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'The Wrench Case' : Inventor vs. Sears: 17-Year-Old Saga Continues

July 14, 1986|MORTON MINTZ | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The "wrench case"--Peter M. Roberts vs. Sears, Roebuck & Co.--has shipped eastward from the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals to Washington. Twice it made round trips to the Supreme Court, which declined to review rulings of the 7th Circuit Court. Twice later, it came to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

In the Federal Circuit, the first visit ended last November, when the court sent the case back to U.S. District Judge Bernard M. Decker, who, on June 5, ordered a new trial. The second visit began recently, when Roberts petitioned the Federal Circuit to hold that a third trial would violate his constitutional rights.

Roberts was a teen-ager when he made a stunningly successful invention--a major advance in socket wrenches--that would make tens of millions of dollars in profits for Sears, the world's largest retailer.

In December, 1969, he filed a lawsuit claiming Sears defrauded him when it paid him $10,000 for his patent. Sears claimed that the patent was "legally valueless." Although the federal judicial system has provided a partial resolution of the dispute, it has yet--17 years later--to provide full and final answers.

Unusual Situation

Seldom have the wheels of civil justice ground more slowly in a case brought by an individual. Rarely--and, attorneys say, maybe never--has the system taken so long to resolve a dispute between an individual and a corporation over a patent or other intellectual property right. Neither side is willing to talk about the cost of the case, but legal experts say it must be in the millions.

Meanwhile, Roberts has moved from young manhood to his early 40s and fatherhood, and from Gardner, Mass., to Newport, Tenn.; from Newport to Air Force service in England; and from military duty back to Tennessee, where, in Red Bank, he holds down two full-time jobs while his wife holds down a third.

His original lawyer, Louis G. Davidson, became ill and, before his death late last year, was replaced as lead counsel by his son, John B. Davidson.

Sears, after suffering a severe court setback in the spring of 1982, dropped Arnstein, Gluck, Lehr, Barron & Milligan, which had represented it throughout the case, and hired Latham & Watkins.

Peter Roberts' story began in Gardner in 1963. He was 18, had a high school diploma and clerked full-time for Sears. It was still the Dark Ages for socket wrenches, there being none that did not force automobile mechanics, do-it-yourselfers and others into an often awkward use of both hands to replace a socket of one size with another of different size: one hand to hold the wrench, the other to make the replacement.

Invented Simple Device

On his own time, Roberts transformed wrenchery by inventing a simple quick-release device to enable a user to change sockets easily and quickly with just one hand. He also did the tooling for a prototype and produced one. Then he hired lawyer Charles Fay of Worcester, Mass., to file a patent application. But, aware that Sears was selling about 1 million wrenches a year, Roberts also decided to show his invention and the prototype to his store manager.

Roberts was persuaded to submit the invention and the prototype--the only one in existence--as an employee suggestion. He sent them to Sears' office in Chicago on May 7, 1964, noting on the form that a patent application was pending. Soon thereafter, Sears closed its Gardner store, and Roberts moved with his parents to Tennessee.

On receipt of the prototype, Sears sponsored physical tests, which showed that the quick-release feature was practical and did not weaken the wrench, and market-acceptance tests, which showed that garage mechanics were enthusiastic.

Then, in October, 1964, Sears ordered the quick-release device incorporated into a completely new line of ratchet wrenches that was being prepared for marketing.

"The company anticipated that sales in the first year alone would total 750,000 units," U.S. District Judge George N. Leighton wrote in May, 1979.

Through all of this, Roberts was kept completely in the dark, although he once phoned Sears' main office and made an inquiry of a person who seemed to be familiar with the subject. A written inquiry in early January, 1965, drew no response.

In late January, however, Roberts was phoned by Leonard Schram, a Sears attorney.

Schram asked for and obtained the name of Roberts' patent lawyer, Fay. Then, Roberts has testified, he inquired "what was happening to my device, and he said that they were looking into it with some interest and they might be interested in it on some parts of their lines." Schram "wouldn't give me an answer" to questions about the value of his device, Roberts said.

While Fay, in Judge Leighton's words, "was purportedly working for Roberts," and without the inventor's knowledge, Sears proceeded to hire Fay to protect its interests in certain patents that it expected to be issued on the quick-release device.

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