Sippy Cup Fight Spills Over To The CAFC. CAFC Tells Appellant To Listen To Your District Court.
What is innocently known by toddlers and parents alike as the “sippy cup” sets the scene for the just recently decided litigation between Learning Curve Brands and Munchkin, Inc., two producers of dueling sippy cup designs.
This tiff began with a similar but different litigation from 2007. In First Years, Inc. v. Munchkin, Inc., Learning Curve and a co-plaintiff sued Munchkin for infringement of patents related to their sippy cup designs. Specific to both party’s designs were “lids that snapped onto the body of the cup.” The court granted summary judgment motions, which were followed by a stipulation to a consent judgment.
Munchkin then defied Learning Curve’s admonishment and began to produce a version of the sippy cup with a screw top instead of a snap top. Appellant Learning Curve attempted unsuccessfully to have the district court find Munchkin in contempt for violation of the previous consent judgment.
Learning Curve got real upset and sued Munchkin in district court for alleged infringement of its 7,185,784 patent. In a claim construction hearing, the district court concluded that the snap method claimed was not incompatible with the screw-on top method. Also, the court found that the claim language of “semi-circular arcs of similar radii” includes rims that are in nearly continuous contact.
Applying this language, the lower court held that there was no literal infringement or infringement under the “Doctrine of Equivalents.” Under literal infringement, all elements of the patent claim must be infringed (see Larami Corp. v. Amron). The lower court, via evidence using a CT scanner, held that the grooves were not in contact enough to be “nearly continuous.” Under the doctrine of equivalents, the Graver Tank tripartite “substantiality test” states that a party infringes a patent when its product performs substantially the same function served by a particular claim element, the same way that element serves that function, with the same result obtained by that element. Here, the lower court found no infringement under the doctrine of equivalents because Munchkin’s sippy cup “did not do so in a substantially same way,” and thus it granted summary judgment in favor of Munchkin.
Learning Curve couldn’t calm down, and subsequent to the district court decision, via Fed. R. Civ. P. 59, moved to alter or amend the direct infringement decision by arguing that there was error in the interpretation of “nearly continuous contact.” The district court stated that whether there was error concerning “nearly continuous,” the court would have come to the same conclusion because the defendant’s cup did not have “semi-circular arcs of similar radii.”
On appeal, appellant Learning Curve argued that the “disputed claim term needed no construction and that under the plain meaning of that term” there was patent infringement. Additionally, if the court did accept the lower court’s claim construction, it should have been a factual issue presented to the jury. The CAFC held that it would not address the potential error in interpreting “nearly continuous” because, as a matter of law, it was clear that “the difference in the radii of the lids and the rims of the accused cups was so great that no reasonable jury could find the radii to be ‘similar.’” Thus the “accused cups do not satisfy the limitation in claim 1 of the ‘784 patent.”
The appellate court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment . . . and ordered both parties to take a time out (not really). Munchkin has since pushed the balance towards themselves regarding the coolness prong, having just added a GPS tracker to their lids.