The plaintiff in a product liability case involving Firestone tires on a Ford Explorer is entitled to seek punitive damages despite suffering no physical injury, a Florida state appeals court has ruled.
Attorneys for plaintiff Carolyn Holmes hailed the Nov. 24 decision as historic. ``I think this case is extremely significant, given that it's the first one so far in which an appeals court has ruled that the facts alone are enough to warrant the award of punitive damages,'' said Stewart Williams, the Miami attorney who represents Ms. Holmes along with his partners Steven Hunter and Christopher Lynch.
Under the court's ruling, Ms. Holmes is now eligible for up to $2 million in punitive damages, Mr. Williams added.
Bridgestone/Firestone (BFS), however, said the Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal misconstrued the law.
``We strongly believe the decision is not consistent with Florida law, which requires that the trial court determine, on the basis of admissible evidence, that there is a reasonable basis for the recovery of punitive damages,'' the Nashville, Tenn.-based tire maker said in a prepared statement.
BFS added that the appeals court relied too much on the testimony of Public Citizen, a consumer group that is harshly critical of the tire maker and regards as inadequate the August 2000 recall of 6.5 million Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT light truck tires.
``The information presented to the trial court was a special interest group's unsubstantiated version of events that was inaccurate and highly colored,'' BFS said. ``Bottom line: The trial court got it right.''
Laura MacCleery, Washington-based Public Citizen's counsel for auto safety, said her organization's involvement in the Holmes case was ``minimal.''
``We certainly support the outcome and feel that punitive damages were warranted,'' Ms. MacCleery told Tire Business. ``But all we did was post a bunch of material on our Web site which is available to everybody and which the plaintiffs' attorneys in this case used as evidence.''
The accident in question occurred in October 1999-10 months before the Ford-Firestone recall-when Ms. Holmes was driving her 1995 Explorer on I-75 in Miami-Dade County.
The left rear tire on the vehicle suffered a tread separation, causing the sport-utility vehicle to roll over twice before coming to rest upside down.
Ms. Holmes suffered a minor injury to her left hand. Her two small children, strapped into car seats, were unhurt.
In the resulting lawsuit, a Broward County circuit court jury found BFS 20 percent liable for the accident, assigning the bulk of the blame to a garage that rotated the tires 18 days before the accident but failed to notice the problem tire.
While this was the first Ford-Firestone court case in which the jury ruled the tires were defective, it awarded Ms. Holmes only $55,400.
The trial judge ruled there was no reasonable basis under Florida law for Ms. Holmes to demand punitive damages.
Ms. Holmes' attorneys, however, based their appeal entirely on information gleaned from Public Citizen's Web site.
Under Florida law, a plaintiff may seek punitive damages of $2 million or four times compensatory damages, whichever is greater, if he or she can demonstrate the defendant engaged in wrongful conduct for financial gain or to protect its financial position.
BFS said it plans either to seek a rehearing before the appeals court or to take the case to a higher court. The company had until late December to appeal.