Relatively speaking, most court battles do not take too long. Many cases are 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.
A few trials in our nation’s history went beyond any description for their extreme length. One is still ongoing.
Controversies can involve local courts, federal courts, appeals to higher courts, possibly an appeal to the United States Supreme Court, and sometimes, Congress and the office of the President of the United States get involved, all in an effort to get to resolution of the parties’ disputes.
Robert William Kearns – Intermittent Windshield Wipers – 12 years
Mr. Kearns invented the automobile intermittent windshield wiper systems. His first patent was filed in 1964.
After getting his patent, Mr. 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.
The first suit, 12 years long, was filed against Ford in 1978 and resolved in 1990 with Kearns winning a $10.1 million judgment.
Kearns filed suit against Chrysler, acting as his own attorney, 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.
In 1995 Kearns received about $30 million in compensation for Chrysler’s patent infringement. He incurred over $10 million in legal fees.
Mr. Kearns and his family later sued GM, Mercedes and Japanese companies. All of these cases were dismissed because litigation, on that level, was not created for non-lawyers. Mr. Kearns missed many filing deadlines and ultimately all of these cases died.
Mr. Kearns passed 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 wound its way through numerous courts in three jurisdictions, a federal bankruptcy court, and an arbitration proceeding. It was 43 years long years before the matter was finally resolved.
In 1968, the Pennsylvania and New York Central Railroads merged. Then, employees (who the railroad argued were not part of the merger agreement) were furloughed without pay or benefits. The employees filed a lawsuit in 1969.
A verdict was entered for the plaintiffs against Penn Central (the merged entity) in the amount $564,820. Appeals and arbitration followed, until finally a U.S. District Court judge ruled in 2012 that the plaintiffs were entitled to $14.7 million (benefits and interest). The merged entity should have paid the first award.
Myra Clark Gaines — 57 years
Ms. Gaines’ father died, and thus began a very long legal battle where 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 battle consumed over 70 hearings and trials in state and federal courts in Louisiana. These cases found their way to 17 appearances in the United States Supreme Court. Beginning in 1834, through to 1891, 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, posthumously. 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 claims of the Lakota Sioux Indians began in 1920. Those claims 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, an area 125 miles long and 65 miles wide, occupying land in South Dakota and Wyoming. The Sioux settled the area around 1765 and believe the area to be sacred. The Sioux perform their religious ceremonies there.
The government currently has five national parks in the Black Hills.
In 1851 a treaty was signed with the government recognizing the area as Sioux territory and a later 1868 treaty (following a war won by the Sioux) protected the area from white settlement. With gold discoveries in 1874, the treaties were violated: mining towns were created and the government reclaimed the land.
By 1877 another agreement was reached, establishing permanent Indian reservations and payments to the Sioux.
Tribal lawyer Richard Case filed a lawsuit in the early 1920s claiming the 1877 Agreement was illegal, specifically that the government never made a legitimate purchase of the land. By 1956, two more tribal attorneys took over the case, and they prevailed in 1979 in the U.S. Court of Claims, with an award of $105 million.
The 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, and appealed, and appealed. A bill was brought before Congress in 1983 asking for roughly 2 million acres. It 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 are those involving family matters, with divorce, alimony, and child custody and support matters seemingly going on forever.
Abraham Lincoln: 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.
John Mortimer: 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.