Flemington Car & Truck Country, an auto dealership in central New Jersey, lost its appeal in a tire-blowout lawsuit.
The dealership is required to pay $3.9 million to a family injured in a car accident that, according to court documents, was caused by a blown out tire that the dealership’s service department repeatedly failed to replace. The company was sued in 2009.
Flemington Car & Truck Country had sought a retrial citing several case errors, which their lawyers said deprived the company of a fair trial.
The Appellate Division recently rejected their arguments and affirmed a Superior Court judge’s decision to reduce an Essex County jury’s $5.5 million punitive award to $3 million.
Testimony by the company employees showed that workers failed to follow company policy and missed several opportunities to replace the faulty tire, according to court documents. The jury found that the dealership acted with reckless disregard for the safety of others.
A family was injured in April 2009 when a rear tire of the 2004 Chevrolet Trailblazer blew out on Route 95 in Virginia while on a trip to Florida.
A member of the family suffered deep scalp lacerations that were surgically repaired. According to doctor’s testimony, the family member continued to suffer post-traumatic migraine headaches, scalp pain and numbness, insomnia, hearing loss, tinnitus, vertigo and post-traumatic Parkinson’s. Another family member developed dementia as a result of the accident, an expert testified.
According to court records, during a visit to the dealership in January 2009, the car’s tires failed a “multi-point inspection” and a worker found “abnormally worn front tires.” That information was not noted in in the customer’s inspection report, which the company says is supposed to provide customers with “peace of mind,” according to court documents.
Less than three months later, the car visited the service station because of a fuel odor. That time, the tires passed a multi-point inspection, a discrepancy that the dealership’s parts and services director said indicated that the technicians had failed to properly perform their duties.
The car returned again in April, three days before the trip to Florida, for a checkup. Service technicians did not recommend tire replacement even though a report noted that they were “worn out.” A technician testified that he had not reviewed prior inspection reports and was not told to do so, which is a violation of company policy. If he had reviewed previous reports, the service department would have found reason to recommend tire replacement, a dealership employee testified.
Flemington argued that the trial judge should not have allowed the jury to consider additional punitive damages.
The state’s Punitive Damages Act says punitive damages can be awarded only when there is evidence beyond proof of “gross negligence” that a defendant acted with “actual malice or accompanied by a wanton and willful disregard of persons.” A jury’s award can be reduced or eliminated by a judge if he finds it unreasonable.
Flemington said failure to detect a tire bald spot constitutes negligence, not reckless indifference to customer safety. But the appeals court said Flemington should have detected the problem months earlier.
“In short, there was sufficient evidence for the jury to conclude that Flemington was wantonly indifferent to a high probability of injury when it failed to recommend tire replacement on April 9, 2009,” according to the court documents.