Products Liability Law Daily Verdict against tire producer for manufacturing defect withstands appellate scrutiny
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Thursday, May 21, 2020

Verdict against tire producer for manufacturing defect withstands appellate scrutiny

By David Yucht, J.D.

A tread-belt separation due to "inadequate bonding between and among the belts" during the curing process resulted in tire failure. Inadequate splicing of the tire’s steel belts and a too-thin inner liner contributed to the tread-belt separation.

A state appellate panel in Arkansas upheld a jury verdict against a tire manufacturer in favor of a truck driver who was injured after a tire on a truck he was driving failed. The trial court did not abuse its discretion by not allowing the manufacturer’s expert to testify about an opinion that was not timely disclosed or reliable. Moreover, the manufacturer failed to preserve its argument challenging the admission of its document management regulations, and the driver had presented sufficient proof that the manufacturer had sold the tire that had failed and that this tire was defectively manufactured (Hankook Tire Co., Ltd. v. Philpot, May 20, 2020, Murphy, M.).

An Arkansas resident was driving a dump truck that had a Hankook tire installed on the right front wheel. The tire tread belt failed as he was driving on a state highway, causing him to lose control of the truck and crash into a drainage ditch. The force of the impact ejected him through the truck’s windshield, resulting in severe injuries. He alleged that the manufacturer was negligent in its design, testing, construction, and manufacture of the tire and in its failure to inspect the tire or warn of the defects that it knew or should have known to exist. Prior to trial, the lower court excluded part of the testimony of the manufacturer’s expert that was made known at a deposition conducted five weeks before trial.

At trial, the driver introduced expert testimony that the tire’s failure was caused by manufacturing defects. The manufacturer countered with evidence supporting its theory that the tire’s failure was caused by a combination of improper maintenance and damage from an impact with an object on the road. The jury returned a verdict finding that the manufacturer was strictly liable for the driver’s injuries. The jury rejected the driver’s negligence claims against the manufacturer. The manufacturer appealed, arguing that the trial court abused its discretion by excluding testimony from the manufacturer’s expert witness. Moreover, the manufacturer claimed that the trial court erred when it refused to strike a company document-retention policy from an exhibit and refused to give a curative instruction to the jury. Additionally, the manufacturer claimed that the driver failed to introduce sufficient evidence that the manufacturer sold the tire that failed or that the tire that failed was defective. Finally, the manufacturer challenged the trial court’s award of attorney fees. The appellate court upheld the verdict and the trial court’s rulings.

Expert testimony. The appellate court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by excluding an opinion of the manufacturer’s expert witness. At his deposition, which was conducted over two years after the submission of his expert report, the manufacturer’s expert testified that he had reached an additional opinion that the subject tire had been installed on a rim that was too wide, causing additional stress on the shoulder of the tire and contributing to the impact damage that caused the tire to fail. The trial court excluded this additional opinion because it was untimely and unreliable according to the Daubert standards (Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993)). The appellate court noted that the trial court had entered a scheduling order that required the manufacturer to submit its expert report on March 27, 2014. Although the expert measured the tire rim on October 9, 2013, his report did not include an opinion suggesting that the size of the rim was too wide for the subject tire or that the width of the rim contributed to the tire’s failure. He did not disclose that opinion until his deposition shortly before trial. The sanction of precluding this opinion from the jury’s consideration for the manufacturer’s failure to disclose this additional opinion in a timely manner was appropriate.

The appellate court also determined that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it determined that the precluded opinion was unreliable. At his deposition, the expert testified that he was not aware of any articles that specifically addressed whether an oversized rim could contribute to a tire’s failure. He also admitted that he had not done any testing to support his theory and had not quantified his opinion. Furthermore, the industry handbook that the manufacturer claimed supported its expert’s opinion said nothing about an oversized rim increasing the load on the shoulders of a tire, much less how such loading could contribute to impact damage under the conditions of this case. Additionally, the appellate court felt that the untimeliness of the late opinion undermined its reliability.

Jury verdict—sufficiency of evidence. The appellate court agreed that the driver had presented sufficient proof that the manufacturer had sold the subject tire and that this tire had been defectively manufactured. The court noted that a reasonable inference that the manufacturer sold the subject tire came from the testimony of one of the manufacturer’s mechanical engineers, who testified on cross-examination that the manufacturer designed and manufactured the subject tire, which was shipped to the U.S. and sold by a subsidiary of the manufacturer.

The manufacturer also argued that the driver failed to introduce substantial evidence of a manufacturing defect in the subject tire. The appellate court noted that the driver introduced expert testimony that raised a reasonable inference that the tire failed because of manufacturing defects. His expert testified that there was a tread-belt separation that was due to "inadequate bonding between and among the belts" that occurred during the curing process. He also opined that inadequate splicing of the steel belts and a too-thin inner liner contributed to the tread-belt separation, and the tire should have been discarded before leaving the plant. He ultimately concluded that these manufacturing defects contributed to tire failure. This testimony raised a reasonable inference that manufacturing defects contributed to the tire’s failure.

Other issues. The appellate court determined that the manufacturer failed to preserve its argument challenging the admission to the jury of its document management regulations. The manufacturer claimed that the trial court erred when it refused to strike a company document-retention policy from an exhibit and refused to give a curative instruction to the jury regarding this policy. The trial court ruled pretrial that the manufacturer’s regulations allowed the subject documents to be destroyed after five year sand held that there was no proof that the manufacturer destroyed these documents after receiving notice of the subject accident. Despite this ruling, the driver’s counsel presented the jury with an exhibit which displayed a portion of the manufacturer’s document retention policy. The manufacturer, however, failed to object to this evidence at trial in a timely manner and, consequently, could not raise this issue on appeal. Finally, the appellate court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by awarding the driver attorney fees of over $43,000 for the manufacturer’s failure to timely provide discovery.

The case is No. CV-19-461.

Attorneys: Kynda Almefty (Hardin Jesson & Terry, PLC) for Hankook Tire Co., Ltd. and Hankook Tire America Corp. R. Margaret Dobson (Dobson Law Firm, P.A.) for Elmer Philpot.

Companies: Hankook Tire Co., Ltd.; Hankook Tire America Corp.

MainStory: TopStory ExpertEvidenceNews EvidentiaryNews MotorEquipmentNews ArkansasNews

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