ATLANTA-Two Fulton County, Ga., State Court juries have ordered Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. to pay a total of more than $43 million to a 27-year-old Norcross, Ga., man and his mother, both injured in a vehicle accident following a tire failure. Franklin E. Ford III-who suffered severe brain damage, is partially paralyzed and has required 24-hour care since the 1989 accident-was awarded $17.9 million for pain, suffering and loss of earnings, plus $25 million in punitive damages.
A separate jury, listening to the same evidence, awarded $150,000 to Mr. Ford's mother, Claudia, who suffered a broken leg and underwent numerous surgeries following the accident.
Yehuda Smolar, Mr. Ford's attorney, contends Uniroyal Goodrich, a Michelin North America subsidiary, concealed defects in its private-label Stratton Technical Excellence SP-7000 tire that would increase ``the likelihood the tire would separate from the wheel rim.''
He said he has discovered evidence the tire had ``bad adhesion'' between the belts and ``manufacturing and design problems,'' and that U.G. Tire had ``failed to warn the public that belt separation may be evidenced by slight to moderate vibrations.''
U.G. Tire denies anything is wrong with the passenger tire and said its investigators determined there was evidence of underinflation and ``some sort of impact damage'' to the Fords' failed tire, a company spokeswoman said.
Attorney Allen Willingham, who represented U.G. Tire in the cases, called the verdicts ``wholly irreconcilable,'' and said the company would appeal Mr. Ford's case.
The U.G. Tire spokeswoman said she believes the company will not appeal Mrs. Ford's ruling.
Meanwhile, Mr. Smolar said he is not afraid to retry the case.
``It's unfortunate this company doesn't realize it has a defective tire and wants to bury its head in the sand,'' he said. ``It's unfortunate this will probably give the tire industry a black eye when it probably doesn't deserve one.''
Mr. Ford, his mother and his father, Franklin E. Ford Jr., were returning from a vacation in Florida, when they reportedly began to feel a vibration in their van on I-85 just outside of Atlanta. About 15 miles later, the tire suffered a bead failure and wrapped around the van's front axle, stranding the Fords on an inside lane of the five-lane highway, Mr. Smolar said.
The Fords remained in their van until an automobile collided with the back of the van.
Testimony presented during the two-and-a-half-week trial suggested the Fords had had time to exit the van but chose not to, the U.G. Tire spokeswoman said.
Mr. Smolar said the Fords had purchased two SP-7000 tires in February 1988 and returned one after feeling vibrations three weeks later. That tire was replaced with the one that eventually failed about 13,000 miles later.
Post-trial interviews with jurors showed the jury based its verdict on a ``failure to warn'' that a vibration could lead to tire failure and not on a belief that the tire itself was defective, U.G. Tire said.
``There is evidence that the Fords were aware of a vibration for at least 40 minutes before the tire failed, identified it as being caused by one of their tires, but chose not to take any action and continued driving at highway speeds,'' the company said April 5 in a prepared statement. ``Certainly the injuries suffered by Mr. Ford III are tragic, but the tire was clearly not at fault.''
Mr. Ford's award is the second largest in Georgia history behind the $106 million assessed against General Motors Corp. in an accident case, Mr. Smolar said.