Litigation on clamping systems: Matter fixed?

Case No. O2012_016 ¦ Main Hearing of 03 December 2014

This case pertains to clamping systems for compacting of metal and ceramic powder. Parties to the proceedings are Erowa AG as the plaintiff and ProGrit GmbH as the defendant.

The allegedly infringing devices of the defendant are abbreviated as RCS (roller clamping system) and SCS (segmented clamping system). Screenshots taken on 06 January 2015 from the defendant’s website are embedded below.

Note that the roller clamping system RCS is not available in Germany and Austria, but rather only a

new version RCS II without heightended surface sections at the chuck.

From the hearing, it became evident that this suit had been lodged already more than 5 years ago; it had thus been transferred to the FPC from a formerly competent cantonal court. Moreover, the parties have been before courts in other jurisdictions on this matter, too (see references below for each of the patents in dispute). Noteworthy, Progrit’s managing partner Dietmar Walter Kramer had been Head R&D at Erowa until 2004 (cf. CV, as found online on December 24, 2014; markup added).

1.  THE PATENTS IN SUIT

i)  The Swiss part of EP 1 068 918 B1

The first patent in suit is the Swiss part of EP 1 068 918 B1. Please see Swissreg for the bibliographic details.

As indicated above, this matter was also litigated elsewhere, e.g. in Germany. Please see DPMAregister for bibliographic details of the German part of the European patent. In Germany, the patent has most recently been upheld in amended form, published as DE 500 08 295 C5; see the decision 4 Ni 43/10 (EP) of the German Federal Patent Court (issued 08 November 2012) and the decision X Zr 148/12 of the German Supreme Court (issued 29 July 2014); and a correction thereof.

The courts in Dusseldorf dealt with the corresponding infringment proceedings; see decision 4a O 270/09 of the Dusseldorf Regional Court (LG) and decision 2 U 29/13 of the Dusseldorf Higher Regional Court (OLG). The decision of the OLG already takes into account the amended wording of the patent as upheld by the Supreme Court with decision X Zr 148/12 (see above).

ii)  The Swiss part of EP 1 068 919 B1

The second patent in suit is the Swiss part of EP 1 068 919 B1. Please see Swissreg for the bibliographic details.

The German counterpart was also litigated in Germany. Please see DPMAregister for bibliographic details. In first instance, the German Federal Patent Court decided to maintain the patent in amended form; see decision 4 Ni 20/11 (EP) of 24 September 2013 (the decision is res judicata).

Again, corresponding infringement proceedings were dealt with by the Dusseldorf courts; see decision 4a O 84/10 of the Dusseldorf Regional Court (LG) and decision 2 U 58/11 of the Dusseldorf Higher Regional Court (OLG).

iii)  CH 699 547 B1

The third patent in suit is CH 699 547 B1; see Swissreg for the bibliographic details.

2.  WHAT THE HEARING WAS ALL ABOUT

The hearing was somewhat exceptional in that the discussion did not concern technical matters at all. Rather, pleadings revolved around highly interesting points of law.

i)  Allowable submissions after closure of the file

last chance
Not always that clear

A first issue relates to the restriction of the request for injunctive relief. It was undisputed that a restriction of the request for injunctive relief constitutes a limitation of the claim which is explicitly permitted at any time; see Art. 227(3) CPC. However, the right of the plaintiff to present new facts in support of such a restricted request was under dispute. Note that the amendment(s) to the requests were made only after the second round of written submissions, i.e. when the closure of the file (“Aktenschluss”) had already occured; see Art. 229(2) CPC and the decision 4A_73/2014 (r. 6.3.2.3) of the Supreme Court. Go figure: Being allowed to limit your request for injunctive relief, but not being allowed to freely argue in support of this limited request? That’s a nasty situation for a plaintiff!

The plaintiff argued that Art. 227(3) CPC should overrule Art. 229 CPC. Otherwise, a limitation of the claim (which is explicitly permitted in Art. 227(3) CPC at any time) would be impossible in patent infringement proceedings. In practice, it is rather unlikely that a patentee would be in a position to argue in support of infringement of a limited request and validity of a limited patent claim (see below) without having to present new facts. You cannot reasonably stockpile for each and every situation that might occur, be it a decision of a foreign court in co-pending proceedings on the same patent family, or new prior art that comes to light.

Moreover, the plaintiff argued that even the requirements of Art. 229 CPC were fulfilled for all patents in suit, essentially as follows:

The decision of the German Federal Supreme Court with respect to the German counterpart of the first patent in suit (see above) constitutes proper nova; see Art. 229(1) lit. a CPC and the decision 5A_568/2012 of the Swiss Federal Supreme Court, r. 4. Moreover, the patentee / plaintiff had partially surrendered the patent vis-à-vis the Patent Office (Art. 24 PatA) to bring the wording of the claim in line with the decision of the German Supreme Court. This would also constitute a new fact and the patentee / plaintiff should be allowed to present new facts in support of validity and infringement of the limited claim (like in the corresponding proceedings in Germany, see above). Note, however, that the limitation had not yet been published at the date of the hearing, and the FPC apparently dismissed a request of the patentee to postpone the hearing until publication of the limitation.

With respect to the second and the third patent in suit, the plaintiff argued that the preliminary assessment of the reporting judge and the decision 4 Ni 20/11 (EP) of the German Federal Patent Court constitute nova according to Art. 229(1) CPC, and that it should likewise be allowed to present new facts in support of validity and infringement of correspondingly limited claims that address these newly raised issues.

In sum, this boils down to three scenarios of limitations to a patent claim / request for injunctive relief: Is it allowed to present new facts in support of a limited claim / request, when the limitation is occasioned by: –

  1. … a corresponding decision in another country?
  2. … a statement in the preliminary assessment of the reporting judge?
  3. … a partial surrender of the patent?

ii)  Limitation under Art. 24 lit. c / partial invalidity

The patentee / plaintiff asserted that the patents in suit are valid and infringed on the basis of independent patent claims that were to be limited by incorporation of features taken from the description (i.e., not a combination of an independent claim with a dependent claim).

In the present proceedings, the defendant did not lodge a counterclaim for nullity but rather argued for nullity as a mere plea in defense. Apparently, the FPC had indicated to the parties in writing beforehand that it is doubtful whether it is possible at all to limit a claim on the basis of a feature taken from the description vis-à-vis the FPC, or if this shall only be possible when a counterclaim for nullity had been lodged (see Art. 27 PatA). E. Brunner in Der Patentverletzungsprozess (SMI 1994, p 127) favours the latter. Even though the plaintiff / patentee fiercely rebutted this view, the prior information from the FPC had prompted the plaintiff / patentee to declare the partial surrender of the patents vis-à-vis the patent office before the hearing. The partial surrender had not yet been officially published when the hearing took place, but had already been approved by the patent office.

A decision of the FPC on these highly interesting points of law would definitely make a good read. However, the parties finally entered into settlement negotiations and it remains to be seen if a decision will be issued at all.

Reported by Susanna RUDER and Martin WILMING

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Case No. O2012_016 ¦ Main Hearing of 03 December 2014

Erowa AG ./. ProGrit GmbH

Composition of the Board of the FPC:

  • Dr. Dieter BRÄNDLE (President; Judge)
  • Dr. Tobias BREMI (Judge)
  • Dr. Kurt SUTTER (Reporting Judge)
  • Esther SCHEITLIN (Court Clerk)

Representative(s) of Plaintiff:

  • Dr. Thierry CALAME (Lenz & Staehelin)
  • René RUF (Rottmann, Zimmermann + Partner), assisting in patent matters

Representative(s) of Defendant:

  • Dr. Mark SCHWEIZER (MLL)
  • Dr. Reinhard OERTLI (MLL)
  • Willi LUCHS (Luchs & Partner), assisting in patent matters
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