. 19). This same dictionary defines “frustum” as:

1: the part of a cone-shaped solid next to the base and formed by cutting off the top by a plane parallel to the base; also : the part of a solid (as a cone or pyramid) intersected between two planes that are either parallel or sometimes inclined to each other 2: one of the drums of the shaft of a column.

Id.

         Nayler's Dictionary of Mechanical Engineering 84 (4th ed. 1996 or 2006) defines cone as:

(a) A solid generated by a straight line, one end of which remains fixed while the other moves around a closed curve.
right circular cone A cone formed when the closed curve is a circle. All transverse sections are circular. The fixed point is the “apex, ” the centre line is the “axis, ” and the constant angle between the moving line and the centre line is the “cone angle.”
(b) The stepped driving pulley used in belting on a machine tool for the governing of different speeds, sometimes called the “speed cone.”
(c) The conical race for balls in certain types of ball-bearing.

         Considering these resources and the parties' arguments, while Hantover's definition is simpler, I do not find the definition of a cone will confuse but instead will be of guidance for the trier of fact.

         Therefore, I find the following to be an appropriate definition of the term “frustoconical”: “having the shape of a portion of the exterior surface of a cone with the narrow end or tip removed; a cone being a solid generated by a straight line, one end of which remains fixed while the other end moves around a closed curve.”

         B. “Bearing Face/Surface/Location”

         The parties disagree over construction of the terms characterized by Bettcher to include “bearing face, ” “bearing surface, ” and “bearing location, ” regarding the blade patents. The parties' definitions are set forth as contained in Exhibit A to their Joint Construction and Prehearing Statement:

Term

Bettcher Definition

Hantover Definition

(first and second) bearing surface

“the area of a part capable of supporting mutual contact with another part”

the portions of the annular bearing race that engage or contact the bearing structure

bearing location

“the area of a part capable of supporting mutual contact with another part”

areas where the blade and blade support member are in engagement or contact with each other

(Doc. No. 37 at pp. 6-10).

         The difference between the two definitions centers on whether Bettcher's “capable of supporting mutual contact” definition is the proper construction versus Hantover's requirement “to engage or contact the bearing structure.”

I first turn to consider the intrinsic evidence. In looking at the patent specifications, each abstract describes, “[t]he blade and blade supporting structure are engagable along bearing contact locations. . .”. (Doc. Nos. 33-2, p. 1; 33-3, p.1; 33-4, p.1). The same holds true for language under the summary section. (Doc. Nos. 33-2, p. 7; 33-3, p.7, 33-4, p. 8). The specification of the ‘325 patent offered by Hantover as evidence in support its position uses the terms “engaged” and “engagable”:

FIGS. 10-14 are illustrative of a modified knife that embodies the present invention. The knife of FIGS. 10-14 is constructed like the knife except for the blade support structure 120 and the blade 122. Accordingly, only the blade support structure 120 and the blade 122 are illustrated and described in detail to the extent they differ from the blade support structure 16 and the blade 20. Reference should be made to FIGS. 1-9 and the associated description for details of the remaining parts of the knife of FIGS. 10-14. Parts of the blade support structure 120 and blade 122 that are the same as parts of the blade support structure 16 and blade 20 are indicated by corresponding primed reference characters.
The blade support structure 120 supports the blade 122 for rotation about its central axis 124 with the blade and blade support structure engagable at least at spaced apart bearing locations proceeding in the direction of the axis 124. The axially spaced bearing locations suspend the blade so that the blade and blade housing remain spaced apart except for the bearing locations. See FIG. 14.
The blade support structure 120 is constructed substantially like the blade support structure 16 except that its outer peripheral wall 130 defines a series of circumferentially spaced apart, radically thickened wall sections 132. The wall sections 132 define radically inwardly facing frustoconical bearing faces 133, 134 that are substantially centered on the axis 124 and converge proceeding in opposite axial directions. These bearing faces are engaged by bearing bead surfaces on the blade along narrow lines of contact. In the preferred embodiment the bearing faces 133, 134 form walls of inwardly opening grooves formed in each thickened wall section 132. The portions of the peripheral wall 130 between the thickened sections are relieved and spaced away from the blade bead surfaces at all times (FIG. 13).

(Doc. No. 33-3 at pp. 9-10) (emphasis added).

         Claim 1 of the ‘184 patent also references bearing locations in the following manner:

1. A power operated knife comprising a handle, headpiece, blade support structure, and an annular blade member supported for rotation about a central axis by said blade support structure, said blade support structure comprised of a blade support member extending substantially continuously about said blade member, said blade member and blade support member engagable at least at three bearing locations spaced apart circumferentially proceeding about said axis each of said bearing locations comprising first and second lines of bearing contact spaced apart in the direction of said central axis said axially spaced lines of ...

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