A federal court in Detroit yesterday ordered Ford Motor Co. to pay $5.2 million in royalties to Gaithersburg inventor Robert W. Kearns, who has spent the last 14 years trying to convince judges, juries and journalists that Ford and more than 20 other automakers stole his patent for intermittent windshield wipers now used on millions of cars.
Yesterday's monetary award followed an earlier jury finding that Ford had infringed on Kearns's patent, although not intentionally. If the jury had found that Ford purposefully stole Kearns's invention, the damage award would likely have been substantially higher.
Kearns, whose associates say he had a chance to settle the case for $30 million, was not in court when the verdict was handed down. He had stormed out of the trial two weeks earlier, accusing U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn of being biased against him and in favor of Ford.
"I'm finally convinced that I've wasted enough of my life on these patents," Kearns, 63, said in a letter to the judge protesting his handling of the case and the jury's finding of unintentional patent infringement. With that, he left Detroit and returned to Maryland, where he stayed at a camping site and called reporters to talk about everything from his case to the state of the national economy.
Kearns's children said that their father suffered "emotional strain" in his latest legal battles with Ford and had a nervous breakdown in 1976 when his fight began. His oldest son, Dennis, yesterday was calling friends and associates trying to locate his father, who reportedly was still in the Washington area.
Yesterday's judgment could have wide implications because Kearns has similar suits pending against General Motors Corp., Chrysler Corp., Daimler-Benz AG, Honda Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp., Nissan Motor Co. and two dozen other automakers. The multimillion-dollar judgment against Ford could be used as the basis for future settlements in those cases.
Kearns, who had sought $141 million in damages, claimed in his suit that in 1962 he installed a set of his intermittent wipers on a Ford car and took it to the automaker.
He said he believed Ford would buy his invention after engineers questioned him at length about the stop-and-go wiper system, designed to be used in misty weather and light rains. Several meetings took place but no agreement was ever signed, Kearns has said in previous interviews.
Malcolm Wheeler, a Ford attorney with the New York firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, said that the company is satisfied with the verdict and believes it confirms what the industry has contended all along.
Wheeler said that Kearns's assessment of his contribution to windshield-wiper technology was "greatly inflated and, I think, erroneous."
"It is tragic," Wheeler said. Kearns, he said, became "somewhat obsessed with what he thought the value of his contribution was, and now two juries have spoken on the issue."
Attorneys for both sides agreed that between 1972 and 1988, the automaker sold 20.6 million vehicles with intermittent wipers. The damage award is based on a charge of 30 cents per wiper unit sold.
The jury had set the award at $6.3 million; but Cohn temporarily withheld $1.1 million from that amount pending the outcome of his review of an earlier decision that Kearns "unreasonably delayed" filing his suit.
Ford's attorneys said that a reasonable licensing agreement would have, at most, paid Kearns $1.5 million for his contribution to the invention, which Ford officials called "incremental" and "modest."
Indeed, Ford said that it is still pushing for an appeal of the first jury's finding in January that the company had unintentionally infringed on Kearns's patent. Cohn is expected to rule within 90 days on Ford's motion to set aside the infringement finding.
Kearns's attorney, Paul M. Janicke of Arnold, White and Durkee, said yesterday, "We are disappointed that we did not get what we were seeking. The award was close to what Ford was proposing, which was $2 million."
Janicke estimated that Kearns has racked up legal bills of nearly $4 million from the five firms he hired to represent him.
Ford is required to pay all legal costs in addition to the judgment. Legal fees for both sides have been estimated to total nearly $10 million.
Ford is also responsible for interest on Kearns's royalties, which could total as much as three-quarters of the jury award, Janicke said.
But more than money is at stake. For Robert Kearns, there is the matter of principle and a dream. In recent interviews, Kearns has said that his case "is not about money."
"It's about time," he said, accusing Ford and the other car companies of stealing a portion of his life by allegedly taking his invention.
Kearns also said that the big car companies have destroyed his dream to build an intermittent windshield-wiper factory in Gaithersburg, where he could employ local people and make a significant economic contribution to the community.
"Most people don't realize how highly principled Bob Kearns is," said Jay Jaffe, a Kearns associate who said that the inventor had one time turned down a $30 million settlement offer from Ford. Company officials declined comment on any proposed settlements.
Kearns did not take the money, said Jaffe, "because he wanted a court to put on record that he was right."
Janicke said they would consider an appeal but that a final decision requires Kearns's approval.