SANTA ANA — A jury awarded $5.4 million on Monday to a retired Cypress lawyer and a Long Beach auto mechanic, deciding that Cessna Aircraft Co. took their idea for a three-bladed propeller and made millions of dollars.
"I am elated and feel vindicated after a long, long battle," said John L. Rich, a former attorney for McDonnell Douglas Corp.
After the two-month trial in Orange County Superior Court, it took a jury six days to decide that Cessna Aircraft Co. and its parts distributor, U.S. Propeller Service of Connecticut, owed the two men loss of profits. The jury also found that Cessna owes punitive damages, and will decide that amount within the next few days, according to the men's attorney, Robert F. Scoular of Los Angeles.
Rich, 61, said he and his partner, Robert Craner, 58, of Long Beach, worked as a team in 1986 to develop the first three-bladed propeller for a 4-cylinder, single-engine airplane. At the time, most smaller planes used a two-bladed propeller that is lighter but less powerful.
With Rich's money and Craner's ability to design propellers, they built a prototype, got it licensed and approached Cessna with their product in 1986. According to Rich and Craner, Cessna was interested and agreed to manufacturer the propeller, while the two men would have the exclusive rights to sell it.
But by 1988, according to the lawsuit, the two men thought that Cessna had lost interest in the deal, and they gave up their venture.
In fact, according to the suit, Cessna took the idea and used another company to sell the propeller, essentially cutting them out of the deal.
In 1989, Rich, who owns an airplane, said he received a flyer in the mail, advertising a three-bladed propeller. He called Craner immediately, and the two discovered the design was exactly like theirs, the suit alleges.
A spokesman for Wichita, Kan.-based Cessna declined to comment, saying his company "is proceeding in the courts." An attorney for U.S. Propeller Service of Connecticut, Donald Beck of Santa Ana, said the award was "excessive" and that the company will appeal the jury's decision.
Scoular said a Price Waterhouse accountant testified that Rich and Craner were entitled to between $4 million and $8 million, based on the profits Cessna received.
Auto mechanic Craner said he was inspired, in part, to build the three-bladed propeller from his days as a torpedo man on a Navy submarine off Alaska in the late 1960s.
"I saw how they used many different blade styles and designs to make a torpedo move without wake underwater. I applied some of the things I learned from that," Craner said.
Craner, who has worked on Cadillacs for the past 33 years, said of his newfound wealth that he "hasn't the foggiest idea of what to do with that kind of money." For now, he said, he plans to continue working at his $17-an-hour job fixing brakes and steering on cars.
"It's what I like doing, and the people I work for treat me well," Craner said, although he added his wife would probably quit her office job.
Though Rich said he was excited and happy, he was not ready on Monday to celebrate, even after learning about the multimillion-dollar award.
"I won't be happy until I have the cash in my hands," Rich said. He said he will add the money to his "kitty" of savings and the pension that he receives from his 27 years at McDonnell Douglas.
"We've lived in Cypress for the past 28 years," Rich said, "and we'll just continue to live the way we always have."