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Negligent Maintenance Causes Rollover Accident

Fuller v. Bethany Baptist Church



Automobile Accident
Negligent Maintenance

VERDICT: $10,294,914 plus prejudgment interest of $2,563,958.57 (97 percent against Bethany; 3 percent against Geoffrey Hunte).

CASE/NUMBER: Shirlee Fuller; Josephine
Hunte and Geoffrey Hunte v. Greater
Bethany Community Church; Geoffrey Hunte
and Fairmont Tire & Rubber Company /

COURT/DATE: L.A. Superior Santa Monica / Aug. 25, 1998.

JUDGE: Hon. Henry W. Shatford.

DISBURSEMENT: $10,095,414 (plaintiff Fuller); $135,000 (plaintiff Geoffrey Hunte); $64,500 (plaintiff Josephine Hunte).

ATTORNEYS: Plaintiff – Brian J. Panish (Greene, Broillet, Taylor, Wheeler & Panish, Santa Monica) for Fuller; H. Neil Margolin (Lipton & Margolin, North Hollywood) for Hunte plaintiffs.
Defendant – Jack J. Tannenbaum (Staitman,
Snyder & Tannenbaum, Encino) for Geater
Bethany Community Church; A. Bennett
Combs (A. Bennett Combs, A Professional
Corp., Irvine) for Geoffrey Hunte; R. Wesley
Beavers (Koester & Gelman, Anaheim) for
Faimiont Tire & Rubber Company.

TECHNICAL EXPERTS: Plaintiff – William P. Jennings, Ph.D., economist, Northridge.
Defendant – Anthony C. Stein, human factors, La Canada.

MEDICAL EXPERTS: Plaintiff – Thomas DeCoster, M.D., orthopedic surgeon, Albuquerque, N.M.; Castoria Seymore, Jr., M.D., pain management, Inglewood; Keith S. Feder, M.D., orthopedic surgeon, Manhattan Beach; Lawrence S. Miller, M.D., physical medicine and rehabilitation, L.A.; Lorraine Gifiberto, D.C., chiropractor, Riverside; Rama Chandran, M.D., orthopedic surgeon, L.A.
Defendant – N. Paul Rosenthal, M.D., neurologist, Van Nuys.

FACTS: Plaintiffs were members of the Greater Bethany Community Church located in South Central Los Angeles. The Church sold video and audio tapes and books in an effort to spread the gospel through their tape ministry. Every year, a national convention was held. The church always sent representatives and set up a booth to sell items. In August 1993, the church decided to send members to the national convention to set up a booth for the praise ministry. 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 buses and training of the drivers. Prior to leaving on the trip, the church mechanic inspected the van and made repairs. He also recommended that all four tires on the van be replaced. The church administrator testified that he was told to replace tires but he was not told how many.

He took the van to defendant Fairmont Tire & Rubber Company and testified that he was told that three tires needed to be replaced and the remaining tire was roadworthy.” He claimed that as a result of the representations of the tire store, he only purchased three tires. On Aug. 4, 1993, the plaintiffs left the church and were driving to Cleveland, Ohio for the national convention. Defendant Geoffrey Hunte and his wife were planning to drive the van straight through to Cleveland without stopping at any hotel to sleep. On August 4, at approximately 2 p.m., the left rear tire, the one that had not been replaced, blew out and the van eventually rolled over. Geoffrey Hunte was driving. Plaintiff Fuller was sleeping in the front seat of the van when the accident occurred. Plaintiff Josephine Hunte was sleeping in the back of the van and was thrown about the van during the rollover. Plaintiff Fuller was ejected from the van with the van roof crushing her pelvis and injuring her left knee. The plaintiffs brought this action against the defendants based on negligence.

CONTENTIONS: Plaintiff Fuller contended that Bethany Church failed to properly maintain the van in placing an unsafe vehicle on the road; failed to provide a properly trained driver for the van and; overloaded the van making it more difficult to control during a blowout. Plaintiff Fuller further contended that defendant Geoffrey Hunte failed to operate the van in a safe manner by losing control and not getting proper rest. Plaintiffs Geoffrey and Josephine Hunte contended that Bethany Church failed to replace a worn tire, overloaded the van, did not provide time for the Huntes to rest; and Fairmont Tire failed to replace the worn tire.

The church contended that it was not negligent; that they relied on the expertise of the tire company and did not replace the tire that failed. The defendants further contended that Hunte was a qualified driver who had driven on many occasions for the church and never had a prior accident; and that he was not fatigued and reacted properly. The church also contended that if they were liable, the tire company should bear the majority of the responsibility. The tire company claimed they do not make trip recommendations and would not have made the representations claimed by the church. The defendants claimed that plaintiff Fuller did not suffer head injury and fully recovered from her injuries. Further, that all objective tests such as CT scan, EMG, and X-rays were normal. The defendants argued that plaintiffs’ claims for future medical care and assisted living were not necessary.

INJURIES: Shirlee Fuller suffered pelvic ring disruption, chronic pain syndrome, pneumothorax, closed head injury and chondromalacia of the left knee. She underwent two surgeries on her pelvis and one left knee arthroscopy. Geoffrey Hunte suffered a broken right arm. Josephine Hunte suffered soft tissue injuries to her back and neck.

(Fuller); $5,169 (Josephine [lunte); $16,814
(Geoffrey Hunte); Future MEDS, $3,434,778
(Fuller); $10,000 (Geoffrey Hunte); LOE,
$81,747 (Fuller); $9,000 (Josephine Hunte);
$9,000 (Geoffrey Hunte); Future LOE,
$333,562 (Fuller).

JURY TRIAL: Length, seven weeks; Deliberation, 14 hours.

SETTLEMENT DISCUSSIONS: The plaintiffs demanded $5 million during trial, increased to $8 million during trial. The plaintiffs made a G.O.P. §998 settlement demand for $975,000. Geoffrey Hunte made a C.C.P. §998 demand of $99,000. and Josephine Hunte made a C.C.P. §998 demand of $29,000. Defendants offered nothing. Defendants Greater Bethany Community Church and Hunte offered $1 million during trial and defendant Fairmont Tire & Rubber Company offered $200,000.

OTHER INFORMATION: Plaintiff’s trial counsel was brought in two months before trial

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