Ocean Spray: Rival cranberry company has been told to allow plant inspection

Jon Chesto

Ocean Spray Cranberries officials say a federal judge has instructed rival Decas Cranberry Products to allow an inspector at Decas’ Carver plant to see if Decas violates an Ocean Spray patent for making sweetened dried cranberries.

Ocean Spray issued the statement on Thursday, following Decas’ declaration of victory in the latest skirmish in the two companies’ patent battle: The judge ruled on Tuesday against an Ocean Spray request to dismiss Decas’ counterclaim.

Decas CEO Jeff Carlson said his company voluntarily agreed to the inspection during a Nov. 18 hearing before U.S. District Judge Rya Zobel.

“By having the judge supervise an inspection of the plant, we’re much better off, because we’re going to get a much clearer and truer analysis,” Carlson said. “That analysis will show there’s absolutely no patent infringement.”

For a small fruit, the sweetened dried cranberry is creating a big legal mess for both companies. Lakeville-based Ocean Spray initially sued Decas in October 2008, alleging that Decas improperly uses technology that’s similar to Ocean Spray’s to make dried cranberries.

Decas later fired back with its own counterclaim, accusing its larger rival of raising the patent issue to interfere with the possible sale of the company. Ocean Spray filed a motion to dismiss the counterclaim, but that was denied this week.

Carlson said this week’s ruling will allow Decas to pursue its claim that Ocean Spray filed the patent infringement suit to monopolize the market for sweetened dried cranberries. Carlson said his company has been making the dried cranberries using its own patented technology since the late 1990s.

A plant inspection at the Carver site could prove to be a crucial development in the case. A spokesman for Ocean Spray said Zobel instructed Decas to allow the plant inspection during the Nov. 18 hearing on the case in Boston federal court.

Rich Stamm, Ocean Spray’s general counsel, said in a statement that Ocean Spray has been asking Decas for 18 months to allow a plant inspection to alleviate Ocean Spray’s suspicions. Decas’ refusal, Stamm said, is what prompted Ocean Spray to file its lawsuit in the first place.

Carlson said he welcomes the inspection – now that it will be done under a judge’s oversight: “We feel by getting any objective analysis of the plant, it’s going to prove our case immediately.”

Patriot Ledger writer Jon Chesto may be reached atjchesto@ledger.com.