Even as it settles some earlier lawsuits, Meridian Enterprises Corp. is pressing new patent-infringement charges against six companies that issue cobranded gasoline credit cards.
St. Louis-based Meridian began suing gas card issuers four years ago, alleging that the companies had violated its rights to a process by which rebates are credited electronically to cardholders' accounts.
The latest targets are GE Capital, Exxon, Fleet Financial Group, BankAmerica Corp., Cumberland Farms, and Sun Co. (Cumberland markets Gulf gasoline, and Sun sells the Sunoco brand.)
The suits, filed in U.S. District Court in Newark, N.J., in recent months, bring to 12 the number of companies against which Meridian has taken action. Four have settled, most recently MasterCard International. Terms of the card association's agreement, reached in recent days, were not disclosed.
"The gas industry seems to have more aggressively adopted the features of our invention," said Michael L. Fraser, Meridian executive vice president.
In 1994 Meridian sued-and was countersued by-Visa U.S.A., MasterCard, Chase Manhattan Corp., Shell Oil Co., Associates First Capital Corp., and Union Oil Company of California.
Visa, Associates, and Unocal settled this year. Though the companies would not comment on the disposition of the cases, industry sources said they had agreed to pay licensing fees to Meridian.
The lawsuits involving Chase and Shell Oil remain pending. The discovery period for these active cases is expected to close at the end of this month.
Mr. Fraser said the settlement with MasterCard does not have a direct impact on the lawsuits involving Chase, Bank of America, Fleet, or GE Capital, whose cobranded gas cards are MasterCard programs.
Other companies have been drawn into the controversy. Several months ago, Banc One Corp. and British Petroleum settled with Meridian-though no legal action had been brought. Their card uses a Visa program.
"Obviously, we would prefer to license our patent rather than sue people," Mr. Fraser said.
At issue is the system of delivering rebates usable for free gasoline.
Unlike most other cobranded cards, the gas cards require customers to make a purchase when they redeem their points. Meridian claims this process is protected by its patent.
The associations' settlement probably set a royalty fee that they have agreed to pay and then collect from their member banks, said Anita Boomstein, an attorney at Hughes, Hubbard & Reed in New York.
The lawsuits "may force issuers to consider other ways of reward redemption," unless the licensing fee "is not a significant enough cost of the program," she said.