Sears Gets New Trial in Gripping Wrench Patent Fight

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By Peter Leung

A jury verdict finding that Sears Holdings Corp. infringed a former business partner’s patents was thrown out by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

The verdict that Sears infringed LoggerHead Tools LLC’s patents was based on an incorrect interpretation of key terms in the patent claims, Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer said Dec. 22. The patent covers a wrench with a squeezing handle that can be used to increase gripping strength.

The decision is a victory for Sears, which gets another chance to argue that its competing wrench doesn’t infringe Loggerhead’s patent. It will also be able to argue that the patent is invalid.

Wrenching Battle

Sears previously sold LoggerHead’s Bionic Wrench, which is covered by U.S. Patent Nos. 6,889,579 and 7,992,470. Sears later worked with Apex Tool Group LLC, the other defendant in the case, to design the Max Axess wrench, which also has a handle that can be squeezed to increase its grip force.

Another judge issued the opinion construing the patent claim terms, before the case was transferred to Pallmeyer.

The patent term in dispute is the “arm portion” part of the element in the wrench that grips a nut or bolt. The previous judge used a broader definition of the term than the one Sears argued for. The jury finding that Sears infringed the LoggerHead patents was based on that broader definition.

After trial, Sears moved for a ruling that it didn’t infringe as a matter of law.

Blurred Line

Pallmeyer agreed with Sears that the claim construction was incorrect, which in turn led to improper jury instructions. The earlier judge’s broad construction of “arm portion” ignored several terms from the patent designed to limit the scope of the invention, and was also inconsistent with the inventor’s statements to the examiner during the patent application phase, she said. The earlier construction also improperly blurred the line between the arm and the “body portion,” another central element in the patent claims, she said.

Rather than issuing a new ruling in favor of Sears, Pallmeyer ordered a new trial on whether Sears’ product infringed and whether the patents were invalid. It wouldn’t be fair after changing the construction of the claim terms after trial to rule for Sears, but a new trial would give both parties an opportunity to make arguments based on the changed interpretation of “arm portion,” she said.

Skiermont Derby LLP represented LoggerHead. Winston & Strawn LLP represented Sears, while Kirkland & Ellis LLP represented Apex.

The case is Loggerhead Tools, LLC v. Sears Holding Corp. , 2017 BL 460029, N.D. Ill., No. 1:12-cv-09033, 12/22/17 .

To contact the reporter on this story: Peter Leung in Washington at pleung@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mike Wilczek at mwilczek@bloomberglaw.com

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