IP Law Daily Toro loses appeal of order barring sales of platform riding mowers
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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Toro loses appeal of order barring sales of platform riding mowers

By Cheryl Beise, J.D.

The federal district court in Milwaukee did not err in preliminarily enjoining The Toro Company and Exmark Manufacturing Co., Inc., from manufacturing and selling riding lawn mowers that likely infringe a patented platform suspension system developed by competitor Scag Power Equipment, according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The record supported the finding that the accused mowers likely infringed one valid claim of Scag’s suspended operator platform patent (Metalcraft of Mayville, Inc. v. The Toro Company, February 16, 2017, Moore, K.).

Lawnmower manufacturer Metalcraft of Mayville, Inc., d/b/a Scag Power Equipment ("Scag"), owns U.S. Patent No. 8,186,475 (the ’475 patent), issued May 29, 2012, and entitled "Suspended operator platform." The patent discloses an operator seat and steering controls mounted on a suspended platform that is attached to the frame of the lawnmower via a linkage and shock absorption system. In 2010, Scag commercialized the claimed invention on its Cheetah line of riding mowers.

In late 2015, The Toro Company and its wholly owned subsidiary, Exmark Manufacturing Co., Inc., (collectively "Toro"), introduced riding mowers with a suspended operator platform, including those with Toro’s MyRIDE suspension system and certain Exmark Lazer Z mowers. Scag sued both companies for infringement of at least claims 11, 14, and 21 of the ’475 patent. The district court granted Scag’s motion for a preliminary injunction, finding that Scag was likely to succeed in proving infringement and was likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief. Exmark and Toro appealed the court’s order.

The grant or denial of a preliminary injunction is within the sound discretion of the district court and is reviewed for an abuse of discretion under Federal Circuit and Seventh Circuit precedent, the court noted. The appeals court found no error in the district court’s analysis of the preliminary injunction factors: likelihood of success on the merits, irreparable harm, the balance of equities, and the public interest.

Infringement. To establish a likelihood of success on the merits, a patentee must show that it will likely prove infringement of the asserted claims and that its infringement claim will likely withstand challenges to patent validity and enforceability, the court noted.

The asserted independent claims 11, 14, and 21 of the ’475 patent all claim "an operator platform that supports the seat and an entire body of an operator during use of the utility vehicle." The district court construed "an operator platform that supports …an entire body of an operator" "in reference to how a person sits in an ordinary chair." The court rejected Toro’s assertion that its accused mowers do not meet the limitation "an entire body of an operator" because the steering controls of the accused mowers are mounted to the chassis, and therefore the operator’s hands and arms are not supported by the platform.

On appeal, Toro argued that the district court erroneously rejected Toro’s noninfringement defense because the court’s construction of "an entire body of an operator" excluded the operator’s hands and arms. The Federal Circuit disagreed. The district court correctly determined that the claims at issue do not require that the steering controls be mounted on the suspended operator platform. None of the asserted claims contain such a limitation and the steering controls are not claimed as a component of the operator platform. The specification also makes clear that the operator platform is a separate and distinct element from the steering controls.

The court also rejected Toro’s invitation to import the vibration isolation feature into the separate entire body limitation. The ’475 patent treats "supporting the entire body of an operator" and "isolating the operator from shock loads" as two distinct aspects of the claimed invention, the court observed.

Validity. Toro argued that claim 21 would have been obvious in light of U.S. Patent No. 3,420,568 ("Henriksson"), relating to a resilient support system for a driver’s compartment mounted on a vehicle frame, and Japanese Patent Application No. JP55-69340 ("Sasaki"), directed to a shock absorber for the rear of a motorcycle.

According to the Federal Circuit, the district court did not err in finding that there would not have been a motivation to combine Henriksson and Sasaki. Toro provided no explanation for why one of skill in the art would have combined these particular references to produce the claimed invention. It was not enough for Toro to merely demonstrate that elements of the claimed invention were independently known in the prior art, the court said.

Toro also argued that that the district court erred in finding that Henriksson did not anticipate claims 11 and 14, because it was not an anticipatory reference. The Federal Circuit chose not to address this argument, because Scag did not have to show more than one valid patent claim was likely infringed.

Other preliminary injunction factors. The Federal Circuit also determined that the district court did not clearly err in finding that the other preliminary injunction factors weighed in favor of granting a preliminary injunction. The district court found that Scag was likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of a preliminary injunction because "it is impossible to quantify the damages caused by the loss of a potentially lifelong customer." The record supported that Scag’s loss of customers could have far-reaching, long-term impact on its future revenues, and the sales lost by Scag were difficult to quantify due to the "ecosystem effect" in this market, where customers tend to continue to buy products made by the same manufacturer. It was within the district court’s discretion to balance the equities in favor of Scag and the court did not err in finding that the public interest would not be disserved by an injunction.

Scope of injunction. The district court enjoined Toro from "making, using, selling, and offering to sell lawnmowers equipped with platform suspension systems that infringe Scag’s patent, U.S. Patent No. 8,186,457." Toro argued the district court’s preliminary injunction was overly broad, but the Federal Circuit disagreed. The record supported the district court’s conclusion that Scag established a likelihood of success that the accused products infringed claim 21. Toro did not dispute that claim 21 covered all of the accused products. The district court’s grant of injunctive relief on claim 21 as to the accused products was affirmed.

The case is Nos. 2016-2433 and 2016-2514

Attorneys: Michael T. Griggs (Boyle Fredrickson, S.C.) for Metalcraft of Mayville, Inc. Rachel C. Hughey (Merchant & Gould P.C.) for The Toro Company and Exmark Manufacturing Co., Inc.

Companies: Metalcraft of Mayville, Inc.; The Toro Company; Exmark Manufacturing Co., Inc.

MainStory: TopStory Patent FedCirNews

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