After 12 years of litigation, a New York appeals court has overturned a $4 million judgment against Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. (UGTC) involving an allegedly defective Uniroyal tire.
Because Abdullah Abulhasan kept only a fragment of the tire that allegedly caused the accident that killed his wife, there was insufficient evidence that the tire was defective or even manufactured by Uniroyal Goodrich, the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division, 3rd Judicial Department, ruled Jan. 20.
Michelin North America Inc., parent company of Uniroyal Goodrich, hailed the decision as an important precedent regarding spoliation of evidence in a product liability lawsuit. Attorneys for Mr. Abulhasan, however, said the appeals court made an unwarranted extension of spoliation sanctions in the case and promised to appeal.
Abdullah and Dalila Abulhasan bought a used Volvo from Goldring Motors Inc. On July 21, 1990-the year before Michelin purchased Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co.-the Volvo crashed while Mrs. Abulhasan was driving it, allegedly because of tire failure. She was rendered comatose by her injuries and later died without regaining consciousness.
Mr. Abulhasan sued both Goldring and Uniroyal Goodrich in New York State District Court, claiming product defect. Uniroyal Goodrich filed twice for summary judgment, claiming that because Mr. Abulhassan had not preserved the tire in question, there was no proof that Uniroyal Goodrich had even manufactured it. Goldring also moved for summary judgment because of spoliation of evidence.
Both times, however, both the district and the appellate court denied the motion and eventually the district court awarded damages to Mr. Abulhassan from both Uniroyal Goodrich and Goldring.
In the new case, however, an appellate panel ruled unanimously for Uniroyal Goodrich and also overturned the award against Goldring.
Justice D. Bruce Crew III noted that experts for both sides disagreed on whether the existing evidence showed that Uniroyal Goodrich made the tire.
``What we have here is the possibility, rather than a probability, that UGTC was the manufacturer of the subject tire, which is insufficient to raise a triable issue of fact,'' Judge Crew wrote. But even if Uniroyal Goodrich was the probable manufacturer, he added, Mr. Abulhasan failed to keep not only the whole tire, but also most of the photographs he took of the tire immediately after the accident. This was severely prejudicial against the tire maker, he ruled.
There are many product liability cases based on skimpy evidence, according to Dan Sanders, director of litigation for Michelin. ``You don't see much opinion on this issue (spoliation of evidence) because most of these cases go away,'' he said. ``This suggests we shouldn't skip the first step, but preserve evidence in cases where there are alleged product defects.''
Mr. Abulhassan's attorney-Simcha Schonfeld of the Manhattan law firm of Rheingold, Valet, Rheingold, Shkolnik and McCartney-could not be reached for comment. Mr. Schonfeld told the New York Law Journal, however, that extending spoliation sanctions to a third-party indemnification proceeding-such as the suit against Uniroyal Goodrich-was an unwarranted extension of the law. An assistant to Mr. Schonfeld told Tire Business that this point of law would be the basis of their appeal before either the 3rd Department or the full appellate court.