WASHINGTON—Without comment, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a product liability judgment against Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co., despite the protests of parent company Michelin North America Inc. that the plaintiff in the original case had been negligent. Roberto O. Martinez suffered brain damage from the explosion of a 16-inch tire he tried to mount on a 16.5-inch rim. Mr. Martinez and his family sued U.G. Tire, Ford Motor Co. and Budd Co. in Texas state court, claiming the tire and rim were defective.
Ford and Budd settled out of court, leaving U.G. Tire the only defendant when the case came to trial. During the trial, Mr. Martinez's expert witness said the tape bead on the tire was defective and dangerous, especially compared with the single-strand bead Uniroyal Goodrich introduced the year after it manufactured the tire in the case.
U.G. Tire said Mr. Martinez ignored a clear warning label on the tire which said not to mount a 16-inch tire on a 16.5-inch rim and to always use a safety cage during mounting. Nevertheless, the trial court awarded Mr. Martinez $5.5 million in actual damages and $11.5 million in punitive damages.
U.G. Tire appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which upheld the actual damages award 5-4 Oct. 15.
``The jury heard firsthand how an accident can occur despite the warning label, and how a redesigned tire would have prevented that accident,'' the majority wrote. The minority sharply disagreed. ``Having changed about a thousand tires in his life, Roberto Martinez admits he knew better than to lean over a tire while inflating it,'' the minority wrote in its dissent.
In appealing the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, U.G. Tire noted not only the dissent, but also the trial court's allowing 34 previous lawsuits against the tire maker into the record, without attempting to establish their germaneness.
The high court turned down the appeal March 29. U.G. Tire now must pay Mr. Martinez about $4.1 million in actual damages plus an undetermined amount of interest, a Michelin spokesman said.
``We were hoping the Supreme Court would review the case,'' he said, ``but of course the high court accepts only a small percentage of the cases it receives for review.''