The Third Circuit has reversed a Michigan district court’s dismissal in a case alleging that H.J. Heinz Co. stole the idea for the “Dip & Squeeze” ketchup packet from plaintiff David Wawrzynski, an inventor who had proposed the idea to the company in 2008. Wawrzynski v. H.J. Heinz Co., No. 13-4100 (3d Cir., order entered July 21, 2014).

Wawrzynski owned a 1997 patent for a condiment packet that allowed users to dip food into it. From that idea, he developed a “separate and distinct” condiment packet that he called the Little Dipper, which allowed users to either dip food into it or squeeze out the contents. He met with Heinz in 2008 and discussed the possibility of selling the idea to the company, but they never reached a deal. Later, Heinz released its Dip & Squeeze ketchup packet, which allows users the option of dipping food directly into it or tearing off a small corner to squeeze out the ketchup. Wawrzynski sued Heinz in 2011 for stealing the idea, and the lawsuit mentioned his 1997 patent for the earlier but distinct product but did not allege infringement of the patent. The district court granted Heinz’s motion for summary judgment based on preemption by federal patent law and for declaratory judgment that Heinz did not infringe Wawrzynski’s patent.

In assessing the case, the Third Circuit found that the district court had misunderstood the claims in Wawrzynski’s complaint by believing them to be for patent infringement when, in fact, they were for damages “arising from Defendants’ failure to pay Mr. Wawrzynski for his concepts and ideas regarding new condiment packaging and marketing for new condiment packaging.” His claims concerned his second idea, which was distinct from the idea in the patent, so “because his claims are not inconsistent with the federal patent scheme, Wawrzynski’s claims are not preempted by patent law.” As a result, the Third Circuit held that the district court erred in issuing the declaratory judgment because it had no subject-matter jurisdiction to rule on the issue of patent infringement without a case or controversy, and it remanded the case back to the district court.