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Inventor Winning Long Legal Battle With Auto Maker : Patents: Robert Kearns developed the intermittent windshield wiper more than 20 years ago. He claims the car companies stole his idea.

April 24, 1990|JAMES RISEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DETROIT — It is the classic David-versus-Goliath case that inventors and would-be inventors always dream about as they tinker in their garages.

In 1963, Robert Kearns developed the first practical, intermittent windshield wiper, the device that makes it possible for wipers to be turned to slow speeds during misty weather.

Ever since, he has been fighting the auto industry, claiming that the big companies stole his idea.

For most of that time, his has been a lonely voice; his struggle cost him a nervous breakdown and a broken marriage. Eventually, his legal fight with the auto industry came to dominate the life of his family of six children.

"I guess it's cost more than you could put a dollar figure on," his oldest son, Dennis Kearns, said quietly, speaking despite a gag order.

But now, after a 12-year trial, the 62-year-old Kearns, who was a college professor in his mid-30s in Detroit when he developed his invention and first brought it to the attention of auto makers, has won a patent-infringement case against Ford.

A federal jury in Detroit is studying what damages Ford must pay, and pending are Kearns' suits against General Motors, Chrysler, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Nissan, Toyota and virtually every other major auto maker in the world that ever installed intermittent windshield wipers on its cars.

U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn has slapped a broad gag order on Ford, Kearns, Kearns' family and all the lawyers in the case, so Kearns has not been allowed to comment on his stunning success. But it is clear that he believes that, after so many years and so much pain, he is due some retribution against Ford.

Especially since it was Ford to which he first took his invention, and it was Ford that allegedly tore apart his wiper system in the late 1960s to see how it worked, while telling him that the company wouldn't give him a contract for his device.

So this week he asked the six-member jury hearing the ongoing penalty phase of the trial to award him a staggering $325 million in damages from Ford. The jury is expected to rule on damages within the next two weeks.

Kearns, who left Detroit in 1971 for a job in the federal government in Washington, wants nothing less than a hefty royalty fee on every intermittent windshield wiper system that Ford has installed on cars produced in the past 20 years--that would cover more than 20 million cars.

Kearns' lawyer, Paul Janicke, initially asked the jury to award Kearns 42% of the profit Ford earned on all those wipers, but patent experts testified this week that Kearns might be due royalty fees equal to between 25% and 33% of Ford's windshield wiper profit.

Meanwhile, Ford attorney Malcolm Wheeler has been seeking to play down the value to Ford of Kearns' invention in an effort to minimize the damages; he suggests that the jury award Kearns just $2 million. Eventually, Ford is likely to appeal the entire case.

While the penalty phase of the trial drones on in the drafty old federal courthouse in Detroit, with lawyers and patent experts debating the finer points of industrial licensing arrangements and the value of patents on small auto parts, the audience in the courtroom seems more interesting than the trial itself.

Right behind Kearns and his attorneys sit members of Kearns' family; his children, now grown, have come with their wives and friends to watch and listen as huge dollar figures are tossed around, figures that could make them all enormously wealthy and finally lay to rest their father's obsession.

Dennis Kearns, Robert's burly eldest son and now a private investigator in the Detroit area who has done some investigative work on the case for his father, seems to be the only family member eager to talk to the press. As he discusses his father's long battle, trying hard not to violate the judge's gag order, there is still a flinty look in his eye that suggests a deep bitterness towards Ford and the long legal process.

"I really can't talk about the details of the case," he said, with obvious regret.

Next to the family members sit other inventors who listen each day to the testimony, seeing in Kearns a victorious role model for them all.

Behind them, however, nervously eyeing their future opposition--sits an array of lawyers from around the world. Everyday--especially since Kearns won his surprise verdict--the courtroom is packed with attorneys from Japan, Germany and the United States, representing the international auto industry, silently taking notes, waiting for their turn against Kearns.

As the West German attorneys for Porsche sped out of the courtroom one day recently, they hinted that they recognize that the Kearns case poses a serious legal threat. Asked if they would consider an out-of-court settlement with Kearns, one said, "I don't think Mr. Kearns would consider it."

And finally, there is the silver-haired Robert Kearns himself.

While he never speaks to the press, rarely does a smile seem far from his face. In his soft white suit, Kearns constantly paces behind his courtroom table with a pleased look, like a patient hunter who has trapped a long-sought prey.

Finally, after all these years, Robert Kearns has Detroit's attention.

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