DETROIT -- Ford Motor Co. infringed on inventor Robert Kearns' patents for intermittent windshield wipers, a federal jury ruled last week. Kearns invented "blinking" wipers in his basement.
The jury will rule Feb. 26 on how much Ford must pay. Kearns has asked for damages that would total more than $840 million.
But that could be only the beginning - Kearns has sued virtually every foreign and domestic automaker, saying they swiped his patents.
He hopes to receive $50 for every vehicle produced with intermittent wipers since 1972.
The number could be staggering. In the 1989 model year, about 9.7 million cars and trucks assembled in North America had intermittent wipers, according to Autofacts Inc., a consulting firm in Paoli, Pa.
Since the 1983 model year, approximately 54 million cars and light trucks produced in North America had intermittent wipers.
Ford has produced 16.8 million cars and trucks with intermittent wipers since then, according to the firm. If the jury awards the $50 per vehicle sought by Kearns, the award would be more than $840 million from Ford alone.
But in 1981, Ford lost a patent infringement case involving power steering pumps and was ordered to pay the inventor $650,000, or 10 cents apiece for 6.5 million pumps.
Until last year, the intermittent wiper lawsuits were consolidated into one, but U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn ruled that was too unwieldly. He picked Ford as the bellwether to begin disposal of the lawsuit.
Kearns had wanted damages tied to Ford's profit for each wiper, saying he could have manufactured them himself. But Cohn, judge for the U.S. District Court for Eastern Michigan, ruled he can only collect a royalty on each wiper.
He said Kearns, who now resides in Gaithersburg, Md., failed to prove he could establish a manufacturing facility to meet customer demand. Kearns, his lawyer and Ford officials have been ordered byCohn not to discuss the case.
A General Motors spokesman said there are differences in the technical and legal aspects of the suit against GM.
"It takes a lot of tenacity and money to fight patent infringement," said William G. Abbot, patent expert with Brooks & Cushman of Southfield, Mich. "A big company can make it expensive real quick."
Kearns first got the idea for a "windshield wiper that blinks" after losing the sight in one eye when a champagne cork exploded unexpectedly on his wedding day.
In 1963, he showed Ford a new Galaxie in which he had installed electronic-based intermittent wipers.
Kearns, who has a doctorate in mechanical engineering and has some 35 patents, had wanted to be a supplier to the automakers.
For Kearns, the 12-year legal struggle has been painful. It caused him a nervous breakdown and the breakup of his marriage. He has also said that he pursued this lawsuit in the hope of changing patent laws. He wants the courts to have the power to extend patents if inventors are involved in lengthy lawsuits. Ironically, all of the patents Kearns held on intermittent wipers expired in 1988.