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Defective Automobile Tire Wrongful Death

$1.4 Million Trial Victory for Widow and Her Children

      Introduction

Don Corson represented an Oregon widow and her four children in a $1.4 million federal wrongful death case. The jury in the first trial could not reach a unanimous decision.  When the case was tried a second time, the jury returned a unanimous verdict against the manufacturer of a defective tire that exploded, causing a fatal collision. Prosecution of the case involved extensive investigation, working with law enforcement agencies, mechanical engineers, experts in tire design, materials, and manufacturing, and an internationally-recognized tire failure analysis expert. The trial team was able to show that there was a manufacturing defect which created a separation between the tire body and tread that was allowed to grow over time until it failed catastrophically in a sudden explosive event.

The Defectively Manufactured Tire 

We trust our lives to the tires and the corporations that manufacture them.   As the Michelin ad has reminded us for many years, “Because so much is riding on your tire.” What is riding on tires is the lives of our loved ones. The responsibility the manufacturer has is to build the tire right.  Part of that responsibility is placing the tire belt elements that are below the tread with “painstaking precision,” as this manufacturer’s ad put it. That is part of what is required to properly manufacture a tire like the one in this case, that is intended to be used both on-road and off-road.

One of the official manufacturing corporation representatives testified in the case that the tire adhesion system was designed to last at least the tread life of the tire, and that should be true for any other component of the tire.   The tread life of this tire started out at 14/32, and was at about 7/32″ when it failed and exploded, about halfway through its initial tread life. Both sides agreed that tire age and mileage were not factors. The trials were in large part about what caused the premature tire failure.  On behalf of the widow and children of the man who was killed after the tire exploded, we were able to show that the causes were negligent manufacturing at the tire factory.

The Fatal Event

The very first witness in the trial was an independent eyewitness who was behind a Chevy Blazer; both were going South on Interstate 5.  The Blazer was going down a long, straight, level stretch of road, going with the flow of traffic. There was no indication anything was amiss. Suddenly, without warning, the tire literally exploded, pulling the Blazer into and across the median.

The driver of the Blazer was fighting for control, but the Blazer went airborne at the northbound lane, and came down on the car of a man who was driving as part of his job.   The man driving that other car was killed.  All of the eyewitnesses testified that it all happened very quickly.

The police came out, and documented the facts thoroughly. They took a large number of photographs of the failed left front tire.  When we asked the supervising trooper why, he told the jury that it was because of the “unusual damage” to the tire. This was not an ordinary tire failure. The tire itself became unglued, with massive structural damage.

Why Did The Tire Explode?

Analysis of the reasons for the fatal tire explosion were started promptly.  An independent licensed professional mechanical engineer who does product failure analysis examined the tire, and concluded that the tire was defective from the time of its manufacture, but other specialists and testing would be required to figure out the details of the defect or defects. 

Analysis by both sides found facts that there was substantial agreement about, including:

       There were areas of rust and areas of advanced corrosion in the tire.

       There was polishing in the area where the failure originated, indicating the two places where there was rubbing of tire rubber, which can happen               only if there is a separation.

      Corrosion was part of the failure mechanism at this separation area; moisture causes corrosion, corrosion damages adhesion of the tire                                  components, and the corrosion contributed to the separation that resulted in the tire exploding.

      Where a separation is in progress, it will result in a localized area of lower tread depth; this tire had localized lower tread depth in the area of                        separation that resulted in the tire explosion.

      There was the start of localized lower tread depth in the 11 o’clock area (tire position is referred to as if the tire were an old-fashioned clock, with                hands), with a pool of internal rust.

      It is foreseeable that a tire that is manufactured, marketed, and sold as an all-terrain, on-road and off-road vehicle tire, as this one was, may have              both hard and easy service, and may have cuts, nicks, and penetrations; but both sides agreed that none of the penetrations in this tire was a                      substantial factor in causing it to fail.

      At the time this tire was manufactured, tire companies could achieve almost pure uniformity in belt placement, in terms of centering the belt on the        tire.

The central issue for the trials was whether this tire suffered from poor manufacturing that resulted in belt nonuniformities or variability that caused the tire to fail, or if other factors caused the tire failure.

For the second trial, we brought in an  internationally- recognized tire failure analyst who painstakingly took 26 individual x-rays of the tire so that there could be accurate belt measurements. The jury was literally able to see the tire’s internal nonunformity problems, and its excessive variability. The belt nonuniformity defects were carefully measured.

The measurements were graphed. The measurements showed both a belt snaking defect and a belt step off defect in this tire.  The only way this nonuniformity problem occurs is by negligence at the factory: the manufacturer not doing its job right. There is nothing that the owner of the tire can do to cause this defect, or even to see it.  Once this defect is built into the tire at the factory, it will stay in the tire.

Over time, the belt defects caused abnormal fatigue strains that contribute to belt separations, the mode of failure of this tire. The jury could see some of the effects of the abnormal strains from the nonuniformity defects on the x-rays.

The defendant tire manufacturer conceded through cross examination of its witnesses at trial that any manufacturer should avoid any component part misplacement, that major belt variation can shorten the life of a tire, that belt non-uniformities can cause variations in forces when a tire is used, and that variations in forces can contribute to strain and fatigue within a tire, and lead to belt separations.   The tire failure analyst testified about the manufacturing tolerances he knew about from his tire manufacturing industry experience: an absolute maximum of plus or minus 1.5 mm, or about plus or minus 1/16 of an inch. This defective tire was about 2 times worse than the maximum variability that can be tolerated.

In this case, the manufacturer destroyed all of the documentation that would be important to have helped the widow prove her case, including all of the manufacturing specifications for this tire.  While it kept other documents, it destroyed all of the engineering drawings, working drawings, blueprints, design documents, design specifications, and documents relating to procedures, protocols, or specifications for the construction and assembly of the tire.

While the manufacturer’s witnesses predictably supported the company, and argued that other factors caused the failure, they had to admit that since the 1960s the Society of Automotive Engineers has known that:

  • Belt assembly requires extreme precision
  • Lateral variation must be held to an absolute minimum
  • If this is not accomplished, force variations in excess of acceptable limits may result.

Consistent with that industry knowledge that has been well-known since the 1960s, we were able to show the jury that the excessive nonuniformities in this tire were substantial factors in causing its failure.

The trials also involved extensive evidence about moisture in the tire that caused corrosion that damaged adhesion between the metal in the belts and the rubber around the metal.  This issue was hotly contested by expert witnesses on both sides, but our tire failure analyst was able to show the jury evidence of factory moisture exposure in the subject tire, and support for his conclusion that factory moisture exposure was a substantial factor in causing this tire to fail.  Part of the proof was that the rust at the 11 o’clock tire position mentioned above; there was no path for moisture to have traveled from the tire exterior to the internal rust; the moisture that caused this rust more likely than not came from factory moisture contamination.

We tracked down and took the sworn testimony before trial of a former tire analyst for this manufacturer.  He testified that moisture was one of the production conditions that was causing a serious problem with belt separation problems in light truck tires manufactured at the specific factory where this tire was manufactured, during the time when this tire was manufactured.

Reflections on Product Liability Cases

This case is a reminder that sometimes a corporation will do everything it can to protect its money, but not do the basics expected and needed to protect its consumers.  The manufacturer fought this case for years, with two trials, and two appeals to the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. There were at least four law firms representing the manufacturer during the course of the case.  During the trials, the defense team took over an entire floor of a downtown Portland hotel for its lawyers, support staff, and witnesses. At times there were more defense lawyers in the courtroom than anyone else besides the jury itself.  The manufacturing corporation spared no cost, no effort to defeat the widow and her four children.

Even when the family won, part of their victory was taken away by an Oregon law that caps compensation for human harms and losses at $500,000.  Because of that statute, the judge reduced the total amount of damages from $1.87 million to $1.4 million. This statute is not well-known outside legal circles, and even prohibits attorneys from telling juries about the statute.

A jury may work hard to come up with the right number, only to have part of it taken away, without their ever being informed of that.  The statute’s amount has not been updated in decades.

Ironically, a coach or a young athlete can be paid more than  $500,000 for less than a year of work, but the legislature has decreed that no family can recover more than that amount for a lifetime of loss of society and companionship.

Oregon state courts require basically that at least nine of twelve jurors agree on the verdict in a civil case.  In federal court, a jury verdict must be unanimous. When the first trial’s jury could not reach a unanimous decision, that was in effect a victory for the manufacturer.  In product liability cases, major manufacturers often try to grind down the survivors of defective products, or their families. Some families might have given up at that point, or accepted a modest settlement.  This family was willing to keep fighting.  A victory in this kind of a case is not just to help the widow and children, but to prevent the same kind of tragedy from happening to other families. The family fought on; their case eventually took about a decade, from start to finish.

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