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Tragic Multiple Death Case Due to Underinflated Tires Settled Favorably Against Ford, Wal-Mart, U-Haul & Bridgestone/Firestone

Vehicle rollovers result in accidents that are often buried in mountains of damaged physical evidence and piles of documents. Through thorough discovery, attorneys can determine the negligence that triggered the series of events leading to a rollover. often, this negligence involves inadequate routine vehicle maintenance.

A recent case handled by Shamberg, Johnson & Bergman, Chtd., and the law offices of David smith illustrates how the repeated failure to adequately inflate and check tire pressures led to a horrific rollover accident. [The firm’s Winter 2005 newsletter detailed stability concerns with similar multi-passenger vans, specifically the fact that no federal stability ratings or dynamic testing procedures applied to these large vehicles.]

On June 13, 2003, a 15-passenger Ford e-350 van driving from Lamar, Mo., on a mission trip to Wyoming lost control after the tread on the left-rear Firestone tire separated. The van and the U-Haul trailer it was towing rolled over, ejecting four passengers. several passengers were seriously injured. Two others, including the mother of two children who were also in the van, were killed.

John Parisi and Aaron Kroll, along with David Smith, filed four suits in Jackson County, Mo., against Ford, U-Haul, Bridgestone/Firestone, and the rental company that supplied the trailer to the First Baptist Church of Lamar, Mo. The case originally focused on several potential causes, including defects in the tire, which appeared to trigger the rollover, as well as the van’s stability and rollover potential, which caused the passengers to be thrown from the 15-passenger van.

The van had regular maintenance performed at Wal-Mart Tire and Lube Express in Lamar, Mo., including one service visit less than a month before the accident. Plaintiffs learned that during each of these routine maintenance visits, WalMart’s employees failed to properly check and inflate the tires on the van to the vehicle manufacturer’s recommended pressure levels. After learning that the tires had been underinflated, plaintiffs amended their petition to include Wal-Mart as a defendant.

Underinflated tires are dangerous. Besides being an election issue in the ongoing energy policy debate, underinflated tires can cause early tire failure, including tread separation and blowouts, as happened to the First Baptist Church van. Government documents and warnings, including those from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, state that tires should be inflated in accordance with the vehicle manufacturers’ recommended pressures.

Proper inflation is especially important in vans, which are more prone to rollovers than most passenger cars. A 2005 NHTSA study found that a higher percentage of large vans had significantly underinflated tires, as compared to the percentage of passenger cars with underinflated tires. Manufacturers of light trucks often recommend routinely checking tire pressures, especially before long trips.

For e-350 15-passenger vans, like the First Baptist Church van, Ford recommends on the door placard that the front tires be inflated to 58 psi and that the rear tires be inflated to 80 psi. During five service visits, Wal-Mart inflated the tire pressures below the manufacturer’s

recommended pressures. On one occasion, the left-rear tire that failed was inflated as low as 50 psi, according to deposition testimony from WalMart’s employees. Armed with the testimony of WalMart’s employees, and with expert testimony that the underinflation contributed to causing the tread separation and failure of the left-rear tire, plaintiffs were able to settle all four cases favorably.

The 2005 NHTSA study referenced above documents that significant tire under-inflation, especially in large vans, is a serious problem and often unrecognized by vehicle owners. Because tires are often not inflated to the vehicle manufacturers’ recommendations, Shamberg, Johnson & Bergman, Chtd., urges attorneys investigating similar cases to conduct thorough and detailed discovery into tire inflation levels.