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Pit Barrel Cooker Co., LLC v. Barrel House Cooker, LLC

United States District Court, D. Colorado

July 24, 2017



          Marcia S. Krieger Chief United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court in response to a request for construction of the parties' disputed patent claims. The Court has reviewed the parties' Joint Disputed Claim Terms Chart (# 43), the Defendants' Claim Construction Brief (# 44), the Plaintiff's Response Brief #46), and the Defendants' Reply brief (# 47).[1]


         Plaintiff Pit Barrel Cooker Co. (“PBC”) is the holder of U.S. Patent No. 8, 919, 334 (“the ‘334 Patent” or “the Patent”) which was issued in 2011. The Patent describes a “portable barrel cooker, ” consisting of “an upright barrel enclosure with an open end, a removable lid, a pre- measured heat source basket, an adjustable venting member, and dual suspension frames or [a] grate.”

         PBC alleges that in June 2014, it entered into negotiations with the Defendants (collectively, “MD”) with an eye toward having MD assist with the manufacturing of PBC's cooker and related products. PBC provided MD with an array of product designs and business information. It alleges that MD used PBC's information to design and manufacture its own barrel cooker which it then sold in competition with PBC's product.

         Based on these allegations, PBC commenced this action, alleging seven claims: (i) that MD's product infringes upon the ‘334 Patent, in violation of 35 U.S.C. § 1 et seq.; (ii) theft of trade secrets in violation of the Colorado Uniform Trade Secrets Act, C.R.S. § 7-74-101 et seq.; (iii) breach of contract, apparently under Colorado law, in that the Defendants breached a nondisclosure agreement with PBC; (iv) tortious interference with contract and with prospective business advantage, apparently under Colorado law, relating to MD's interference with contracts that PBC had with its manufacturers; (v) unjust enrichment, apparently under Colorado law; (vi) civil conspiracy, apparently under Colorado law, in that the various Defendants conspired to misappropriate PBC's business information and infringe upon its patents; (vii) violation of the Colorado Consumer Protection Act, C.R.S. § 6-1-105, in that MD “knowingly pass[ed] off [PBC]'s goods as their own, ” “fail[ed] to disclose material information concerning the products, ” and made false or misleading representations regarding the quality of goods used by PBC in the construction of its products; and (viii) civil theft, in violation of C.R.S. § 18-4-405, in that the Defendants “committed theft of [PBC's] trade secrets” by obtaining them under false pretenses and distributing them to unauthorized individuals.

         Presently before the Court is the parties' request for construction of nine terms in the Patent.


         A. Claim construction standards

         The fundamental purpose of a patent is to give notice to others of that in which the inventor claims exclusive rights. Oakley Inc. v. Sunglass Hut International, 316 F.3d 1331, 1340 (Fed. Cir. 2003). Thus, the focus of claim construction is ascertaining how a reasonable competitor would understand the claim language, rather than what the inventor intended the language to mean. Id. at 1340-41. The words used in the patent are given their “ordinary and customary meaning, ” as would be understood by a person of ordinary skill in the art at the time of the invention. Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1312-13 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (en banc).

         In some circumstances, the specification may reveal that the inventor specifically, albeit idiosyncratically, defined a term in a way that might differ from the meaning it would otherwise be given. If the intrinsic record clearly discloses that the inventor resorted to his or her own peculiar lexicography, the Court gives effect to the inventor's unique idiom; however, if the inventor used particular words without giving a clear indication of an intent to endow them with an unusual meaning, the Court will give those words their ordinary and customary meaning in the art, notwithstanding the inventor's subjective intent to invoke a different definition. See e.g. Laryngeal Mask Co. v Ambu, 618 F.3d 1367, 1372 (Fed. Cir. 2010).

         To give meaning to the inventor's language, the Court “looks to those sources available to the public that show what a person of skill in the art would have understood disputed claim language to mean.” Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1314. Among those sources are: (i) the words of the claims themselves; (ii) the remainder of the patent's specification; (iii) the prosecution history of the patent; (iv) extrinsic evidence concerning relevant scientific principles; (v) the common meanings of technical terms used; and (vi) the state of the art at the time of the invention. Id. Terms are be construed in light of the entirety of the patent, not just in the context of the particular claim(s) they appear in. Id. at 1313. In other words, claim language must be read in conjunction with the more general and descriptive specification portion of the patent; indeed, the specification is often “the single best guide to the meaning of a disputed term.” Id. at 1315. Because the patent is examined as a whole, the Court assumes that claim terms will normally be used consistently throughout the patent, and thus, the meaning of a term used in one claim can illustrate the meaning of that same term used elsewhere in the patent. Id. at 1314.

         As with the specification, evidence of the prosecution history of the patent can also be considered as intrinsic evidence of how the USPTO and the inventor understood the patent. Id. at 1317. The prosecution history reflects “an ongoing negotiation between the PTO and the applicant, ” and can sometimes demonstrate that the inventor limited or disclaimed some portion of a claim. Id. At the same time, because the prosecution history predates the final patent language, the prosecution history “often lacks the clarity of the specification and thus is less useful for claim construction purposes.” Id.

         Extrinsic evidence of disputed terms - that is, “all evidence external to the patent and prosecution history, including expert and inventor testimony, dictionaries, and learned treatises” - can also shed light on the proper construction to be given to those terms, but extrinsic evidence “in general [is] less reliable than the patent and prosecution history in determining how to read claim terms.” Id. at 1318. The court in Phillips articulated a variety of reasons why a court construing a patent should be wary of relying too heavily on extrinsic evidence, and cautions that, while admissible and potentially probative, courts “should keep in mind the flaws inherent in each time of [extrinsic] evidence and assess that evidence accordingly.” Id. at 1318-19.

         B. Particular claim terms

         1. “metal drum”

         All of the independent claims in the Patent describe a “metal drum” as the housing of the cooker. Claim 1 further describes that drum as being “of cylindrical configuration and of uniform diameter”; Claim 8 describes it as being “vertically positioned” and “hollow”; and Claim 17 describes it as “upright.” PBC proposes[2] that the term “metal drum” be construed to mean a “metal cylinder.” MD proposes that it be defined as “a cylindrical drum having a continuous cylindrical wall from the top of the drum to the bottom of the drum, with no separable cylindrical sections.” The Court understands that the parties' dispute on this point focuses on whether the metal drum must be a one-piece cylinder or whether it may be comprised of several stacked cylindrical sections.

         The Specification describes the drum as “an upright cylindrical hollow member having . . . vertical sidewalls” or “a barrel with one closed end.”[3] 2:22-25. It explains that the drum “is uniformly constructed of sheet metal with a constant thickness throughout.” 2:31-33. Beyond these statements, the Patent does not suggest any other limitations, including any limitation as to whether the drum may be a single piece or created in sections. In such circumstances, the Court will not read a one-piece limitation into the Patent. Thus, the Court adopts PBC's proposed construction and construes the term “metal drum” to mean, simply, “a metal cylinder.”

         2. “lower closed end” / “closed bottom portion”

         Claims 1 and 17 describe the metal drum as “having a lower closed end.” Claim 8 describes the drum as “having a closed bottom portion.” PBC proposes that these terms be construed to mean that it has an “enclosed edge.” MD proposes that the terms be construed to mean “a ...

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