August 06, 1990 12:00 PM

When Robert Kearns popped open a champagne bottle on his wedding night in August 1953, he couldn’t have seen that it might one day make him rich. At first he couldn’t see much of anything; the cork hit him in the face, virtually blinding him in his right eye. But the accident got the homegrown inventor to thinking—about his eyes, the way they blink and, improbably, about how difficult it is to drive in a drizzling rain.

Kearns’s musings led to a basement invention, a windshield wiper that automatically blinks on and off in light rain. The device became a standard feature and is now installed worldwide on an estimated 20 million cars annually. But Kearns never profited from the idea. Instead he found himself locked in a bitter patent battle with the Ford Motor Company that would endure for more than 12 years.

In July a U.S. district court jury in Detroit finally awarded him $5.1 million for patent infringement and lost royalties. A Ford spokesperson said the company was “pleased” with the verdict. Kearns, however, was not.

In fact he was not even in court. Miffed by a judge’s ruling that squelched Kearns’s bid for manufacturing and production profits as well—and the $140 million he sought—he vanished midway through the proceedings. “I had to go,” he said later. “If I had stayed, it would have legitimized what was happening.”

Kearns disclosed to PEOPLE that he had first driven from Detroit to Ohio, where he met an old college roommate. Running out of money but wanting to be isolated from the press and even his family, he then made his way back to his modest Gaithersburg, Md., home, secretly crept inside at night to get some blank checks, and drove to Little Bennett Regional Park, a nearby campground. There he spent the next 10 days living off knockwurst and pork and beans cooked over a portable stove.

Shortly after the jury announced its decision, Kearns returned home. Now he says he wants to reject the court’s $5.1 million award and appeal the judgment. If so, the move would surprise few who know the eccentric inventor best.

Kearns has already paid a high price for the sake of justice: a failed marriage, a nervous breakdown and long years in litigation. When he began tinkering with his revolutionary wiper, in 1962, he was an engineering professor at Michigan’s Wayne State University and a small-time inventor (his early credits included a comb that dispensed its own hair tonic). Kearns installed an experimental version of his “intermittent wiper” in the family’s Ford Galaxie in 1963 and brought it to Ford. The company hired him as a consultant, worked with him for six years—and then dropped him. Instead of the supplier’s contract he had hoped for, Kearns got a handshake and a wiper motor mounted on a plaque.

With a wife and six kids to support, the distraught inventor worked as Detroit’s buildings and safety engineering commissioner, then moved in 1971 to Maryland to work for the National Bureau of Standards. One day in 1976, he cracked. Kearns landed in a Maryland psychiatric ward, and by the time he emerged several weeks later, his red hair had turned completely white. Shortly thereafter, he retired on disability.

In 1978 Kearns filed suit against Ford. During the legal odyssey that followed, three law firms abandoned him, one judge died, and finally even his wife left. “It got to the point where the only thing that existed was the lawsuit,” says Phyllis Kearns, now 58 and an editorial assistant at the National Institutes of Health. “There was no end to it.”

Even so, Kearns’s children hung tough. Eldest son Dennis, now 35, became a licensed investigator to assist his father and once, during negotiations with Ford attorneys, placed his .45 automatic on a desk, no doubt leaving the impression that he meant business. In another less-than-heroic episode, he also began an eight-month affair with a paralegal in an opposing law firm. The romance ended soon after she turned over some crucial documents, but a judge refused to admit the evidence and fined the father $10,000 for his investigator’s underhanded strategy.

By January of this year, when the case finally came to trial, the whole family had rallied to Kearns’s side. On hand in Detroit were ex-wife Phyllis, the six kids and Kearns’s girlfriend, Jean Ryan, 59, a retired government cartographer he met eight years ago at a meeting for divorced Catholics.

Almost from the start, the case began fueling new debate about the country’s 200-year-old patent laws and the wisdom of having jury trials for such complex matters. In the end, Kearns’s award was “shockingly low,” says Washington, D.C., attorney and longtime patent expert Harold Wegner, echoing the view of many. “It’s ludicrous for perhaps intelligent but uninformed individuals to decide such complicated issues.”

With interest, if the judge awards it, Kearns’s $5.1 million award could double, and he has additional suits pending against a score of other automakers as well. But the case has already cost him $650,000, financed with a small inheritance and his various jobs, and he is still faced with $3 million in outstanding legal debts. Appealing the Ford decision would forestall any award for now and mean further expense. “I’ve always told people that my greatest fear is that I would be $12 short of getting to trial,” he says. “Now it looks like I’ll be $1.2 million short,” which is the estimated cost of an appeal.

“There’s no precedent for a hero like Bob Kearns who’s willing to go the distance,” says son Dennis, vowing to stick by his father. As for Dad, the inventor insists that money never was the point anyway. “I’ve done too much hurting,” Kearns says. “I want to protect other inventors by showing the little guy can win.”

Ken Gross, Teresa Riordan in Gaithersburg

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