WASHINGTON, January 28, 2018: Relatively speaking, most U.S. court cases do not take too long. Many American legal battles are actually resolved in one or two days. A week or two is perhaps considered a bit more than average. If a trial takes more than a month to resolve, it will be called a long one. When a trial lasts for more than two months, some would call it a marathon.
But a few trials in our nation’s history went beyond any reasonable description due to their extreme length. One of these legal nightmares is still ongoing.
Controversies can involve local courts, Federal courts, appeals to higher courts and possible appeals to the United States Supreme Court. Sometimes, Congress and the Office of the President of the United States get involved. All these legal battles are waged in an effort to resolve the parties’ disputes.
Robert William Kearns: Intermittent Windshield Wipers: 12 years
Robert W. Kearns invented intermittent windshield wiper systems for the automobile. His first patent was filed in 1964.
After getting his patent, Kearns tried to interest the “Big Three” automakers in a licensing deal. They all rejected his proposals. Nonetheless, Ford and Chrysler started using these systems. Kearns filed patent infringement suits. His ultimate victories cost him his marriage, as his wife could not handle the stress of the long litigation involved.
Kearns’ first suit, 12 years in duration, was filed against Ford in 1978. It was resolved in 1990, with Kearns winning a $10.1 million judgment.
Acting as his own attorney, Kearns next filed suit against Chrysler in 1982. Ten long years later, in 1992, Kearns won $18.7 million with interest. Chrysler appealed to a Federal Circuit Court. That court let the judgment stand. Chrysler then appealed to the Supreme Court, whose justices also declined to hear the case.
Finally, in 1995, Kearns received about $30 million in compensation for Chrysler’s patent infringement. He incurred over $10 million in legal fees while waging these extended legal battles.
Kearns and his family later sued GM, Mercedes and Japanese auto companies as well. All these cases were dismissed, however, because litigation on that level was not created for non-lawyers to conduct. Mr. Kearns missed many filing deadline,s and ultimately all these cases died.
Kearns passed away in 2005. His story formed the basis of the 2008 film Flash of Genius.
Knapik v. Penn Central: 43 years
A claim by 34 workers for back pay and benefits slowly wound its way through numerous courts in three jurisdictions; a federal bankruptcy court; and an arbitration proceeding. It was 43 years long years before these extended legal battles were finally resolved.
In 1968, the Pennsylvania and New York Central Railroads merged. Then, railroad employees (who the railroad argued were not part of the merger agreement) were furloughed without pay or benefits. The fired employees filed a lawsuit against the combined companies in 1969.
A verdict was entered for the plaintiffs against Penn Central (the merged entity) in the amount $564,820. Appeals and arbitration followed. Finally, a U.S. District Court judge ruled in 2012 that the plaintiffs were entitled to $14.7 million, including benefits and interest.
The merged entity should have paid the first award.
Myra Clark Gaines: 57 years
Myra Clark Gaines’ father died. At that point, she launched a lengthy series of legal battle during which she sought to be recognized as the sole heir of her father’s estate and to recover land in New Orleans. Numerous cases were filed.
The Gaines’ long-lasting legal battles consumed over 70 hearings and trials in state and federal courts in Louisiana. These cases even found their way to 17 appearances before the United States Supreme Court. Beginning in 1834 and continuing through 1891, Ms. Gaines’ cases involved claims of legality of marriage, probate of wills, legal standing, fraud, adultery, slander, mismanagement of funds, choice of law issues (Louisiana civil law vs. British common law), and translation issues (because jurors in New Orleans sometimes only spoke French).
Gaines ultimately won her battle, albeit posthumously, as she died in 1885. In 1891, the Supreme Court ordered the City of New Orleans to pay her estate $923,788. The damages awarded to the Gaines’ family were quickly dissolved, however, as her estate had to pay more than $860,000 to creditors for prior debts and legal expenses.
Black Hills Land Claim: 98 years and counting
The legal battles of the Lakota Sioux Indians began in 1920. The issues involved have not yet been resolved.
Known as the Black Hills Land Claim, this ongoing dispute between the Sioux Nation and the United States government involves ownership of land in and around the Black Hills. The disputed area is 125 miles long and 65 miles wide, encompassing land in South Dakota and Wyoming.
The Sioux settled in this area around 1765. They believe the area to be sacred, and continue to perform their religious ceremonies there. For its part, the U.S. government currently has five national parks in the Black Hills.
In 1851 a treaty was signed, with the government recognizing the disputed area as Sioux territory. A later 1868 treaty (following a war won by the Sioux) protected the area from white settlement. With gold discoveries in 1874, however, the treaties were violated. Mining towns like Deadwood, South Dakota, were created, and the government eventually reclaimed the land.
By 1877, another agreement was reached between the Lakota Sioux and the U.S. government, establishing permanent Indian reservations and payments to the Sioux.
Tribal lawyer Richard Case filed a lawsuit in the early 1920s, however. He claimed the 1877 Agreement was illegal, specifically noting that the government never made a legitimate purchase of the land. By 1956, two more tribal attorneys took over the case.
Eventually, in 1979, they prevailed in 1979 in the U.S. Court of Claims, winning an award of $105 million. But their victory did not last long. Many Sioux believed that if they accepted the money, their land would be lost, along with their culture and identity.
In 1981, another lawsuit was filed asking for 7.3 million acres and $11 billion in damages. Those claims were lost, but were appealed time and again. A bill was then brought before Congress in 1983, asking for roughly 2 million acres to be awarded to the tribe. The bill went nowhere.
In 2009, the Obama Administration “talked” about settling the Black Hills dispute.
Given the current political climate, it does not appear this matter will resolve anytime soon.
The Longest Cases
By category, as many people will attest, the longest cases on record are those involving family matters. In particular, divorce, alimony and child custody and support matters seemingly go on forever.
Final Thoughts on Legal Battles
“Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can.”
Kilroy J. Oldster:
“Courtrooms are battlegrounds where society’s bullies and the oppressed clash, where the victims of abusers seek recompense, and where parties cheated by scalawags seek retribution. Because of the high stakes involved, the parties are not always honest, and justice depends upon an array of factors including the prevailing case precedent, the skills of the legal advocates, and the merits of each party’s claims and counterclaims.”
“If someone tries to steal your watch, by all means fight them off. If someone sues you for your watch, hand it over and be glad you got away so lightly.”
Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980. He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website.
His book “The 8 Critical Things Your Auto Accident Attorney Won’t Tell You” can be instantly downloaded, for free, on his website: http://www.samakowlaw.com/book.
Samakow has now also started a small business consulting firm. The website for this business is brand new and Mr. Samakow will be most appreciative of any and all comments. www.thebusinessanswer.com.