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Editor's Notebook

Will Tire Case Toll the Final End to Personal Responsibility?

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Product liability lawsuits are nothing new. Dozens of tire-re­lated ones are floating through our court system today. Many will be settled before they reach a courtroom, the details sealed for all time. Others will pass through without mention.

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And some will attract a ton of attention. A ton or two.

Heart-crushing stories of tragic deaths and dismemberments at the hands of heartless, profits-over-people corporations are always popular media fodder. Even when a tiremaker is exonerated by judge and jury, there remains a tinge of assumed guilt despite the raft of the evidence, science and expertise presented in court.

Settlements – regardless of the reason – might as well be a finding of guilt. “Why would a company write a big check if there was nothing wrong with their product?” someone might ask. “They’re trying to hide something!”

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Every tiremaker has had its bad day in court, and not every verdict is, in fact, wholly incorrect. But a lot of heads shake when millions are awarded despite overwhelming evidence that the tire didn’t do it.

Recently, Goodyear settled a suit in Mississippi in which a group of beer-drinking teens driving at high rates of speed wrecked a Camaro. The driver, who was killed, had a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit. No matter, the suit was filed.

Even if cases are complicated by little things like blood alcohol levels or driver irresponsibility, attorneys know that civil trials are about degrees of guilt. Big paydays can be won in even the lamest cases. In criminal cases, it’s all or nothing. Guilty or innocent. No one has ever been found only 25% guilty of murder; tire companies have written monstrous checks after being assigned 25% of the blame.

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The tire industry is not without fault here; more than once we have invited the attention of plaintiff attorneys, whether it’s been indifference to an issue like tire aging or an individual tire company burying damning quality problems. Firestone 500 anyone?

(Side note: Isn’t it odd that when laws are passed forcing vehicle repair shops to check air pressure, citizens scream that government shouldn’t “legislate common sense” – even when less than 20% of vehicles on the road have all four tires properly inflated? Just saying.)

All of that aside, we now have a poster child case for real tort reform. It pits a defective tire claim against a slew of plain facts and factors that had nothing to do with radials and everything to do with personal – and parental – responsibility.

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It started in June 2009 with a 15-year-old Florida high school freshman – an unlicensed driver, no less – who thought it was a good idea to cut school, take his girlfriend’s 1997 Ford Explorer, cram eight friends into the SUV, and then go speeding on I-295 in Jacksonville.

It ended when an allegedly defective tire caused the SUV to flip wildly on the interstate, ejecting the eight unbelted passengers, killing four of the teens and injuring the rest.

It will continue in a Florida courtroom where Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. will be examined over the safety and reliability of its Cobra line, the tire a pile of lawyers and distraught parents are blaming for the tragedy. Not the unlicensed, under-age, irresponsible driver who faces juvenile charges related to the accident; the parents forgave him in a tear-filled press conference last fall to announce the multi-million dollar lawsuit.

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“I don’t have my baby, but this little boy doesn’t deserve any of this,” said Bobbie Krebs, whose 15-year-old daughter was killed in the crash. “The person to blame is the person that made that tire. I’m not going to let him (the driver) take the fall for them.”

“They’re still marketing tires to the public that are substandard, unsafe and that are going to kill people. And who’s standing here in chains and handcuffs? A 15-year-old boy,” said one of the attorneys at the time.

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If it goes to trial – and I hope it does – this case deserves keen attention. This case appears to be so clearly a black-and-white matter, it could change the dynamics of future product liability suits.

Will the jury find for Cooper, backed by evidence – most already undisputed – that points to recklessness of the first order? Will the jury decide that a product can indeed fail under unintended – even unimagined – duress? That people, regardless of age or parenting, should be held responsible for their actions?

Or will the jury find that Cooper Cobras are defective, dangerous and guilty of an “outrageously high number of tread separations,” as one lawyer claimed. That corporations must anticipate every possible scenario under which their products will be asked to perform, and design and produce those products against those “standards”? That people can be allowed to maim and kill and still collect millions in lawsuit booty?

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That personal responsibility – of any kind, at any level – is a nice idea whose time has passed?

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