CLARKSVILLE, Tenn.-Bruce Smith has this recurring nightmare: He sells a set of tires and wheels; almost a year later the customer has an accident and a person is killed; then a crash survivor blames two businesses including the tire dealership, which ends up being ordered to pay $385,000 to settle a lawsuit. The only problem is, this nightmare is as real as they come.
So real that a day doesn't go by that the owner of Clarksville Tire & Automotive Center Inc. doesn't mutter a few choice epithets under his breath and wonder how things ever could have gotten so crazy.
``It's the biggest rip-off of any case I've ever heard of,'' said the still-smoldering Mr. Smith a month to the day after a jury of nine women and three men, on March 24, awarded nearly $1 million to the survivor of a pickup truck crash and his dead brother's estate.
It's a case Mr. Smith admits neither he, his insurance company, the attorney it hired, nor others in his community thought would ever go to trial.
But it did, resulting in the highest judgment ever awarded by a jury in Christian County, where Clarksville Tire is located.
Here's what happened:
On Feb. 17, 1989, according to Mr. Smith, the one-outlet dealership installed new tires and wheels on a customer's pick-up truck. Of one fact-which would become the pivotal point in the lawsuit-he is certain: Before putting on the aluminum wheels, the tire shop removed spring clips placed on the vehicle's wheel studs during manufacturing to retain the parts on its axles.
On April 29, 1990, Mark Griffey and his brother, Rickey-riding unsecured in the back of the 1986 Chevrolet Scottsdale owned and driven by Kenneth Harp-were on their way to a race in Haubstadt, Ind. The truck was pulling a homemade trailer carrying a race car. Some seven miles north of Hopkinsville, Tenn., the left rear wheel of the pickup flew off, Mr. Harp lost control, and the Griffeys were thrown from the vehicle.
Mark Griffey, 28, never regained consciousness and later died. His brother, 34 at the time, suffered a head injury, a broken elbow, broken ribs, a punctured lung, and reportedly now suffers from permanent double vision and memory loss, and has been declared 100-percent disabled.
The jury found Clarksville Tire 40 percent responsible for the accident. Kennedy Brothers Alignment Center, another local business that-11 months after the tires and wheels were purchased-did an alignment on the pick-up, rotated the wheels and balanced the tires, was found to be 25 percent responsible. It was ordered to pay $240,000.
The jury found Mr. Harp 25 percent responsible, and the Griffey brothers, 10 percent.
Attorneys for the Griffeys contended that both the tire dealership and the alignment shop failed to remove from the wheels the spring clips, which they claimed caused the accident.
But Mr. Smith said that two weeks before the accident, someone trying to steal the wheels from Mr. Harp's truck had removed one lug nut from the left rear wheel and loosened the rest.
On his way home from work, Mr. Harp was alerted by a woman driving behind him that the wheel was wobbling. During the trial, he admitted he went back to work, found the missing lug nut, put it on and tightened the rest.
Mr. Smith contends that driving on a loose wheel probably hollowed the wheel holes. It should have necessitated replacing the damaged wheel, though it was not changed. Two weeks later the same wheel fell off.
At the time of the accident, he said, the truck was coming down a hill, and because the trailer had no brakes, the force of it against the truck probably caused all five lug nuts to snap.
``It wasn't my fault it broke off. I've begged my insurance company (which paid the settlement) to appeal the case,'' Mr. Smith said.
Why, he asked, didn't the truck owner take the wheel back to either shop for inspection?
And regarding the issue of the spring clips, experts for the defense testified during the trial that the clips had no bearing on the case. They conducted tests that exerted twice the normal stress on wheel studs-and the only ones that broke were those without clips, Mr. Smith said.
``We proved the clips didn't matter.'' (Nonetheless, he said Clarksville Tire routinely removes the clips from vehicles.)
According to a spokesman for the wheel maker, American Racing Equipment, failure to remove the clips could prevent the wheel from sitting flush against the mounting surface, creating an unseated area on the wheel that could cause a severe vibration and possibly force the lug nuts to loosen or the studs to snap.
Mr. Smith accused the jury of rendering the judgment solely because they ``felt sorry'' for the victims. They had ``no idea'' what a wheel clip or what wheel torque is, he charged, and several times during the four-day trial he said he observed jurors sleeping.
``They were determined to give those people a lot of money. For what? . . . We sold the tires and wheels, and never saw them again. What could we do. . . ?''
``All (Mr. Harp) had to do was tell me he had a problem. I'd have checked it out, probably thrown the wheel out and given him a new one,'' Mr. Smith said.
He said he doesn't understand why ``my attorney doesn't see any reason to appeal.'' Calls to that lawyer, Robert L. Fears of Hopkinsville, Tenn., were not returned.
Ironically, Mr. Smith said his business-which averages about $1.7 million in sales annually-actually has increased as a result of the verdict. The day after the trial ended, his phone rang off the wall with supportive calls.
But he also expects his insurance rates to hit the stratosphere. ``I've got to raise the price of my tires to offset it,'' he lamented.
The families of the Griffeys reportedly will get about 60 percent of the $962,000 awarded. Their lawyers will get the rest.