AKRON-Should an enterprising producer want to base a TV movie-of-the-week on the product liability lawsuit ``Cartwright vs. Goodyear,'' the necessary dramatic elements are all there. The 1993 trial featured a highly decorated Vietnam War hero, who was mangled in a truck accident. It included the hero's distraught wife, who, because of the accident, lost her ``spousal support.'' And it had a giant, faceless corporation accused of producing the faulty tire that caused the accident.
The material was good enough for the jury to award Gary Cartwright and his wife, Linda, just over $11 million.
However, what came after the trial ended is even better material and, according to Goodyear, a good example of why the current product liability system in the U.S. needs to be reformed.
Details of the Cartwright case were simple: A tire blew on the truck Mr. Cartwright was driving, causing the vehicle to careen into a viaduct. He suffered several fractures, a joint injury and nerve damage.
Mr. Cartwright's lawyer, Jeffrey M. Goldberg, claimed the truck's right front tire, a Goodyear Super Hi-Miler, had blown because of a defect.
But what Mr. Goldberg focused on during the trial was Mr. Cartwright's valiant acts as a Vietnam soldier: how he saved a downed helicopter and his daring raids on North Vietnamese bunkers. Mr. Goldberg also told how Mr. Cartwright unselfishly had turned down the Medal of Honor.
Six weeks after the jury's verdict, however, new evidence surfaced. Not only had Mr. Cartwright never been offered any medals for valor, but he never was in Vietnam. He spent his three-year tour of duty as a clerk at the Army's Fort Bragg, N.C., base.
Further evidence from a relative indicated that Mr. Cartwright lost control of the truck because he was reaching for papers that were sliding off the dashboard.
The new evidence prompted Goodyear lawyers to demand a retrial. Instead, the trial judge reduced the damages to $6 million. The tire maker is appealing the case.
During the past decade, liability costs have been rising, according to the Product Liability Coordinating Committee, a Washington organization that supports federal product liability reform. Product liability litigation costs U.S. industry between $80 billion and $117 billion annually, it said.
Opponents of the current liability system claim the threat of potentially high monetary damages resulting from lawsuits is stifling industry. According to the PLCC, a 1994 Gallup survey showed that one out of five U.S. business executives had decided not to introduce a new product, or enhance an existing one, because of the concern over liability suits.
Such statistics are spurring reform activity in Washington.
On May 10, the Senate passed a basic product liability bill that limits punitive damages in such lawsuits to the greater of $250,000 or double economic damages. A House bill passed in March contains a similar cap, but extends it to all civil suits.
In the Senate bill, a judge can lift the $250,000 limit if he feels the manufacturer was particularly reckless. The defendant, however, is then entitled to a new trial.
The House legislation also requires plaintiffs to pay the attorneys' fees of victorious defendants. Plaintiffs would be punished for bringing ``frivolous'' lawsuits and for rejecting a settlement offer that is more than their ultimate jury award.
Both bills contain reforms long desired by industry, including: protection for manufacturers from being sued after 15-20 years; a defense for manufacturers if plaintiffs misuse a product or operate it under the influence of drugs or alcohol; and exemption from lawsuits for product sellers, except for their own misconduct or when the original manufacturer can't be located.
Both Goodyear and Michelin North America are supporting the reform legislation, saying the current system is unfair, costs too much for both business and consumers, and promotes a ``just sue 'em'' mentality.
``No one is trying to take away an injured person's right to seek just compensation,'' Michelin said, ``but now is the time to reform our product liability system.''
Washington Correspondent Miles Moore contributed to this report.