US court cleans up Nestlé’s patent disputes


US court cleans up Nestlé’s patent disputes

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The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has handed victory to Nestlé in two patent appeals relating to the sterilisation of packaging.

Circuit Judge Todd Hughes delivered the two precedential judgments yesterday, March 13.

In the first case, Steuben Foods, an American producer of processed foods, appealed against the decision of the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) following the inter partes review (IPR) of US patent number 6,475,435. Steuben’s patent is directed towards the provision of sterilisation zones in a packaging tunnel.

Swiss food and drink company Nestlé argued that the patent's claims were obvious in light of prior art and the board agreed.

On appeal, Steuben claimed that the board had erred in construing the claim term “sterilant concentration levels” as broadly as it did.

Rather than being interpreted as the concentration of sterilant at any point within the sterilisation tunnel, the PTAB should have construed the term as “the amount of sterilant in the volume of pressurised gas”  within the different packaging zones, Steuben claimed.

Hughes said that Steuben’s construction “impermissibly restricts the claim term to a specific embodiment disclosed in the specification” and that Steuben had failed to identify any language in the claims which support its limited interpretation.

Steuben also argued that the PTAB had failed to identify prior art disclosing two claims of the ‘435 patent, relating to the ratio of sterilant concentration levels, an argument which the appeals court rejected.

The Federal Circuit affirmed the board’s finding that the claims would have been obvious in light of a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation which references the ratio of chemicals necessary to sterilise food packaging.

The ‘435 patent was also found to be obvious in light of US patent number 4,417,607, a patent owned by packaging company Scholle Corporation and directed towards sterilisation methods in a tunnel.

In the precedential decision the Federal Circuit upheld the PTAB’s finding of invalidity. Hughes said that the court found “no reversible error” in the board’s decision.

In the second case, Nestlé had appealed against an IPR which found that one claim relating Steuben’s patent number 6,481,468B1 was not obvious.

The Swiss company said the board had erred by applying an erroneous construction of “aseptic” and “aseptically disinfecting”.

Nestlé had previously appealed against the board’s construction of “aseptic” in a separate IPR involving Steuben. In that dispute, the Federal Circuit vacated the board’s construction and construed the term to mean the “FDA level of aseptic”.

In yesterday's decision, the court found that the doctrine of collateral estoppel, which protects a party from having to litigate issues that have already been tried in a previous action, applied so that Nestlé did not “need to revisit an issue that was already resolved against Steuben”.

Hughes said that Steuben already “had a full and fair opportunity” to litigate the matter of how “aseptic” should be understood during the parties’ previous dispute.

The Federal Circuit vacated the board’s decision to uphold the patent claim and remanded it for further proceedings, confirming that “aseptic” should be construed as meaning the “FDA level of aseptic”.

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