By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
BENTON HARBOR — Whirlpool Corp. has filed 40 lawsuits to keep competing companies from replicating a specific refrigerator water filter.
Through a Texas court that is known for handling patent cases, the Benton Harbor-based home appliance maker has taken an unusual step by suing the retailers that sell the knock-off filters.
Whirlpool spokeswoman Kristine Sherman said companies are selling unauthorized replacement parts for the company’s refrigerators, which includes water filter cartridges.
“For competitive reasons, we need to make sure that our innovation is legally protected,” Sherman said in an email. “Patents help us do that by protecting our unique inventions and enhancing our ability to freely make our innovative products. Whirlpool Corp. continually monitors the marketplace for products that infringe our patents, and we take legal action when appropriate.”
Whirlpool filed the lawsuits in response to a sudden emergence in 2015 of multiple infringers of the water filter patents. Whirlpool’s patent was first issued in 2006.
The defendants in these lawsuits include a combination of manufacturers and sellers of infringing filters.
In addition to infringing the patent, Sherman said the unauthorized water filters risk harming consumers by “failing to meet our high standards.”
“Additional details are either competitively sensitive or restricted under discovery obligations,” Sherman said. “We can tell you, however, that our products are certified by NSF for up to 66 types of contaminants – including pharmaceuticals, pesticides, waterborne parasites, metals, harmful minerals and industrial chemicals – and our research has found infringing products that are substandard in a variety of ways.”
The Eastern District of Texas is considered to be experienced in patent law and has a history of resolving infringement cases. Whirlpool can have the specific court handle the lawsuit because all of the defendants have either sold or distributed the alleged infringing products in Texas.
It’s unclear how much Whirlpool earns from the filters. According to the company’s website, it recommends the filters be replaced every six months. The filters in question are sold for half the price of Whirlpool’s.
Refrigerator and freezer sales accounted for 28 percent of the company’s $20.9 billion in sales last year, according to Whirlpool’s annual report.