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Smart Vent Inc v. Usa Floodair Vents

May 25, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Jerome B. Simandle


SIMANDLE, District Judge:


One of the claims in this lawsuit is that Defendant manufactured and sold flood vents that infringed on Plaintiff's patent, United States Patent Number 5,944,445, entitled "Device and Method for Relieving Flooding from Enclosed Space." (Compl. ¶ 19-25; Pl.'s Ex. A "Patent '445.") The Court convened a ClaimConstruction Hearing on May 16, 2011 to determine the proper interpretation of certain disputed terms in Plaintiff's patent. See L. Pat. R. 4.6. The principal issues are whether the phrase "enclosed space" as used in the patent includes the walls surrounding the space; whether the patent's use of the adjective "tidal" limits it to flooding related to the tides of the ocean, as distinct from rising and falling flood water generally; and whether the description of the operation of the flood gate's latching mechanism is amenable to construction.


Patent Number 5,944,445 describes a flood gate that is used as both a ventilation system for enclosed spaces and as a pressure release valve in the event of flooding. (Patent '445 Col. 2 ln. 57 - Col. 3 ln. 50.) The preferred embodiment is the size of one or two cinder blocks and is secured to an opening in the wall. (Patent '445 Col. 4 ln. 15-24.) It features temperature-controlled shutters for appropriate ventilation under ordinary conditions, and during times of flooding a larger gate swings open to vent water in order to equalize pressure between the inside and outside of the enclosed space. (Patent '445 Col. 2 ln. 57 - Col. 3 ln. 50.)

The conclusion of the invention's description includes the following claims as to the subject matter of the invention:

1. A flood gate for use in an enclosed space, the flood gate comprising: a frame having side walls defining a fluid passageway therethrough; a door pivotally mounted in said frame for bidirectional rotation between two open positions and a closed position therebetween to permit tidal water flow therethrough; and, at least one catching assembly for holding the door in said closed position against a minimum level of pressure of said tidal water flow; whereby tidal flood waters exceeding said minimum pressure level are automatically vented through said enclosed space reducing a risk of structural damage from said tidal flood waters.

. . . 6. The flood gate according to claim 1, wherein said catching assembly comprises: at least one catch; at least one resilient member; and, at least one detent sleeve; whereby the catching assembly can maintain said door in said closed position until said minimum pressure is applied to cause the door to swing into one of said open positions.

7. The flood gate according to claim 1 wherein said enclosed space is a foundation crawl space. (Patent '445 Col. 5 ln. 56 - Col. 6 ln. 66.)

Plaintiff claims that Defendant infringed this patent. Defendant maintains that the language of the claims limits Plaintiff's patent to a device to be used entirely within an enclosed space to vent ocean tides - rendering the device inoperable, if not nonsensical. Defendant further argues that Claim 6's description of the catching assembly and itsconstituent parts is not amendable to construction.


A. Standard of Review

The patent code requires a patent to describe the invention sufficiently to enable one of ordinary skill in the art to make and use it. 35 U.S.C. § 112, para. 1; Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 52 F.3d 967, 979 (Fed. Cir. 1995). This description of the invention, called the specification, typically includes drawings and an explanation of the preferred embodiment of the invention. The statute also requires the applicant for a patent to conclude the specification of the invention with claims "particularly pointing out and distinctly claiming the subject matter which the applicant regards as his invention." § 112, para. 2; Markman, 52 F.3d at 979. Though it is interpreted in light of the entire patent, it is solely this set of carefully-worded technical descriptions called claims that ultimately determine the bounds of what is protected by the patent. Id. at 980.

Claim construction is the determination of what is and is not covered by the claims. Netword, LLC v. Central Corp., 242 F.3d 1347, 1352 (Fed. Cir. 2001). The meaning of the claims is a matter of law to be decided by the Court. Novartis Corp. v. Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc., 565 F. Supp. 2d 595, 602-03 (D.N.J.2008) (citing Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 517 U.S. 370, 377-90 (1996)). The Court's task is to give each disputed term the ordinary and customary meaning that the term would have to a person of ordinary skill in the art in question at the time of the invention. Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1313 (Fed. Cir. 2005).

To determine the proper meaning of a disputed term in a claim, the Court looks first to the intrinsic evidence: the claim language itself, the specification, and the prosecution history. See Digital Biometrics, Inc. v. Identix, Inc., 149 F.3d 1335, 1344 (Fed. Cir. 1998). Claims are not meant to be read as an independent text. Instead, they are to be interpreted consistently with the patent as a whole. See Markman, 517 U.S. at 389 ("[A claim] term can be defined only in a way that comports with the instrument as a whole."); Merck & Co. v. Teva Pharms. USA, Inc., 347 F.3d 1367, 1371 (Fed. Cir. 2003) ("[C]laims must be construed so as to be consistent with the specification, of which they are a part.") Netword, 242 F.3d at 1352 ("The claims are directed to the invention that is described in the specification; they do not have meaning removed from the context from which they arose.").

If the intrinsic evidence fails to disclose the meaning of a claim's terms, a court may look to extrinsic evidence, such as expert and inventor testimony, dictionaries, and learned treatises. Novartis, 565 F. Supp. 2d at 607. The Court may "rely on dictionary definitions when construing claim terms, so long as the dictionary definition does not contradict any definition found in or ascertained by a reading of the patent documents." Vitronics Corp. v. Conceptronic, Inc., 90 F.3d 1576, 1384 n.6 (Fed. Cir. 1996); see also Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1318-19.

When there is genuine ambiguity in the meaning of a term, it should be construed to preserve the validity of the patent. Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1327 (citing Generation II Orthotics Inc. v. Med. Tech. Inc., 263 F.3d 1356, 1365 (Fed. Cir. 2001)). Conversely, when a claim as written is susceptible to only one interpretation, then the Court cannot rewrite the claim in order to preserve the ...

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