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Tire trial may set record

Continental ordered to pay $54.9 million

The Dallas Morning News

A Los Angeles jury ordered Continental General Tire to pay a quadriplegic woman $54.9 million Friday for injuries she suffered in 1996 from a tire blowout.

This verdict, thought to be the largest ever in a defective tire case, followed by one day another high-dollar judgment in a tire-defect case, rendered by an El Paso jury. In that case, Cooper Tire & Rubber CO. was told to pay $10 million in the deaths of four people in New Mexico.

“Until the tire industry wakes up, they are going to pay,” said Bruce Kaster, a Florida lawyer who has sued tire makers for almost 20 years.

The tire industry has become a target for personal-injury and class-action litigation. Last year, 6.5 million Firestone tires were recalled for potential tread-separation defects. The recalled tires have been linked by federal regulators to 174 deaths and more than 500 injuries.

On Friday, the Los Angeles Superior Court jury of 10 women and two men concluded that General Tire was negligent for letting the defective tire leave the company’s plant in Mount Vernon, Ill.

Cynthia Lampe, 33, contended that a defective AmericTech ST tire caused her to lose control of her Ford Taurus in 1996. Her lawyers, Brian Panish, told the jury that workers were under pressure at the plant to produce tires as quickly as possible and routinely took shortcuts.

General Tire lawyer, Walter Yoka said he is considering appealing the jury’s verdict. He had argued that some kind of roadway obstacle caused the accident, not a manufacturing defect. Mr. Yoka also said that Ms. Lampe might have oversteered after the impact, causing worse damage in the one-car accident.

“There are no similarities between Firestone and this,” Mr. Yoka said outside the court. He noted that the jury found no design defect in the tire and did not find General Tire liable for punitive damages.

General Tire stopped making the AmeriTech ST tire in 1997.

In the El Paso trial, jurors ordered Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. to pay the $10 million after concluding that a company tire caused a fatal accident.

Four people were killed and three other were injured in the June 29, 1997 accident in New Mexico.

The plaintiffs said that a Cooper Sigma Grand Sport tire on a Mazda minivan failed from tread separation and caused the vehicle to flip.

Cooper attorneys, led by Jim Darnell, told the jury that the tire had a hole and that the minivan’s driver, Oscar Mendez Sr., had cocaine in his system.

However, jurors concluded that there was no driver negligence and that the hold did not contribute to the tire failure.

“They did the kitchen sink defense. They threw everything at the jury,” said plaintiffs’ lawyer Jim Scherr, who tried the El Paso case with several other attorneys, including Hugh Smith of Tampa, Fla.

Cooper officials were not immediately available for comment.

The crash happened on Interstate 25 near Belen, N.M.

Mr. Mendez’s wife, Maria died in the crash along with Carmen Reynoso, her twin sister, Aleda Duran, and Ms. Duran’s son Manuel.

Dora Aguilar, Celia Salas and Mr. Mendez were injured and settled their claims before trial. Ms. Reynoso’s family also settled.

The Los Angeles trial began Jan. 25. Jurors delivered their verdict after eight days of deliberations.

The accident occurred when Ms. Lampe was driving her mother’s 1993 Taurus on Interstate I5 from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, where her parents lived. Ms. Lampe is now paralyzed from the neck down.

After the Lampe verdict, Mr. Panish said he is talking to several other plaintiffs about similar cases against General Tire.

“I look forward to meeting them again,” he said.

Cooper faces another wrongful-death and product-liability trial next month in Helena, Ark. An alleged tread separation caused a wreck that killed family members on their way to a graduation ceremony.

In the Arkansas case, Mr. Kaster plans to ask the jury for $100 million unless Cooper meets his demands for a pre-trial $60 million settlement.

Cooper also faces 17 consolidated class-action lawsuits, seeking as much as $3 billion in damages.

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