MISSOULA, Mont. (Feb. 18, 2005) — Les Schwab Tire Centers Inc. is primarily responsible for a blown retread that killed two women near Bozeman, Mont., in 1999 and will pay the majority of an $8.2 million judgment, a Montana jury decided Jan. 28.
The jury returned a verdict after more than 10 hours of deliberation following a three-week trial. In May 1999, a Polson Ready Mix cement truck's retread—placed on the left front wheel position—blew out, causing the truck's driver to lose control, drift left and clip a flat-bed trailer before plowing head-on into a car carrying Heidi Martinez, 32, and Marisa Wolverton, 45. Both women died. The verdict specifically said the defendants were liable for a defective product and breach of warranty, plaintiffs' attorneys said.
With the judge-approved verdict, Ms. Martinez's family will receive about $1.7 million and Ms. Wolverton's family will receive more than $1.2 million. Another $5.2 million was added in punitive damages.
Of the roughly $3 million in compensatory damages, Les Schwab Warehouse Center Inc. of Oregon is responsible for 40 percent, Les Schwab Tire Centers of Montana Inc., the retreader, is responsible for 20 percent, and Polson Ready Mix and Mission Mountain Tire Inc.—the Les Schwab member dealership that mounted the tire—each are liable for 20 percent, a court official said. Of the punitive damages, $5 million is against Les Schwab of Oregon and $200,000 is against Les Schwab of Montana, according to John Amsden, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys who tried the case.
In all, Les Schwab and its affiliates are responsible for almost $7 million, Mr. Amsden said.
A Les Schwab spokesman told Tire Business that the Prineville, Ore.-based company has filed “post-trial motions,” and the company, as a matter of policy, doesn't comment about active legal issues. An official in the Montana 4th District Court said no filings had been received by Feb. 10.
Mr. Amsden said the tire in question was 11 years old and had been retreaded a second time plus had three sidewall repairs when it was placed on the steer axle of the cement truck. He said the plaintiffs argued that industry standards—and Les Schwab's own internal rules—should have rejected the tire outright.
“We had testimony that this would have been appropriate, even in Les Schwab's view, to reject this tire after eight years,” he said. “But they took the position in trial—and I don't think anybody, including the jury, believed them—that it was perfectly acceptable to retread an 11-year-old tire.”
The plaintiffs' attorneys said Les Schwab argued during the trial that the cement truck had hit an unidentified object prior to the collision and that the truck operators failed to notice a bulge in the tire the morning of the accident.
Marvin Bozarth, former executive director of the International Tire & Rubber Association (ITRA) and current senior technical consultant to the Tire Industry Association, said the age of a tire alone doesn't necessarily mean it's destined for a blow-out, but he would question putting an older tire on the steer axle.
“You see a lot of tires that are two years old that are in worse shape than a tire that's 10 years old,” he said, adding that tires that fail because of age generally do so along with other factors, such as damage from impacts or underinflation. Mr. Bozarth, who regularly serves as an expert witness, was not involved in this case.
He said the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) is running tests to evaluate the impact of age on tires, but those currently look at passenger and light truck tires.
Still, Mr. Amsden said the 40-percent liability attributed to Les Schwab of Oregon indicates a belief on the part of the jury that the company's headquarters was culpable. “Everyone testified that the policies are all set in Oregon,” he said, adding the jury also indicated they thought the retreader should have issued some form of warning against placing the retread on the steer axle.
Based on post-trial interviews with the jury, Mr. Amsden said the 20-percent liability each for Polson Ready Mix and Mission Mountain Tire reflected the jury's belief that someone ultimately was responsible for physically putting the retreaded tire on the steer axle.
“They could have done more to make sure that the retread didn't go on the front,” he said.
Mission Mountain Tire owner David Sohr said his store had settled out of the case in March 2001. He declined to comment further. Mr. Amsden said the jury's allocation represents what the store would have received if they went to trial, but the confidential settlement payment is in effect. Polson Ready Mix also settled in August 2002.
While Mr. Bozarth said he doesn't have a problem with retreads on the steer axle, he said those tires should be only ones in good condition. “Definitely I would not recommend putting a section repair on the front,” he said.
Commercial dealers probably shouldn't put tires on the front if they're not sure how old they are, Mr. Bozarth advised. Either way, he suggested dealers carefully weigh the tire's condition, the number of repairs, if it was run underinflated as well as other factors.
“All of those things are what I would look for more so than age,” he said.
Mr. Amsden said the families had wanted to push for standards—legislatively if necessary—that would restrict the use of retreads on steer axles but will no longer actively pursue the effort following little success with government.
“They still think retreads on front steer axles are inappropriate and dangerous, and people should warn against using retreads on the front,” he said.
“And they hope the punitive amount is sufficient to cause Les Schwab to do something.”