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Lift-U, A Division of Hogan Mfg., Inc., A California Corporation v. Ricon Corp.

October 28, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lucy H. Koh United States District Judge


Plaintiff Lift-U, Inc. ("Lift-U") filed suit against Defendants Ricon Corp. and Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies ("Defendants"), alleging infringement of four patents. The parties now 19 seek construction of ten disputed terms used in the claims of the patents. The Court held a tutorial 20 on September 19, 2011, and a claim construction hearing on September 23, 2011. The Court has 21 reviewed the claims, specifications, and other relevant evidence, and considered the briefing and 22 arguments of the parties. The Court now construes the terms at issue. 23


Lift-U designs, develops, manufactures and sells, among other things, fold-out ramps that 25 facilitate handicapped access to public buses. One of Lift-U's products, the "Fold Out Plus," 26 generally lies stowed against the bus floor and is flipped outward through the bus doorway to 27 deploy, similar to a flip-top cellular phone. Such ramps are very stable when stowed or deployed, 28 because gravity holds the flippable portion of the ramp in place. When the ramp is flipped between these two positions, gravity first pulls the ramp towards its starting position, making the flipping 2 hard to start. Midway through the flip, the ramp becomes momentarily balanced, before tipping 3 past its center of gravity and being pulled towards its final, post-flip position. 4

5 force that pushes against gravity. See '433 col. 1:40-53; 2:7-10; 10:15-47; 12:65-13:8. The 6 counterbalance force is provided by a spring or springs. These springs are rigged so that when the 7 ramp is vertical, balanced at its center of gravity, they do not push the ramp in either direction. Id. 8

The invention at issue makes flipping the ramp easier, by providing a "counterbalance"

In contrast, as the ramp tips towards a horizontal position -- stowed or deployed -- the springs 9 become compressed and push back against the force of gravity. Id.

7,533,434 ("the '434 patent") (collectively, "patents-in-suit"). These patents share a common 14 specification. This specification describes an embodiment in which each spring is held between 15 two spring fittings with a rigid rod extending through the spring's center (forming a "spring 16 assembly"). See '433 Patent col. 11:16-54.Each end of the rigid rod is attached to one end of a 17 drive chain. See id. col. 11:16-22. Drive chain segments and the spring assemblies are linked in a 18 series to form an "endless loop," and the ramp is attached to this loop, so that movement of the 19 ramp moves the loop. See id. col. 11:11-15; 12:23-41. A rigid paddle structure sticks into the path 20 of the endless loop. See id. col. 12:1-4. The drive chain slides through a hole in this structure, but 21 the spring fitting cannot. See id. col. 12:3-10. When the spring fitting catches against this 22 immobile "end stop" (a "restraint"), the spring begins compressing, creating a backwards force 23 away from the end stop. See id. col. 12:41-65. This backwards force pushes against the drive 24 chain and against the forces of gravity pulling the ramp. See id. col. 12:54-65. Because the drive 25 chain is narrow, it does not push against the spring directly, and the force from the spring does not 26 push back directly against the drive chain. Instead, the actual compressing of the spring towards 27 the restraint is done by a wider "cylindrical bushing" (a "biasing element") attached to the drive 28 chain. See id. col. 11:34-46; 12:41-53. Certain claims, including claims 10 and 17 of the '433

The ramp counterbalance invention is claimed in a family of four patents assigned to Lift- U:, a parent, United States Patent No. 7,681,272 ("the '272 patent"), and three continuations, United States Patent Nos. 7,533,432 ("the '432 patent"), 7,533,433 ("the '433 patent"), and Patent, achieve the same effect by permanently fixing one spring end to the restraint (rather than to 2 the spring fitting), while leaving the biasing element free until it moves into contact with the free 3 end of the spring and initiates compression. See id. col. 19:14-32; 20:11-32. 4

Lift-U filed for reexamination of the patents-in-suit, after emergence of a prior art 5 reference, the Wittwer Patent, which raised a substantial new question of patentability. See, e.g., Invalidity Mot., ECF No. , Ex. 11 (Request for Reexamination of the '433 Patent). Each patent 7 was amended during reexamination, and the USPTO issued a Certificate of Reexamination for each 8 patent. See Lift-U Claim Construction Br., Exs. I-L (Ex Parte Reexamination Certificates for the Patents in Suit).

The case is currently before the Court for construction of the following ten terms:

(1) "spring";

(2) "compression spring";

(3) "biasing element";

(4) "biasing assembly";

(5) "endless loop";

(6) "coupler";

(7) "force transmission element";

(8) "line;"

(9) "restraint"; and

(10) "spring fitting."

II.Legal Standard

Claim construction is a question of law to be determined by the Court. Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 52 F.3d 967, 979 (Fed. Cir. 1995) (en banc), aff'd 517 U.S. 370 (1996). 24

"Ultimately, the interpretation to be given a term can only be determined and confirmed with a full 25 understanding of what the inventors actually invented and intended to envelop with the claim."

Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1316 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (quoting Renishaw PLC v. Marposs 27 Societa' per Azioni, 158 F.3d 1243, 1250 (Fed. Cir. 1998)). Accordingly, a claim should be 28 construed in a manner that "stays true to the claim language and most naturally aligns with the 2 patent's description of the invention." Id. 3

In construing disputed terms, the Court looks first to the claims themselves. "It is a 'bedrock principle' of patent law that 'the claims of a patent define the invention to which the 5 patentee is entitled the right to exclude.'" Id. at 1312 (quoting Innova/Pure Water, Inc. v. Safari 6 Water Filtration Sys., Inc., 381 F.3d 1111, 1115 (Fed. Cir. 2004)). Generally, the words of a claim 7 should be given their "ordinary and customary meaning," which is "the meaning that the term[s] 8 would have to a person of ordinary skill in the art in question at the time of the invention." Id. at 9 1312-13. In some instances, the ordinary meaning to a person of skill in the art is clear, and claim 10 construction may involve "little more than the application of the widely accepted meaning of commonly understood words." Id. at 1314. In many cases, however, the meaning of a term to a person skilled in the art will not be readily apparent, and the Court must look to other sources to 13 determine the meaning of the term. Id.

claim, or by usage of the term in related claims. Id. Importantly, however, "the person of ordinary 16 skill in the art is deemed to read the claim term not only in the context of the particular claim in 17 which the disputed term appears, but in the context of the entire patent, including the 18 specification." Id. at 1313. Accordingly, claims "must be read in view of the specification, of 19 which they are a part." Id. at 1315 (quoting Markman, 52 F.3d at 979). Indeed, the specification is 20 415 F.3d at 1315 (quoting Vitronics Corp. v. Conceptronic, Inc., 90 F.3d 1576, 1582 (Fed. Cir. 1996)). At the same time, the Federal Circuit has cautioned against limiting claims to the specific 23 embodiments of the invention. Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1323. A court "should also consider the 24 patent's prosecution history, if it is in evidence." Id. (quoting Markman, 52 F.3d at 980).

26 dictionaries and treatises, to shed light on the claimed technology. Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1317.

However, such evidence is considered "less significant than the intrinsic record" and "less reliable 28 than the patent and its prosecution history in determining how to read claim terms." Id. at 1317-18

The meaning of a term may be illuminated by the context in which it is used in an asserted "always highly relevant" and "the single best guide to the meaning of a disputed term." Phillips, 21 In addition to such intrinsic evidence, a court may rely on extrinsic evidence, such as (quotation marks and citation omitted). Ultimately, while extrinsic evidence may be useful in 2 claim construction, "it is unlikely to result in a reliable interpretation of patent claim scope unless 3 considered in the context of the intrinsic evidence." Id. at 1319. 4

III. Discussion

As a preliminary matter, the parties agree that a person of ordinary skill in the art is a 6 mechanical engineer with a four year bachelor's degree in engineering and some design experience 7 relating to ramp and counterbalance mechanisms and knowledge of common machine elements.

A."Spring" and "compression spring"

The terms "spring" and "compression spring" are used throughout the patents-in-suit. The 10 parties propose to ...

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