Circuit Court Ruling Gives Leviton a Win in Campaign to Defend GFCI Patents

Aug. 23, 2013
Note: This version has been corrected from the print version with Blonder's complete title and clarification that the cease and desist order applies to only some, not all, of the complaint's respondents.

A Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit last week affirmed a ruling by the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) imposing a general exclusion order prohibiting unlicensed importation of ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) and products containing GFCIs that violate a Leviton patent.

Leviton, based in Melville, N.Y., has been fighting this patent infringement battle for years, frustrated by seeing GFCI products based on unlicensed Leviton technology imported to the U.S., said Meir Blonder, general counsel and chief intellectual property counsel for Leviton, in an interview with Electrical Marketing.

Leviton filed its initial complaint with the USITC in September 2010. The USITC named a long list of respondents in the initial filing — 29 in all, though some companies were later removed from the investigation following settlements, consent orders or withdrawn allegations — including several manufacturing and exporting companies in China and a number of U.S. retail hardware stores and electrical wholesale suppliers.

“Leviton is pleased with the ruling and backing of the ITC’s general exclusion order as it ultimately validates the continued support to end the unlicensed importation of infringing GFCIs,” Blonder said in a Leviton press release about the ruling. “Leviton has worked for this outcome for many years, because it is important that both commercial and residential consumers be confident that the GFCIs available in the market are legitimate, lawful product.”

The general exclusion order, which was issued in April 2012, went into effect in June 2012 and was affirmed this week by the court, directs U.S. customs authorities to not allow products to be imported or sold in the U.S. that infringe any of the Leviton GFCI patents. The USITC conducted an investigation that concluded that Leviton’s patent was valid. Typically the ITC will issue a limited exclusion order that covers only the products that were part of the investigation, but in the case of the Leviton patents went a step further, said Blonder. “They found evidence to believe there is wholesale infringement going on, and evidence of companies trying to get around the restrictions by changing their names. Customs said you’ve proven your patent is valid, and it’s so pervasive that we’re going to tell Customs to block any GFCIs that infringe.”

Blonder told EM that Leviton provides Customs with guidance to help them identify GFCIs that infringe the company’s patents. The exclusion order may affect a large number of the GFCIs imported to the U.S. from China, Blonder said.

“We haven’t seen any GFCIs that don’t use our technology,” he said. “Our engineers have come up with cool, easy-to-implement technology that’s commercially valuable, and that others have latched onto and decided to use in their products.”

The USITC ruling in April 2012 also included a cease and desist order prohibiting some of the respondents to the investigation that have inventory in the U.S. from selling the GFCIs or products containing the GFCIs.

Since the ITC issued the exclusion  order last year, Leviton has seen the influx of infringing GFCIs slow to a trickle.