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Lear Corporation v. NHK Seating of America, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

April 23, 2018

Lear Corporation Plaintiff
v.
NHK Seating of America, Inc. Defendant

          SPECIAL MASTER REPORT AND RULING ON CLAIM CONSTRUCTION

          HON. LAURIE J. MICHELSON, DISTRICT JUDGE

         TABLE OF CONTENTS

         Procedural History 3

         The Patents-In General 3 - 4

         The Law 4 - 5

         Claim Construction ‘043 patent

         Claims asserted, text 6 - 13

         Construction (a) - (e) 13 - 15

         ‘949 patent

         Claims asserted, text 15- 16

         Construction (f) 17

         ‘733 patent

         Claims asserted, text 17 - 18

         Construction (g) (h) 18 - 20

         ‘357 patent

         Claims asserted, text 20 - 22

         Construction (i) 22 - 24

         ‘818 patent

         Claims asserted, text 24 - 26

         Construction (j) (k) (1) 26- 27

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         By Order of Reference dated March 2, 2018, the Honorable Laurie J. Michelson, United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division referred this matter to Special Master James F. Davis, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 53. The order noted that the “volume and complexity” of the issues raised in this patent case is “good cause to appoint a special master”, in particular for preparation of “a report and recommendation regarding . . . claim construction.”

         The parties briefed the issues and a claim construction hearing was held on March 16, 2018 before Judge Michelson. A copy of the Special Master's Report and Ruling was submitted to counsel on March 30, 2018 for “suggestions”, pursuant to instructions by the Court. Rule 53, Advisory Committee Notes, 2003 Amendments, Subdivision (f); Order of Reference, Paragraph (7). The parties responded with “suggestions” which were helpful and are reflected in the “final report” where “deemed appropriate.” Order, Paragraph (7).

         THE PATENTS - IN GENERAL

         There are five patents in suit:

U.S. 5, 378, 043 (‘043);
6, 631, 949 (‘949);
6, 655, 733 B2 (‘733);
7, 455, 357 B2 ('357); and
8, 434, 818 B2 (‘818).

         The claims asserted to be infringed are:

‘043 (14, 45, 49, 57, 62, 86, 90 and 94);
‘949 (4 and 17);
‘733 (15);
‘357 (1, 4, 5, 18 and 19) and
‘818 (2).

         The patents all deal with automobile seats having attached headrests. The headrests are designed and function to minimize injury to passengers resulting from rear-end or front-end automobile collisions. The patents are not related as “family” in patent law parlance, i.e. continuations, continuations-in-part or divisions. They are however related in the sense that they all deal with complex mechanical features by which the automobile seats and headrests are constructed and act together.

         The patents have one common inventor, Mladen Humer, East Detroit, Michigan, and a variety of other inventors. ‘043 was originally assigned to General Motors Corporation, all others to plaintiff Lear Corporation.

         In general, the first- filed application ‘043 (filed 1993; issued 1995) was reexamined resulting in an Ex Parte Reexamination Certificate in 2012. It is directed to a vehicle seat-headrest arrangement for protecting a passenger from injury in a rear-end collision. ‘949 (filed 2002, issued 2003) differed from ‘043 in certain structural details. ‘733 (filed 2002, issued 2003) includes embodiments directed to front-impact collisions. ‘357 (filed 2006, issued 2008) includes embodiments having a “four-bar mechanism” as part of an “active head restraint system.” ‘818 (filed 2012, issued 2013) discloses certain additional modifications to the seat-headrest arrangement.

         THE LAW

         Claim construction is a matter of law. It begins with the language of the claims and usually embraces other intrinsic evidence, namely the patent specification and file history. Extrinsic evidence such as expert testimony, technical literature and dictionaries may at times be helpful. Markman v Westview Instruments, Inc. 52 F.3d 967(Fed Cir. 2002) a'ffd. 116 S.Ct. 1384 (1996).

         The law of claim construction, while not in dispute, is easily stated but often difficult to apply. Claim terms normally carry their ordinary and customary meaning to those skilled in the related art. Teleflex, Inc v Ficosa N.Am.Corp, 299 F.3d 1313 (Fed.Cir. 2002). The construction that stays true to the claim language and most naturally aligns with the patent's description of the invention will usually be the correct construction. Phillips v. AWH Corp. 415 F.3d 1303 (Fed.Cir. 2005). Claims are read and construed in light of the specification but not limited in scope thereby. Markman, supra; Vitronics Corp. v Conceptronic, Inc., 90 F.3d 1576 (Fed.Cir.1996).

         Prosecution history may also be helpful in construing claims. Vitronics, supra. Prosecution history may limit the interpretation of claims to exclude any interpretation that was disclaimed during prosecution in order to obtain claim allowance. Southwall Technologies v. Cardinal IG Co., 54 F.3d 1570 (Fed.Cir. 1995). In most cases, intrinsic evidence alone, i.e. the patent disclosure, the claims and prosecution history, provides the basis for claim construction and interpretation. Pall Corp. v. Micron Separation, Inc., 66 F.3d 1211 (Fed. Cir.1995).

         Sometimes there is a fine line between construing claims in light of the specification and file history and reading limitations of the specification into the claims. Comark Communications, Inc. v. Harris Corp., 156 F.3d 1182(Fed.Cir.1998). Examples disclosed in a preferred embodiment of an invention may aid in proper claim construction; however claim scope is not ordinarily restricted or limited by such examples. Ekchian v. Home Depot, Inc., 104 F.3d 1299 (Fed. Cir. 1997). Where a specification does not require a limitation, that limitation should not be read into the claims. Specialty Composites v. Cabot Corp. 845 F.2d 981 (Fed.Cir. 1988); Lemelson v United States, 752 F.2d 1538 (Fed.Cir. 1985). However, if a preferred embodiment is described as the invention itself, the claims may not be entitled to a scope greater than the embodiment. Modine Mfg. Co. v. United Stated ITC, 75 F.3d 1545 (Fed.Cir. 1996); Inpro II Licensing, S.A.R.L. v. T-Mobile USA, Inc. et al. No. 05-1233, (Fed. Cir. decided May 11, 2006)

         CLAIM CONSTRUCTION[1]

         Neither party cites or relies on prosecution histories to assist in claim construction. Nor does either party rely on expert testimony. At times, the parties cite and rely on dictionaries or technology publications. The asserted claims along with their lineage are set out below with the disputed words or phrases underlined:

‘043 patent; claims asserted (14, 45, 49, 57, 62, 86, 90 and 94)
‘043 CLAIM 14 (dependent from claims 2 and 13)

         Claim 2

         A vehicle seat and headrest arrangement comprising:

a seat bun frame having fore and aft ends;
a seatback frame joined to the bun frame adjacent the aft end of the bun frame;
a headrest pivotally attached with the seatback frame along a pivotal axis generally perpendicular to the fore and aft direction whereby, upon a rear impact of a vehicle in which the arrangement is mounted, the pivotal attachment allows the headrest to move in a forward direction toward the head of an occupant of the vehicle seat, wherein the headrest has a cushion portion;
an impact target operatively associated with the cushion portion and pivotally associated with the seatback frame, wherein a force, in the aft direction from the rear impact, upon the impact target causes the headrest to rotate forwardly; and
a spring operatively associated with the seatback frame biasing the headrest against pivotal movement.

         Claim 13

         An arrangement as described in claim 2 wherein the seatback frame comprises a pair of spaced apart side members joined by a cross frame member.

         Claim 14 An arrangement as described in claim 13 wherein the seatback frame is shaped as an inverted “U”.

         ‘043 CLAIM 45 (dependent from claims 2 and 6)

         Claim 2

         A vehicle seat and headrest arrangement comprising:

a seat bun frame having fore and aft ends;
a seatback frame joined to the bun frame adjacent the aft end of the bun frame;
a headrest pivotally attached with the seatback frame along a pivotal axis generally perpendicular to the fore and aft direction whereby, upon a rear impact of a vehicle in which the arrangement is mounted, the pivotal attachment allows the headrest to move in a forward direction toward the head of an occupant of the vehicle seat, wherein the headrest has a cushion portion;
an impact target operatively associated with the cushion portion and pivotally associated with the seatback frame, wherein a force, in the aft direction from the rear impact, upon the impact target causes the headrest to rotate forwardly; and
a spring operatively associated with the seatback frame biasing the headrest against pivotal movement.

         Claim 6

         An arrangement as described in claim 2 wherein the headrest cushion portion is separated from the seatback frame by a post.

         Claim 45

         An arrangement as described in claim 6 wherein the seatback frame comprises a cross member; and wherein the post is connected to the cross member to translate relative to the cross member as the headrest pivots.

         ‘043 CLAIM 49 (dependent from claims 2, 6 and 47)

         Claim 2

         A vehicle seat and headrest ...


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