Automotive Storage Design Avoids Infringement of Negative Claim Limitation

Hidden body storage compartments are highly desirable features of pick-up trucks, and the Dodge RAMBOX is one innovative solution.  The photos below show the box in both the open and closed condition.  

Whether or not Chrysler pursued patent protection on their solution is not clear.  However, Chrysler was sued for infringement of several patents asserted to cover this concept: US  6,499,795 and 7,104,583. Interestingly, the claim limitation at issue relates to the negative claim limitation of how the cargo box blends into the truck bed body where the bed is constructed such that the pickup has substantially the external appearance of a pickup without the built-in storage.  

On appeal to the Federal Circuit, the parties disputed the external appearance limitation, and because of the potential ambiguity in the claim, the Court proceeded with determining the proper claim construction. Chrysler was able to convince the court that the claim limitations required that the cargo box look like it was not there, except from the vertical cut lines.  The specification repeatedly made statement such as that that "only visible modifications to the external side panel are two vertical lines where the side panel is cut." It was therefore easy for the Court to fund that no reasonable jury could conclude that Chrysler's RAMBOX met the limitation since it was easy to see the cargo box, even though its color and shape blended into the bed body panels.  

While there may have been tactical decisions in the litigation that could have made it more difficult for Chrysler to win on summary judgment, a more interesting question was whether there were any alternative prosecution strategies that could be used.  Possibly the patentee would have benefited from a specification drafting approach that gave additional alternative ways for the cargo box to blend into the body panel. There are many benefits to drafting a specification with layers of details, particularly with regard to negative limitations. Of course there are additional benefits as well, such as benefits in foreign prosecution, such as minimizing the effects of an "intermediate generalization" at the EPO. Still another question is whether a re-exam might have enabled a narrowing amendment to the claims that would have avoided the claim scope being limited by the specification via the claim construction process. In other words, a sufficient amendment to avoid claim construction at all and rely on the ordinary understanding (thus avoiding summary judgment and letting the case get to the jury).