NASHVILLE, Tenn.—A customer is seriously injured at a commercial dealership by an exploding truck tire—a nightmare guaranteed to give any tire dealer chills. That was the scenario played out during a mock trial on tire failure liability held June 10 at the 1999 International Tire and Rubber Association Expo.
Two Nashville-area lawyers, using their own names, argued a hypothetical case before a ``jury'' of about 120 conference attendees at the Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville.
In this fictional, but all-too-real case, ``Bill Wayne,'' a 42-year-old gravel-truck driver (played by Chip Huber of ITRA's advisory board), drove his truck into the fictitious Independent Tire Co. with a flat tire.
``Mark Roscoe,'' a 32-year-old tire technician (played by Kevin Rohlwing, ITRA director of training), removed the damaged tire from the rim and replaced it with a newly retreaded tire.
While inflating the tire in a cage, the tech left to use the restroom. The clip-on chuck on the air hose was broken, so the truck driver held the chuck in place on the valve.
While the tech was gone, the tire exploded and the driver was knocked across the room. He sustained serious injuries to his arm and leg. Doctors told him he'll no longer be able to drive a truck.
Mr. Wayne decided to file suit against Independent Tire.
``Mr. Wayne has been exposed to a shoddy industry and its shoddy practices,'' said plaintiff's attorney Michael E. Evans in his opening statement. He argued that Mr. Wayne should be compensated for about $40,000 in medical bills and receive ``a very substantial amount'' in compensatory damages.
``The plaintiff, through his own actions, contributed in large part—if not all—to the cause of his injury,'' said Randall Ferguson, representing Independent Tire. He denied that retreading is a shoddy industry and said retreaded tires are a safe product with the performance standards of new tires.
Mr. Wayne, testifying on his own behalf, said that after the blast, ``I hurt all over.'' He said he was going through painful physical therapy three times a week.
``He (Mr. Roscoe) asked you to hold the air chuck on this tire?'' said Mr. Evans.
``Yes, sir, he did,'' said Mr. Wayne.
``And he went off to do something else?''
``Yes, he did.''
``I'm not feeling real good about my prospects for a job or my prospects for the future,'' Mr. Wayne added.
Under cross-examination, Mr. Wayne said he had worked in a tire shop and had mounted a tire before. But, he said he had no formal training and wasn't aware that a tire could explode.
``The truth of the matter is that you volunteered to help, didn't you?'' asked Mr. Ferguson.
``No, sir,'' said Mr. Wayne.
``You were in a hurry, weren't you?''
``I'm always in a hurry.''
``You volunteered to hold that chuck on that tire.''
Mr. Evans called the tech, Mr. Roscoe, to testify. Mr. Roscoe said he had been in the tire business for about 15 years. He was trained ``by one of the guys who had been there a long time.'' He added that he saw training videos once a year at Independent Tire's annual training meeting.
When asked whether he asked Mr. Wayne to hold the air hose chuck on the tire valve, Mr. Roscoe said the opposite was true.
``I didn't ask Mr. Wayne, he volunteered,'' Mr. Roscoe said. ``He was telling me he had worked on tires. He said he would hold that chuck on while I went to the bathroom.''
Mr. Roscoe also admitted the clip on the chuck was broken and that two or three other tires had exploded in the tire cage.
``We were busy, sir. It was summertime. I've got five trucks waiting to get into that bay. I don't have time to screw around with a chuck that's broken,'' Mr. Roscoe said.
He didn't see the tire explode because he was in the bathroom, but he said he heard the explosion.
The expert witness for the plaintiff was Dick Baumgardner of Tire Consultants Inc. He said the tire exploded because of a ``classic zipper failure.'' The tire had been punctured and patched, and he said some of the steel cords could have been damaged by the puncture or if the tire was run flat.
``They certainly knew the tire had been punctured, and they should have been aware that the tire was a candidate for zipper failure,'' Mr. Baumgardner said.
He told the court that an exploding truck tire releases as much energy as 3/4 pound of dynamite. He said that the tire should have been inflated to 20 psi over its recommended level of 95 psi and left in a safe place for 20 minutes to test it.
He called the damaged inflation cage ``a piece of junk'' and said Mr. Wayne ``should not have been present when the tire was going through the initial stages of inflation.''
Under cross-examination by Mr. Ferguson, Mr. Baumgardner said zipper failures ``don't just appear.'' He repeated that a punctured tire that has been run flat or soft should have made them ``very suspicious.''
The defense called ``Sam Wilson,'' owner of Independent Tire (played by Bill Babek of the ITRA board of directors). He testified that every tire brought to the retread shop was inspected inside and outside and the puncture repair ``looked like a good, sound repair.''
Mr. Ferguson asked about the damaged inflation cage. ``Even though it's banged up a bit, there's nothing wrong with it,'' Mr. Wilson said.
Mr. Wilson said the tech (Mr. Roscoe) had been trained by a senior serviceman and that there were charts and a book on safety procedures available in the shop. He also said that there was an annual training session where videotapes on safety procedures were shown.
During cross-examination, Mr. Evans asked Mr. Wilson about serving beer along with pizza at the training session. ``Nobody gets drunk or anything, but these are tire men,'' Mr. Wilson said
Mr. Wilson also said the tire had been inspected with a non-destructive tire tester and a replacement for the broken clip-on chuck was available. ``There was absolutely no indication that there was any problem with the tire itself,'' he said.
Ed Wagner of Tire and Technical Services was the defense expert witness. ``We do not have any economical, reliable testing to determine weakness in the sidewall cables,'' he said. He added that between 25 and 50 percent of the tires which are to be retreaded have a puncture.
He said the clip-on chuck would have lessened the chance for an accident, but only if the operator stays away from the tire.
In his closing argument, Mr. Evans retracted his opening remark that retreading was ``a shoddy industry.'' But he condemned the shoddy operating practices at Independent Tire.
He noted that only seven or eight of the 11 shop employees attended the annual training sessions, where beer was served. ``Is that a training program?''
He agreed that there was no way to prevent the tire from failing, but he added, ``My client didn't know where to stand.'' He asked for $2 million in damages and said, ``Anything less would be an insult.''
Mr. Ferguson's closing argument put the blame on Mr. Wayne, the truck driver. ``It's common knowledge that you don't stand over a tire while it's being inflated,'' he said. ``He (Mr. Wayne) decided voluntarily to take a risk,'' Mr. Ferguson added. ``Is he responsible for his own injury?'' he asked, rhetorically, and then emphatically answered his own question: ``Yes.''
Playing the judge was another Nashville-area attorney, Barry L. Howard.
Mr. Howard asked the audience if Independent Tire was liable for damages in the retreading of the tire, and no one voted ``yes.'' However, when he asked if the company was liable for the way the tire was installed, nearly everyone voted ``yes.'' And, when he asked if the plaintiff, Mr. Wayne, was liable, about half of the crowd supported that opinion.
``Most states will ask you to compare the percentage of negligence between the plaintiff and the defendant,'' Mr. Howard said. He said he thought the plaintiff was 10 to 20 percent at fault.
The consensus of the judge and the counsel was that Mr. Wayne probably would be awarded between $200,000 and $400,000 in a real case.