February 28, 2005

Intermittent wiper inventor dies

Baltimore, Maryland – Robert Kearns, the inventor of intermittent windshield wipers who won multi-million-dollar judgements against Chrysler and Ford for their use, has died of cancer at his home in Baltimore at the age of 77.

Kearns, a university professor, received numerous patents in 1967 for wipers that paused between swipes, making them very useful in light rain or mist. He offered the design to various automakers but did not reach a licensing deal with any of them. When carmakers started offering them, he sued Ford in 1978 and Chrysler in 1982 for patent infringement.

In 1990, a jury decided that Ford infringed on the patent, though it concluded the infringement was not deliberate. Another jury ordered Ford to pay Kearns US$6.3 million, although a judge dropped it to US$5.2 million. To settle the case, Ford later agreed to pay US$10.2 million and drop all appeals. Chrysler was ordered to pay Kearns US$18.7 million plus interest; the company’s appeal to overturn the decision was rejected by the Supreme Court in 1995.

Kearns’ lawsuits against General Motors and some foreign carmakers were dismissed; much of his award money went to legal fees even though he acted as his own lawyer at times. He was disappointed because the courts didn’t bar the companies from using the wipers, which he hoped to produce himself. U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn, who presided over five of the trials, said Kearns wanted to become a major manufacturer. “His zeal got ahead of his judgement.”

His daughter Maureen Kearns concurred, saying that her father’s home was filled with legal files. “His life was simply this battle,” she said.

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