ATLANTA-The word ``tragedy'' often is overused, but there's no doubt it applies in the case of Franklin Ford III. At age 22 and less than a month after celebrating his college graduation, the Norcross, Ga., man suffered brain damage in an accident that occurred after a tire blew out on the van his dad was driving. While the van was stranded on the highway, a station wagon struck it from behind, leaving Mr. Ford with a condition called ``left-side neglect.'' He will require professional care the rest of his life, doctors say.
Such are the obstacles tire makers face when defending product liability cases at trial. The jury sees a person with a catastrophic injury and human nature dictates some form of compensation must be paid.
Manufacturers, as a result, must convince the jury that while such injuries are tragic, their tire was not necessarily to blame.
In this case, attorneys for Mr. Ford and his family say the tire company should be held liable. They argue that the Stratton-brand tire produced in Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co.'s Tuscaloosa, Ala., plant was defective. Among their contentions is that quality control at the factory was lackluster, leaving the tire with inadequate adhesion on the steel belts.
They also say the tire maker failed to warn the Fords-as well as the general public-that a certain motor vehicle vibration is indicative of belt separation.
Uniroyal Goodrich contends the tire was not defective. It claims there is evidence the failure was caused by underinflation and impact with a road hazard. The firm also argues that rather than staying in the van, the Fords should have fled to the roadside.
Additionally, the company says blame also should be shouldered by the driver of the station wagon, who was killed in the accident.
Here, the jury sided with the plaintiffs, awarding the victim $42.6 million in a case Uniroyal Goodrich is appealing.
The accident occurred Aug. 26, 1989. Shortly before 5:30 p.m., Mr. Ford was the front-seat passenger in his father's 1982 van. The family was returning from vacation in Florida, traveling north on I-85 in Atlanta.
Although apparently feeling a vibration less than an hour earlier, the family continued, deciding instead to have the problem checked the following Monday.
But then the left rear tire-a Stratton Technical Excellence SP-7000-``suddenly exploded, separated and failed, wrapping approximately half its circumference around the van's axle,'' the suit claimed. Because the tread was around the axle, the vehicle was stranded in the middle of the freeway.
The tire, purchased in February 1988 from NTW, a subsidiary of Western Auto Supply Co., had 13,000 miles on it at the time.
Because of the volume of traffic, the Fords elected to remain in their van. Warning flashers were turned on and Mr. Ford's father tried unsuccessfully to radio for help on his citizens band radio.
About 10 minutes later, a station wagon driven by Rebecca Parsons struck the van from the rear. Court filings by the company claim Ms. Parsons, who was killed, was speeding at the time.
The Fords' van was knocked approximately 200 feet in the collision. Besides young Mr. Ford's injuries, his mother's leg was crushed and a second jury awarded her $150,000 in the same trial in which he was awarded $42.6 million.
The three-week trial in Fulton County, Ga., State Court was split into three parts. During the first, the jury was to determine whether Uniroyal Goodrich was liable.
During that portion of the trial, a physician testified to what the injury was; a police officer and the parents explained how the wreck occurred; and an accident reconstructionist tried to piece together exactly what happened.
Franklin Ford also was called to answer a couple of questions. ``The jury had the right to see Frank and understand his plight,'' said James Seifter, one of the family's attorneys.
The attorneys also tried to show the product was defective, because ``the mere fact the product failed doesn't prove it's defective,'' said Yehuda Smolar, another of the Fords' attorneys.
It also was vital that such a large portion of the tire separated, because most blowouts show localized damage, according to the attorney. ``If it's a localized failure, you normally can drive off the road. They didn't have that ability in this case.''
Other key testimony came from a former Uniroyal Goodrich employee who worked at Tuscaloosa 27 years. He said that after B.F. Goodrich and Uniroyal Inc. combined their tire operations-forming Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co.-quality at the plant suffered in management's attempt to meet quotas and production schedules.
Billy Campbell, who worked in quality assurance at the plant, testified that ``green tires'' sometimes hung for as long as 10 days before being cured in the mold. He said it appeared at times the different elements of the tire were separating during this waiting period, but the general school of thought was such problems would be solved during the curing stage.
``This tire failed because of what was going on in the plant-plain and simple,'' Mr. Seifter said. ``They didn't hit anything in the road. They didn't underinflate or overload the tire.''
Messrs. Seifter and Smolar also charged that the tire industry has not warned the public that a specific type of vibration is a warning of impending belt separation. About 18 months earlier, the Fords had experienced a similar problem, taken the tire back and were given a new one, with NTW personnel telling them the tire was ``out of round.''
``No one said if it happens again, get off the road immediately,'' Mr. Smolar said.
Although Uniroyal Goodrich officials and their attorneys declined to comment pending the company's appeal, a good deal of their strategy in the case is evident from pretrial pleadings.
The tire maker denied the tire was defective, instead saying the company's design and manufacturing process was within federal standards-even exceeding them in many respects. Uniroyal Goodrich also said the Tuscaloosa factory had extensive testing and quality assurance programs.
Defense attorneys, therefore, pointed to other factors they said were responsible for the tire failure and injuries.
They argued the customized van had a history of mechanical problems, and claimed ``there is a documented history of the van tires being run underinflated,'' according to one brief. They also claimed there is evidence the tire collided with a road hazard within 1,000 miles of the accident.
``The combination of the underinflation and the road hazard collision eventually caused the tire vibration,'' the company's brief said. ``The continued driving on the vibrating tire caused a partial steel belt separation and ultimately led to a portion of the tread and one steel belt detaching from the tire carcass.''
Among the other contributing factors alleged by the defense:
the Fords should have exited their vehicle;
a poorly constructed ``Captain's chair'' that Franklin Ford was sitting in collapsed, contributing to his and his mother's injuries; and
the driving of Ms. Parsons was reckless and criminal.
After the trial, the firm said its post-trial interviews indicated jurors didn't find the tire defective, but instead based their verdict on the company's failure to warn. However, the company argues that because the Fords knew the vibration was caused by a tire, they assumed a certain risk by continuing.
``Certainly the injuries suffered by Mr. Ford are tragic, but the tire was clearly not at fault,'' the company said in a statement.
After the jury determined Uniroyal Goodrich was liable, the second and third parts of the trial were held to determine compensatory and punitive damages. This is when the defense brought in witnesses to tell how Franklin Ford's life had changed.
The jury also was told of the ``left-side neglect'' condition, in which Mr. Ford has no use of his left arm and drags his left leg. ``For him, his left side doesn't exist. If he has to turn, he turns right, never left,'' Mr. Smolar said.
Attorneys also called physicians, economists and life planners, telling of medical bills and future needs.
In the end, the judgment against the company was staggering: $465,000 for past medical expenses; $3 million for future medical costs and attendant care; $1.56 million for reduced earning capacity; $12.6 million for pain and suffering; and $25 million for punitive damages.
A decision on the appeal isn't expected before next summer. Uniroyal Goodrich was forced to post a $51 million bond to go forward with the action.
In Georgia, a three-judge panel hears arguments on both legal rulings of the trial judge and substantive issues. If all three agree, the ruling is upheld. However, if one disagrees, the matter goes before the state Court of Appeals.