Goodyear v. Kirby

by Ted Frank on April 27, 2009

19-year-old Sidney Odom happily went along when 20-year-old Travis Kirby and 18-year-old Riley Strickland asked “Who wants to go to the Beacon?”—a bar in Terry, Mississippi. A long night of drinking and driving came to an end at about 3 am when Kirby’s Camaro hit a tree at about 90 mph. As none of the three were wearing seatbelts, all were ejected from the vehicle. Kirby, whose blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit at 0.25%, died at the scene; the other two were injured.

Since we’re talking about the case, you can guess that the three blamed everyone except the underage drunk drivers: in this case, the car seller, the tire installer, and the tire manufacturer, Goodyear Tires. The car seller settled for about half a million dollars; a Copiah County jury found the other defendants liable for an additional $2.1 million. Goodyear appealed, complaining about various prejudicial statements made by the plaintiffs’ attorneys, such as introducing evidence from other lawsuits about other types of tires, but the Mississippi state appellate court affirmed. (Holbrook Mohr, “Miss. court agrees tire, not alcohol caused crash”, AP/Washington Post, Apr. 22; Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. v. Kirby (Miss. App. 2009)).

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1 Robert 04.27.09 at 6:28 pm

When I read about these cases, I wonder how you can convince an entire jury to be sympathetic to three drunk drives.

What, exactly, does the jury hear? Do they hear about three little “angels”, star atheletes, honor students, etc, or do they get to hear frank discussion about blood alcohol levels, speeding, etc?

2 Bill Poser 04.27.09 at 9:38 pm

If you read the opinion, you’ll see what the jury heard, namely expert testimony, characterized as strong by the appellate court, to the effect that the right rear tire disintegrated spontaneously and caused the crash. According to the expert testimony, there was no evidence of driver error, rendering the fact that the driver was drunk irrelevant, and no reason to believe that the accident was due to excessive speed.

Let’s take an extreme but parallel case. Suppose that an intoxicated person drives a vehicle greatly in excess of the speed limit. An enemy has planted a bomb in his vehicle, which goes off, killing him. The enemy, who was observed planting the bomb, is sued by the victim’s next-of-kin. Should he recover, or should the bomber be civilly protected by the fact that the driver was intoxicated and driving at excess speed, even though neither of these was a factor in his death?

I am in no position to evaluate the expert testimony in this case, but if it was valid, the verdict was reasonable.

3 Bumper 04.27.09 at 10:20 pm

“What, exactly, does the jury hear?”

I would ask the same question of any state except the one that spawned the likes of Dickie Scruggs and Dr. Mike West.

Re: the tire disintegration, if in fact it actually happened, perhaps if the driver had been sober and better able to respond and driving at or under the speed limit, he could have brought the vehicle to a safe stop or at least avoided the tree.

4 Melvin H. 04.27.09 at 11:15 pm

My question is why this was even allowed to go forward; there were five (at least) illegal acts here: three underage drinkers, one drunk driver, and one excessive speeding (20+ miles over the limit, if the road’s limit was 70 mph or less). And I haven’t even counted one case of vehicular homicide! What am I missing here?

5 Bill Poser 04.27.09 at 11:16 pm

Re: the tire disintegration, if in fact it actually happened, perhaps if the driver had been sober and better able to respond and driving at or under the speed limit, he could have brought the vehicle to a safe stop or at least avoided the tree.

This possibility is discussed in the opinion and dismissed. According to the experts, once that sort of disintegration of the tire occurred, the driver would have lost control of the vehicle.

6 Bill Poser 04.27.09 at 11:19 pm

My question is why this was even allowed to go forward; there were five (at least) illegal acts here: three underage drinkers, one drunk driver, and one excessive speeding (20+ miles over the limit, if the road’s limit was 70 mph or less). And I haven’t even counted one case of vehicular homicide! What am I missing here?

What you’re missing is an argument that any of these crimes is relevant to the lawsuit. By the way, it was the driver who died, so there was no vehicular homicide.

7 Melvin H. 04.28.09 at 3:56 am

Oops, Bill–misread the story as the driver was not the one killed.

However, it still begs the question: Five illegal acts lead to an accident, which led to civil lawsuits against the tiremaker, the installer, and the one who sold the car. Seems to me if you act in an illegal (and unsafe in this case) matter then you should not be able to collect–or something like that. (Kind of like suing under the ADA as a recovering alcoholic, because one was tossed off a basketball team for being drunk, notwithstanding the drinker isn’t of legal age to drink to start with.)

8 William Nuesslein 04.28.09 at 9:37 am

It seems strange that the tire disintegration occurred when the driver was drunk and speeding. How would tire disintegration cause a crash into a tree when the obnoxious plaintiff bar has argued that tire disintegrations cause rollovers. I have had flat tires over the years and never had a problem with control, or a rollover. And it was a rear tire.

A bomb is put in a car to effectuate a murder. I wonder if Bill Posner believes that the tire company is out to kill people. How many non-rollover cases are there of cars going into trees and disintegrating tires?

Please be reasonable Mr. Posner, the expert was talking out of his rear end.

9 Rob M. 04.28.09 at 11:34 am

They heard an expert (Ochs) testify the tire failed. Mr. Ochs is an expert on tire failure, and has testified many, many times that tire failure caused accidents. That’s the way these things go – each side has an expert, usually reaching opposite conclusions from the same set of facts.

The jury saw 3 young, victimized, local families/youths. Against the heartless international tire corporation who could have made a better tire, if they weren’t weren’t driven by greed.

So now I guess we go to signing disclaimers when we buy tires, and tires are incrementally more expensive. Maybe we won’t even have lower cost tire alternatives, and new tires will be so expensive that more people will ride around on bald tires, creating more accidents and injury.

10 Steve 04.28.09 at 5:26 pm

Rob M. You have hit the nail on the head. There is no perfectly safe tire. Was it determined that the tire disintegrated on it’s own? What was the history of the tire? Had it ever hit a pothole, etc. that could have made it less likely to be able to go 90 MPH? Was the tire pressure verified that day before the accident? State of the rim that day before the accident? Ever overload the car/tires (yes it could happen even in a Camero)?

Yes, even a rear tire flat could cause loss of control, but would obviously be much more dangerous at high speeds (I did not read the opinion but wonder what the correct speed for this road/conditons/time of day and the speed limit.) There should be a concern that the tire failed if it was the sole precipitator of the incident, but the main cause for the accident itself was the speed and being drunk.

There is always some inherent risk with driving. A perfectly made vehicle brand new off the lot can still run over something which can cause tire failure and an accident. This is one of the concerns about higher speeds on roadways. High speed, by itself, does not cause an accident, just like a disintegrating tire does not always result in an accident. But, if an accident occurs, the speed can have a very direct effect on possible injuries or death. Not to mention all of the plaintiffs actions contributing to this.

It’s very curios that:
a) someone gets in a car with an expectation of no risk whatsoever,
b) they go well over the speed limit,
c) they are drunk,
d) they decide that they don’t want to take the simplest of prcautions and where their seatbelts,
e) this is all the fault/responsibility/liability of Goodyear.

Well at least someone was “responsible” !!

11 Anderson 04.28.09 at 5:53 pm

Reading the opinion, one sees that the basis for the decision was *not* circumstantial evidence of a mfg. defect.

Rather, the court held that the speed rating of the tire and the mileage warranty together were an express warranty that the tire would not fail under 122 mph and 40,000 miles. IOW, a breach of warranty case.

How the court got a “warranty” out of a tire’s speed rating is a great mystery.

12 Anderson 04.28.09 at 9:05 pm

Also, since it’s printed right there on the 1st page of the opinion, I’m not sure how the AP missed that one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers was Jim Kitchens. As in, Justice Jim Kitchens, now of the Miss. Supreme Court.

Not newsworthy, I suppose.

13 Bill H 04.28.09 at 10:43 pm

Rather, the court held that the speed rating of the tire and the mileage warranty together were an express warranty that the tire would not fail under 122 mph and 40,000 miles. IOW, a breach of warranty case.

Am I reading this correctly, Anderson? The court expects the warranty to be 122mph for 40,000 miles? On it’s face,that physically is not possible. As others have pointed out, there are illegal acts that led to the crash, and I am assuming that since the last Camaro left the assembly line in 2000 (yes, I am aware that Camaro production just started up again about a month ago), this was not a new vehicle. Therefore, it did have wear and tear, possibly severe enough to cause tire failure. With the amount of heat buildup in a tire at speed, a worn, or damaged, or both, tire if just somewhat underinflated and overloaded (by which I mean extreme loading from high speed and a worn suspension component) can “disintegrate”. Impaired driving likely caused the driver to drive over the limit, in a state of slow calculus, unable to execute any evasive/emergency manouvers to deal with a blown tire.

You’re also correct about the ‘speed rating’- the Feds tout it as a consumers’ guide, not a warranty.

My sympathies lay with Goodyear.

14 Benji 04.29.09 at 10:13 am

@11: The logical response now will be to remove speed and mileage ratings, so that the manufacturer can’t be held liable when tires fail below those standards for any reason. Why offer useful information if it’s just turned around and used to tie your own noose for you?

15 Anderson 04.29.09 at 1:22 pm

The logical response now will be to remove speed and mileage ratings, so that the manufacturer can’t be held liable when tires fail below those standards for any reason.

I believe they may be federally required, tho I would have to look that up.

16 Jim Collins 05.18.09 at 3:20 pm

Seems to me that this belt delamination would be an accumulative effect. If someone can prove that Kirby NEVER oversped the tires, I might be inclined to agree with this verdict.

I wonder how the Jury was chosen. I never worry about Jury Duty anymore. As soon as they find out what I do for a living, I’m always excused.

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