Ford Motor Co. yesterday agreed to pay $10.2 million to settle its contentious legal bout with inventor Robert W. Kearns, a former Maryland resident who has accused Ford and 22 other automakers of stealing his patents for intermittent windshield wipers now used on millions of cars worldwide.
The 63-year-old Kearns, who contends that the 12-year legal struggle cost him an emotional breakdown and the breakup of his marriage, said through his attorneys that he will press forward with similar suits against Chrysler Corp., Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co. and other automakers, using the proceeds from the Ford judgment to finance those cases.
Lawyers said it was difficult to tell if Kearns could get similar-sized settlements from the other cases because the auto companies involved had different degrees of potential culpability.
A federal jury in January found that Ford had unintentionally infringed on Kearns's patents. The inventor subsequently was awarded $5.2 million, a fraction of the $141 million he originally sought. The money Ford agreed to pay yesterday includes the $5.2 million, plus interest and $1.2 million that had been tied up in a complementary court dispute.
Ford spokesman Mark Miller said that his company will make a lump-sum payment to Kearns within a matter of days, half of which will go to Kearns's lawyers.
"Ford still believes that Kearns's patents were invalid," Miller said. "But, as the court said, a good settlement is when both sides walk away unhappy. We didn't get what we were looking for, and Dr. Kearns apparently feels the same way."
Kearns has gone through legions of lawyers in his bid to win prestige and money as the sole inventor of wipers that can be set to operate at different speeds -- including automatic stop-and-go action to keep windshields clear in mist and light rains. The lawyers would often quit, reportedly upset with Kearns over his refusal to accept cash settlements they regarded as reasonable.
Much of the money will be used to offset hefty expenses racked up fighting the case. "We've had the case for two years, and our cash expenses alone -- for air travel, hotels, et cetera -- will be in excess of $500,000," said Paul M. Janicke, a partner in the Houston law firm of Arnold, White & Durkee, which is representing Kearns.
Janicke's firm took the case on contingency, meaning that it agreed to work for a percentage of whatever money Kearns won -- about 30 percent, or an estimated $3 million of the Ford settlement, Janicke said. Kearns's former lawyers may be due another $2 million, Janicke said.
Phyllis Kearns, the inventor's former wife, is eligible to receive 10 percent of the Ford payment as the result of a 1989 divorce decree that awards her 10 percent of any proceeds from the patent litigation.
The decree also forced Kearns to pay delinquent alimony payments to his ex-wife and to sell the couple's home in Gaithersburg. Kearns earlier this year spent 35 days in jail for refusing to abide by the divorce decree. He moved to Houston after he was released from jail.
In Houston, Kearns's lawyers were preparing to carry on the battle. Several of the remaining 22 companies accused of pirating Kearns's invention have offered to settle differences with the inventor out of court, Janicke said. Others may wind up in litigation, he said.
A Washington spokesman for Chrysler, which is likely to be Kearns's next target, said that the company is "not surprised" that Kearns "is going to take on other manufacturers with the same allegations." But Chrysler has received no official notice that it is next on Kearns's list, the spokesman said.