Since 2008, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and various other divisions of the company and GE have been party to a number of legal disputes in the U.S. All of the disputes center around a number of U.S. patents, whose rights are owned by GE and Mitsubishi, for wind turbine technology.
While a number of significant events occurred so far this year in the various disputes, the most recent took place last week, when a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida granted GE's motion for summary judgment, essentially dismissing Mitsubishi's case. Mitsubishi initiated that lawsuit in May 2010, claiming that GE infringed on a U.S. patent assigned to Mitsubishi.
The Mitsubishi patent at issue (U.S. Patent No. 7,452,185) is related to controlling blade pitch angle for a wind turbine. Proper control of blade pitch angle helps reduce mechanical wear and extends the life of the corresponding wind turbine equipment. In his decision to grant GE's motion for summary judgment, the judge in the case stated that the pitch control systems used by GE control the angle of the wind turbine blades in a different way than what is covered in the Mitsubishi patent. Specifically, GE calculates pitch angles using operational data, where the Mitsubishi patent uses stored parameters to calculate pitch angles. It is unknown whether Mitsubishi plans to appeal the ruling in this case.
Initially, after Mitsubishi began selling its wind turbines in the U.S. in 2007, GE filed a complaint with the International Trade Commission (ITC) against Mitsubishi in the first quarter of 2008. In the complaint, GE sought a cease-and-desist order that would require the U.S. government to prevent Mitsubishi from importing its turbines into the U.S. The case GE brought before the ITC was centered on three patents held by GE. Initially, GE was successful when an administrative law judge (ALJ) at the ITC found in favor of GE with respect to two of the three GE patents.
However, after the ITC commissioners reviewed the ALJ's decision in February 2010, the ruling was reversed and GE's case was dismissed.
In light of the dismissal, GE filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas in February 2010, contending that Mitsubishi violated two U.S. patents (different from the three patents at issue in the ITC case) held by GE.
The jury issued a verdict on March 8, 2012 that Mitsubishi violated one of those two GE patents. The patent at issue in this case involves zero-voltage ride-through (LVRT), which allows a turbine to remain online during voltage dips that reduce the voltage to zero. The jury awarded damages in the amount of almost $170.2 million to compensate GE for lost sales and reasonable royalties. Mitsubishi is appealing the verdict.
In addition, GE appealed the ITC's decision in June 2010 by bringing suit against the ITC before the federal circuit. On Feb. 29, 2012, the federal circuit partially overturned the ITC's ruling by holding that one of the patents in dispute did, in fact, meet a threshold requirement.
In light of the federal circuit's decision, as to that particular patent (dealing with LVRT), the ITC must now consider several issues (e.g., whether Mitsubishi violated GE's patent rights, whether the patent is valid, whether there has been any inequitable conduct) and issue a new ruling. The ITC had not previously addressed these other issues with regard to the patent because, in its view, the threshold requirement failed. This decision from the ITC is still pending.
A third case, filed by GE against Mitsubishi in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas in September 2009, is on hold until the ITC matter is finally resolved. This third case involves the same three patents at issue in the ITC case.
In addition to the suit that was dismissed last week, Mitsubishi filed an anti-trust suit against GE in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas in May 2010. In this case, which is still pending, Mitsubishi seeks over $1 billion in damages.
Late last year, Mitsubishi completed construction on a $100 million wind turbine assembly plant in Fort Smith, Ark. The facility has sat in mothballs since that time. Another factor to consider is the viability of the U.S. turbine market. Without a production tax credit or similar incentive to encourage domestic wind project development, the opportunities to grow a wind turbine business are very limited.
Timothy Smith is a patent attorney in the Houston office of Atlanta-based King & Spalding. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.