Is it ethical to use an idea based on the risk analysis

| June 14, 2018

Dr. Robert Kearns and the Intermittent Windshield Wiper Dr. Robert Kearns, a Maryland inventor and former engineering Professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, obtained a patent for his first intermittent car windshield wiper system in 1967. People magazine described the genesis of Kearns’s invention as follows:The idea for the intermittent windshield wiper popped, as it were, into Kearn’s mind on his wedding night in August 1953 when he was opening a bottle of champagne. The cork hit him in the eye and that inability to blink through the incident and see clearly got him to thinking about driving in the rain. The end result was his invention, conceived in a motel and created in his basement. He installed it in a 1962 Ford Galaxy and then demonstrated it for Ford Motor Company.Ford installed the wiper system in its cars, beginning in 1969, and did so under its own patents for such a system. During the 1970s, intermittent wiper systems began appearing on the cars of major U.S. and Japanese automakers. Kearns received no money for the use of these systems.The automakers maintained that the idea was an obvious one, and it was only a matter of time before their engineers developed the same type of system. They also claimed that their systems differed from Kearns per design and function. Kearns filed suit against Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, Fiat, Toyota, Ferrari, Volvo,Alfa-Romeo, Citroen, Honda, Isuzu, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Maserati, Peugeot, Renault, Rolls Royce, Saab, Toyota, and other Japanese auto manufacturers, for a total of nineteen different defendants.He had planned to open his own firm to supply the intermittent windshield wiper systems to all automakers but was unable to do so after the companies manufactured the systems in house.Kearns represented himself in the cases that ran through 1995 until final resolution or settlement. In fact. Kearns set up Kearns and Associates in a building across the street from the Federal courthouse in Detroit in order to battle the auto manufacturers. His children worked for the company formed to litigate, and at one point Kearns was ordered to pay sanctions because his son had obtained confidential documents by dating a paralegal who worked at a law firm that was representing one of the auto manufacturers. In November 1990, Kearns settled his case with Ford for $10.2 million, which amounted to 30 cents per car Ford sold with the intermittent wiper systems. He had turned down a $30million offer from Ford and proceeded with litigation. In June 1992, a jury awarded Kearns $11.3 million in damages from Chrysler, or about 90 cents per car, for Chrysler’s infringement of Kearn’s patent. Chrysler had sold 12,564,107 vehicles with the device. Kearns had originally asked for damages ranging from $3 to $30 per car, or $37.7 to $ 377 million, based on the treble damage provisions of the patent infringement laws.Chrysler appealed what it called the “unreasonable and excessive” verdict. However, the appeal was dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court. The amount Kearns received from Chrysler,$18.7 million, was far less than he had requested as damages. Kearns continued to pursue his cases against the other car companies until the U.S.Supreme Court refused to reverse the dismissal of his case. He spent $4 million in legal fees in the Ford case and about $5.5 million on the case against Chrysler. He was represented by four law firms during the course of all the litigation. Kearns was a colorful figure who wrote an angry letter to the Federal judge handling his first trial, when the jury was unable to reach a verdict.After having the letter delivered to the judge, Kearnsdisappeared for several days. The jury could not reach a verdict, and the judge declared a mistrial. That case, the Ford case, was eventually settled. Kearns said his success should be an inspiration for other inventors because it proves they can win against large corporations that have used other’s ideas without reimbursement. Others say that Kearn’s failed marriage and his near breakdown demonstrate that a refusal to negotiate can be harmful and that most of his money went to paying lawyers in the decades long litigation.Kearnsdied in February 2005, just after he appeared in Forbes magazine along with other inventors who had changed our daily lives by what they developed. Others in the group included Ray Tomlinson, the man who came up with using “@” for e-mail addresses, and Allen Gant Sr., the inventor of pantyhose.Sources:Ken Gross. “Wiper Man Robert Kearns Won His Patent Fight with Ford, but That Didn’t Mean He Was Out of the Wood.”People. August 6, 1990.Mike Hoffman. “Patent Fending: A Look at Some Famous Legal Battles between Inventors and the Corporations That Stole Their Patented Ideas.” Inc., December 1997. http:/ Questions:Is it ethical to use an idea based on the risk analysis that the owner of that idea simply cannot afford to litigate the matter?Why was the intermittent wiper system so important to the automakers?CouldKearns have done anything further to protect himself?If you were an executive with one of the companies still litigation withKearns, would you settle the case? Why or why not?Why do you think the auto manufacturers foughtKearnsso extensively? Is it possible that their engineers had been working simultaneously on the idea?

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