Unitherm Food v. ConAgra: Patent Antitrust Holding Vacated, Tortious Interference Affirmed

UNITHERM FOOD SYSTEMS, INC. and JENNIE-O FOODS, INC. v. SWIFT-ECKRICH, INC. (doing business as Conagra Refrigerated Foods) (Fed. Cir. July 11, 2004).

In a declaratory action over a method of browning precooked meats, an Oklahoma district court granted summary judgment of invalidity and unenforceability based on both prior use and prior sale of ConAgra’s patented method. (United States Patent 5,952,027). In addition, the Jury determined that ConAgra’s pre-litigation actions constituted tortious interference and created antitrust violations.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit (GAJARSA) affirmed all appealed actions except for the antitrust holdings.

Because the district court erred, however, in allowing the jury to decide Unitherm’s antitrust claims despite the total absence of economic evidence capable of sustaining those claims, we vacate the judgment finding ConAgra liable for violating § 2 of the Sherman Act. We also vacate all damages awarded consequent to antitrust liability. We remand the matter to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Prior to litigation, ConAgra wrote to several companies who sell equipment for preparing and browning pre-cooked meats. ConAgra attached a copy of the ‘027 Patent to that letter, which included the explicit warning:

“Others in the industry may approach your company regarding this patent, and we would appreciate it if you would inform them that we intend to aggressively protect all of our rights under this patent.”

These letters formed the basis of Unitherm and Jennie-O’s claims of tortious interference. Surprisingly, the court did not mention the “objectively baseless” standard that it recently outlined in Globetrotter Software.