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Retailer, Inventor Reach Settlement in 20-Year-Old Lawsuit

September 17, 1989

CHICAGO (AP) _ A former Sears, Roebuck and Co. store clerk has settled his dispute with the retail giant over profits from a popular socket wrench he invented more than 25 years ago.

Peter Roberts of Tennessee was 18 years old in 1964 when he invented a ″quick release″ wrench that eventually sold by the millions.

On Friday, the 44-year-old Roberts settled an $8.2 million patent infringement case that alleged Sears had cheated him out of his rightful royalties from the device.

Sears spokeswoman Kathy Gucfa declined to give any details of the agreement, saying part of the settlement is that neither side will comment on it.

Roberts was believed on his way home to the Chattanooga suburb of Red Bank and couldn’t be reached for comment. His attorney John Davidson declined to comment.

Roberts was a clerk at a Sears store in Gardner, Mass., when he invented the wrench in his spare time. The wrench has a push button that permits removal of sockets from the tool with one hand.

Roberts obtained a patent for the wrench design in 1965, and Sears paid him $10,000 for rights to the patent.

He then joined the Air Force. While stationed in England, he saw a Sears catalog and was astounded at the display the wrench got because, he said, the company had led him to believe the tool had only minor sales potential.

But from 1965 to 1975, Sears sold more than 19 million of the wrenches for a net profit of more than $44 million, according to documents in the case.

″I was real young, and when you’re young, you may tend to trust people too much,″ Roberts once said of his decision to take Sears’ offer.

Roberts sued in 1969 seeking to rescind the agreement under which he assigned the patent to the company. A federal jury in 1978 awarded him $1 million after finding that Sears fraudulently obtained the patent.

Roberts also asked for damages for the estimated 14 million socket wrenches sold after 1977. He had estimated Sears earned $172 million from sales of the wrench between 1977 and 1982, but attorneys for the retailer said the profit was closer to $5 million.

In April 1982, a federal jury found that Sears violated the patent and awarded Roberts $5 million, an award later increased to $8.2 million by the judge on the grounds the infringement was willful.

That decision was overturned in 1983 by an appeals court, which ordered a new trial.

Roberts said after the appellate court decision that he kept pursuing the case more for the principle than the money.

″I’m right, they’re wrong,″ he said. ″I’ve wrapped up a majority of my life around the thing. I’m just trying to get what is justly and rightly mine.″

The new trial was in its fifth day Friday when the settlement was reached.

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