NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. must pay more than $6.7 million in damages in the death of a garbage truck driver killed when a tire he was inflating exploded, a judge in a New Orleans suburb has ruled.
Elwood Breaux Jr. was working for Plaquemines Parish when the "zipper failure" — named for a long sidewall rip with protruding metal reinforcement — occurred. Escaping air slammed Breaux backward on Feb. 5, 2014. He died 28 days later of massive internal injuries to his chest and abdomen, State District Judge Michael Clement wrote.
He calculated damages to Breaux, his five children and his wife at $6.7 million but said about $481,000 of that will reimburse the parish for workers' compensation. State law will return some of that to the family's share and judicial interest will add at least $1.4 million to the total, New Orleans attorney Danny Meeks, who represented the family, said Wednesday.
Clement ruled Sept. 10 that Goodyear failed to adequately warn the parish that an underpressurized tire might explode during inflation.
"We are disappointed with the verdict and will appeal," said a statement emailed Tuesday by James Peate, Goodyear's director of global functions communications in Akron, Ohio.
Clement wrote that warnings about the possibility of serious injury from tire failure were embossed on the tire in the same color as the tire and also were written on the back of invoices sent to the parish and in a warranty brochure sent to the parish. However, he found that those were inadequate, noting that an expert witness in human factors engineering and warnings testified that they didn't advise "that a tire would blow up by simply being aired up."
That expert, Lila Laux, also testified that the warnings "did not tell a user what a zipper failure was, what caused it, how to avoid it, or how to avoid being injured." Rather, she concluded that the warnings would be read as saying underinflated or overloaded tires might fail on the road, Clement wrote. The opinion said that was how Scott Rousselle, superintendent at the parish's Solid Waste North department, testified he interpreted them.
Zipper failure lawsuits are fairly rare, said Skip Lynch, another attorney for the family. He said his firm in Ocala, Florida, files 20 to 30 tire-related lawsuits a year, and its last one involving this sort of explosion was decided six or eight years ago.
It's likely that most of the time, nobody's close enough to the break to be hurt, Lynch said. But when someone is, he said, "it's like having a small to midsize truck hit you."
Rousselle, department foreman Matthew Bougere and a co-worker all testified that they had never heard of zipper failures, Clement wrote.
He said the manager and service manager at the store that sold the tires testified they had never heard of zipper failures or seen a Goodyear product service bulletin that did describe them and how to avoid them.
Bougere also testified that he saw Breaux regularly check tire pressure and that in 25 years at Solid Waste North, "there had never been a problem with fixing a tire or a tire exploding while it was fixed," Clement wrote.
He calculated damages for Breaux himself at more than $1.5 million, including $400,000 for pain and suffering. Despite heavy sedation, surgeon Mark Kappelman testified that Breaux could move, grunt or groan when asked about pain and had to be "kept in restraints to keep him from pulling out the devices to which he had been hooked up," the judge wrote.
Breaux's wife, Irene Breaux, was awarded $1.5 million, including $1 million for mental anguish, grief and anxiety. Their three children were awarded $750,000 to $800,000 each, and Breaux's adult daughters by his first wife $300,000 each.
The attorneys' percentage is a private matter between them and their clients, Lynch said.