High court backs Shore inventor

March 21, 1995|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Robert W. Kearns has spent years tilting with giants, enraging judges and feuding with his lawyers. But the Maryland inventor's success formula sometimes works: The Supreme Court left him $18.7 million richer yesterday.

The victory, his biggest to date, came in a case he brought against Chrysler Corp. charging that the automaker infringed on his patents on the technology that enables windshield wipers to change speeds.

Mr. Kearns, a 68-year-old Detroit native who works out of his home in Queenstown on the Eastern Shore and continues to invent refinements in the wipers, is a courtroom battler who twice won jury verdicts in favor of his patents for a device that is standard on cars made everywhere in the world.

Mr. Kearns has taken most of the world's automakers to court in a multitude of lawsuits claiming they copied his "intermittent wipers" and should pay him millions in damages for the infringement. His most significant wiper patents have run out, their 17-year terms used up by years of legal maneuvering.

Not much of his engineering business remains, he said. "If you call fighting lawsuits a business, that's the only one I have."

Perhaps typically, Mr. Kearns' final triumph over Chrysler yesterday was a qualified victory, and he said a Chrysler lawyer told him afterward that the company might seek to avoid paying damages by filing a new legal countermove.

While the court refused without explanation to disturb the verdict in his favor, it also refused to consider a separate appeal by Mr. Kearns, who had hoped to sweeten the verdict.

Mr. Kearns contended that $18.7 million is not full compensation because court delays consumed his patents' life span, robbing him of the opportunity to enjoy exclusive use of the invention. He could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The many cases he has filed have made him a nettlesome adversary to a powerful industry. "I basically was suing the world," he says with some pride.

General Motors Corp.'s lawyers, in another case that reached the Supreme Court, called Mr. Kearns "a litigation opportunist" and "a stubbornly disobedient litigant" who is at war with "the entire judicial branch of government."

While he beat Chrysler in court, and earlier did the same thing to Ford Motor Co. and American Motors Corp., Mr. Kearns lost out totally on his $100 million legal claim against GM. A federal judge in Detroit dismissed the case against GM to punish Mr. Kearns for disobeying the judge's orders on filing deadlines. He has been acting as his own lawyer in the GM case.

A federal appeals court refused to revive the GM lawsuit, and the Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal in that case in February.

Last month, the same judge in Detroit dismissed all his remaining cases against foreign auto companies. His 23 lawsuits in Canada seem to be in legal limbo, with no trials scheduled in any of them.

He claims he has not received even the money he has already won: In the Ford case, he complains, the trial judge has been "lavish" in sharing the $6.5 million he won with the lawyers who handled the case for the inventor. The amount rose to $10.2 million with interest. He has taken his grievance with that judge to Congress.

A self-described self-made man, the inventor allows some nonlegal romanticism to creep into the court documents he drafts. "This case," he told the Supreme Court in the Chrysler case, "entails the annals of invention by a boy who grew up in a working-class neighborhood in the shadow of the largest industrial complex in the world."

He takes some of his losses hard. He told the court that he suffered "a disabling emotional breakdown in 1976 within a month after learning" that the maker of Mercedes cars was using his wiper invention.

Repeatedly in his legal documents, he refers to himself simply as "Bob." He advised the Supreme Court: "Bob's Kearns Engineers provided design & build engineering services throughout Detroit and its suburbs from 1957 to 1963. . . . Thru Kearns Engineers, Bob sought to provide better opportunities and job security for his employers by developing patented products to manufacture and market."

And, to make the economics of his inventions business more understandable, he offered the court a basic, homely example of household dealings between two imaginary sisters, "Helen" and "Rose."

He doesn't always get sympathy from courts for his David vs. Goliath image. In the Chrysler case, an appeals court looked kindly upon him as an individual contending with "giant corporations," but added that some of his legal problems stem from his having fired lawyers and moving ahead with "massive multiple lawsuits" while doing his own litigating.

He left the Detroit area in 1971, moving to Gaithersburg to join the National Bureau of Standards. There, during 20 years of service, his main achievement was to develop a standard for skid resistance on wet highway surfaces. He moved to Queenstown about 18 months ago.

Mr. Kearns applied in 1993 for admission to the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore. "I never heard anything; I never even got a rejection letter," he said yesterday.

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