Supreme Court to Hear Patent Case on Federal Circuit’s Power to Overturn a Jury’s Verdict

Unitherm Food Systems, Inc., Petitioner  v. Swift Eckrich, Inc., dba Conagra Refrigerated Foods, et al. (Supreme Court 2005).

The Supreme Court has decided to hear an appeal in Unitherm Food v. Swift-Eckrich that was petitioned from the Federal Circuit. The question to be heard will help outline powers of the CAFC.  Specifically, the petition for a writ of certiorari is granted limited to the following question:

Whether, and to what extent, a court of appeals may review the sufficiency of evidence supporting a civil jury verdict where the party requesting review made a motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(a) of the

Federal Rules of Civil Procedure before submission of the case to the jury, but neither renewed that motion under Rule 50(b) after the jury’s verdict, nor moved for a new trial under Rule 59?

In this case, a jury determined that ConAgra’a pre-litigation activities constituted tortious interference and created antitrust violations. On appeal at 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 had written 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.”

The patent (No. 5,952,027) involves a method for “browning precooked, whole muscle meat products” and involves coating a liquid pyrolysis product onto the surface of a precooked meat product.