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Shirlee Fuller v. Greater Bethany Community Church

Confidential Report for Attorneys

October-November 1998

Negligent Maintenance & Product Liability –

Tire blows on church van, rolls over onto ejected passenger; Female, 36, crushed pelvis

RESULT: $12.858 million

TYPE: Jury Trial

COUNTY: Los Angeles

CASE No. BC 109 995

CASE NAME:

Shirlee Fuller, et al. v, Greater Bethany Community Church

PLAINTIFF ATTY:

Greene, Broillet, Taylor, Wheeler & Panish, By: Brian J. Panish, Santa Monica for Fuller

Margolin & Lipton, By: H. Neil Margolin, North Hollywood for Hunte

DEFENSE ATTY:

Staitman, Snyder & Tannenbaum, By: Jack J. Tannenbaum, Encino for Church

A. Bennett Combs, Irvine for Deft Hunte Koester & Gelman,

By: R. Wesley Beavers, Anaheim for Fairmont Tire

PLAINTIFF EXPERTS: Thomas DeCoster, M.D. Orthopedist, Albuquerque, NM

Castoria Seymore, M.D., Pain Management, Inglewood

Keith Feder, M.D., Orthopedist, Manhattan Beach

Lawrence Miller, M.D., Physical Medicine, Pasadena

Lorraine Gilberto, D.C., Chiropractor, Riverside

Rama Chandra, M.D., Orthopedist, Los Angeles

William Jennings, Ph.D., Economist, Northridge

DEFENSE EXPERTS: N. Paul Rosenthal, M.D., Neurologist, Van Nuys

Anthony Stein Human Factors, Los Angeles

SETTLEMENT DEMAND:

$5 million total before trial, increased to $8 million during trial: $975,000 per COP §998 from Fuller; $99,000 per COP §998 from Geoffrey; $29,000 per CCP §998 from Josephine Hunte.

SETTLEMENT OFFER:

$1 million during trial from Deft church and $200,000 from Deft tire company.

FACTS:

Plaintiffs were members of Deft church, located in South Central Los Angeles. The church’s Praise Ministry was responsible for the sale of tapes, books and other items used to spread the gospel. It participated in national and local gatherings of the Pentecostal churches. The pastor was in charge of the western United States congregations of the Pentecostal churches.

The church owned three vans and one bus which were used to transport parishioners to and from church and to attend church meetings and conventions. They also had a busing ministry which was responsible for maintenance of the vehicles and training the drivers.

In August 1993, prior to Church members leaving for an annual convention at which they intended to sell tapes and books, the church mechanic inspected their van and made repairs. He recommended that all four tires be replaced. The church administrator, who later said he didn’t recall being told how many of the tires needed replacement, took the van to Deft Fairmont Tire and Rubber. He allegedly told Fairmont employees that the van was being readied for a long trip, and the employees allegedly told the administrator that only three tires needed to be replaced and that the remaining tire was “roadworthy” for the trip. Based upon that advice, he purchased only three tires.

On the morning of August 4, 1993 the van left the church for Cleveland, Ohio. Pltf Geoffrey Hunte and his wife planned to drive straight through to Cleveland without stopping to sleep. At 2:00 p.m., on a highway east of Albuquerque, New Mexico, the left rear tire (not replaced) blew out and the van rolled over. Pltf Shirlee Fuller, who was sleeping in the front seat of the van, was ejected and the van rolled over on top of her. Pltf Josephine Hunte was sleeping in the back of the van and was thrown about during the rollover but was not ejected.

PER PLAINTIFF:

That Deft church negligently failed to properly maintain/repair the van, placing an unsafe vehicle on the road by failing to replace the worn tire; that it failed to provide a properly trained driver for the van; that it overloaded the van, making it more difficult to control during a blowout; that Deft Geoffrey Hunte failed to operate the van in a safe manner; that he lost control and was driving without proper rest.

INJURY:

Fuller: Crushed pelvis with chronic pain syndrome; she is unable to walk without assistance. She also suffered a pneumothorax, a closed head injury and chondromalacia of the left knee. Geoffrey Hunte: Broken right arm. Josephine Hunte: Soft tissue injuries to back/neck.

PER DEFENDANT:

Contended that the church was not negligent; that the administrator relied on the expertise of the tire company and, therefore, did not replace the tire that failed; that Hunte was a qualified driver who had driven on many occasions for the church and never had a prior accident; that he was not fatigued and reacted properly; that if the church were held liable, the tire company should bear the majority of the responsibility.

Deft tire company contended that they do not make “trip” recommendations and would not have made the representations claimed by the church; further, that their standard practice is to sell tires in pairs, and that they would not have suggested that the customer buy only three tires.

As to damages, Defts contended that Pltf Fuller did not suffer a severe head injury; that all objective tests for brain damage were normal; further, that she would fully recover from all her injuries and that her claim for future medical care and assisted living were not necessary.

SPECIAL DAMAGES:

Fuller: $116,000 past medical; $3,434,788 future medical; $81,747 past L.E.; $333,562 future L.E. Josephine Hunte: $5,169 past medical; $9,000 past L.E. Geoffrey Hunte: $15,814 past medical; $10,000 future medical; $9,000 past L.E.

VERDICT:

$10,294,914 gross verdict, plus prejudgment interest of $2,563,958, for a total of $12.85 million, against Defts Church and Hunte. Defense verdict for Fairmont Tire.

Distribution of verdict: Pltf Fuller: $10,095,414, including $3,595,414 economic and $6.5 million non-economic damages. Pltf Geoffrey Hunte: $135,000, including $35,000 economic and $l00,000 non-economic damages; Pltf Josephine Hunte: $64,500, including $14,500 economic and $50,000 non-economic damages. To Pltf Fuller’s judgment there is added prejudgment interest of $2,563,958.

Deft church was held 97% liable; Deft Geoffrey Hunte held 3% liable.

TRIAL TIME: 7 weeks JURY OUT: 14 hours

RESOLVED: 8/25/98

NOTES:

Church Mutual was the insurance carrier for Defts church and Hunte; Nationwide was the carrier for Fairmont. Pltf trial counsel, Brian Panish, was brought in two months before trial.

JUDGE: Henry W. Shatford

COURT: L.A. County Superior Court, Los Angeles

CRA NO. 10166

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