WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.—A Florida state appeals court has overturned a $30.4 million product liability judgment against Michelin North America Inc. because of a juror's possible bias against the company. Shirley Meeks should have been excused from the jury as Michelin requested, the 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach ruled March 31. The appeals court ordered the case—a suit filed by truck driver Julian Lovett—back to trial.
The case began in 1989, when a retreaded Michelin tire blew on Mr. Lovett's tractor-trailer. The rig, which was carrying 21 tons of chemical fertilizer, overturned and crashed in a ditch on the edge of Lake Okeechobee. Mr. Lovett's legs were crushed in the accident, requiring their amputation.
Mr. Lovett, who was 49 at the time of the accident, sued Michelin and Davis Bandag Recapping & Tire Co. in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, claiming a defect in the tire allowed water to seep inside and the bead wires to rust. Mr. Lovett's wife and son also sued for loss of companionship—the first time a suit had been filed under a Florida law allowing children to sue for loss of parental companionship.
Michelin claimed Mr. Lovett used the tire on rocky roads it wasn't built for, and also that the tire's constant exposure to fertilizer weakened the belts.
In November 1997, a jury found Michelin 90-percent responsible for the blowout, Davis Bandag 9-percent responsible and Mr. Lovett and his employer, RMB Trucking, 1-percent responsible.
Mr. Lovett was awarded $22.4 million for medical expenses, lost earnings, and pain and suffering. His wife and son won $4 million each.
However, the appeals court found Palm Beach Circuit Judge James T. Carlisle erred in not dismissing Ms. Meeks from the jury.
During jury selection, Ms. Meeks told attorneys that her daughter had suffered a recent blowout of a Michelin tire, and that she had demanded the company replace all four of her daughter's tires, not just the blown one.
Michelin's attorneys tried to have Ms. Meeks removed because of bias. However, Joseph Reiter, attorney for the Lovetts, persuaded Judge Carlisle that Ms. Meeks' experiences were no different from those of other jurors, and that Michelin's objections to Ms. Meeks were racially motivated. Ms. Meeks is black, as are the Lovetts.
A Michelin spokesman hailed the appeals court's decision in a prepared statement. ``The right to trial by an impartial jury is a cornerstone of the justice system,'' he said. ``The court's decision reaffirmed this basic principle.''
The company said it welcomed a new trial, ``as it was clear that misuse and abuse caused the nearly worn-out tire to fail.''
Mr. Reiter did not return phone calls to his office, but was quoted in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel as saying he, too, looked forward to a retrial. ``We may have lost the battle, but the war is not over yet,'' he told the newspaper.