Jacob Krippelz has waged an 11-year battle in the courts against Ford Motor Co. over a lighting system he patented in 1991. But his lengthy legal battle is finally nearing an end. Last December, a federal jury in Chicago awarded him $23 million in royalties for Ford’s patent infringement. But the case was not over. In late November of this year, U.S. District Judge James Zagel increased the award to $55.6 million. The judge found that Ford had acted recklessly by selling vehicles with similar lamps even though the company knew of the potential infringement. That’s called “willful” infringement. U.S. patent laws allow courts in such cases to increase the damages for willful action by up to three times the amount assessed. Ford was said to have had a cavalier attitude about this situation, and it apparently continued after the suit was filed. It appears that the lamps which were the subject of the litigation were used on millions of vehicles.

The case is significant, not only for the size of the damages to an individual inventor, but also for its uncanny resemblance to Robert W. Kearns’ patent-infringement story from the 1960s. Kearns came up with his idea – intermittent windshield wipers — while driving home one night in a light rain. He later demonstrated his invention to Ford engineers and received a positive response. After a lapse in time, in 1969 Ford came out with its own intermittent wiper. In 1978, Kearns filed his lawsuit against Ford. The case did not go to trial until 1990, and a jury found that Ford had infringed his patents. The automaker settled with the inventor for $10.2 million after Kearns had rejected an earlier $30 million settlement offer.

The Plaintiff in the latest case, Krippelz, emigrated from the former Yugoslavia in the 1950s and went to work for Caterpillar. He later opened a machining business that supplies components to Caterpillar and other heavy-equipment manufacturers. In 1991, Krippelz patented his design for a small lamp mounted to sideview mirrors, now known as a “puddle lamp.” He sent a copy of his patent to Ford soon after it was issued. The automaker told him they were not interested in the invention. Six years later, Krippelz walked into his local Ford dealer and saw the lamp on a vehicle. Ford’s puddle lamp supplier had its own patent, which refers to Krippelz’s patent.

Krippelz sued Ford in 1998. The suit was delayed for several reasons, including Ford’s effort to test the device, which Judge Zagel found “created a needless controversy.”  A movie dealing with patent infringement, entitled “Flash of Genius,” came out just before Krippelz’s case went to trial in December.

Source: Chicago Tribune

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