The opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas could lead to the reinstatement of a jury verdict against the ConAgra unit for as much as $20 million. The ConAgra unit had sued Unitherm Food Systems of Bristow, Okla., alleging patent violations of meat-browning equipment and processes used to prepare precooked food products.
Justice Thomas said the company didn't properly challenge evidence used by a federal jury in reaching a verdict against Swift-Eckrich Inc., the ConAgra unit. The ruling overturns a decision by the Washington-based Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, which handles patent cases on appeal.
From the Billings Gazette:
Unitherm Food Systems of Bristow, Okla., sued ConAgra in 2001, alleging ConAgra had obtained a patent for a meat-browning system in 1999 that Unitherm had developed and tried to sell to ConAgra.
In 2000, ConAgra sent a letter to other food companies warning them not to infringe on ConAgra's patent by doing business with anyone selling a similar process.
ConAgra argued that its patent was unique, but a jury found against the Omaha-based company, saying ConAgra had violated antitrust laws and awarding $18 million in damages to Unitherm.
ConAgra appealed, arguing there was not enough evidence to show it had done anything more than try to enforce what it thought was a valid patent. In part questioning whether enough evidence had been presented to show Unitherm had suffered economic harm, the appeals court ordered a new trial.
Unitherm appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that ConAgra failed to properly appeal the case.
The high court agreed, ruling that ConAgra was denied a motion to dismiss the case based on insufficient evidence before it was submitted to the jury, and the company should have filed a similar motion immediately after the verdict was returned. [ie, Rule 50]