Our firm recently settled a very important case that underscores the importance of fully exploring all facts of a serious injury or death case because there may be a defective product involved. Information learned in this case is also important to share because owners of recreational vehicles (RV’s) and horse trailers may be unaware of the potential risks associated with awnings attached to their vehicle or trailer.
On March 11, 2005, a young man attached an extended horse trailer to the rear of his 2001 Ford F350 truck and drove from Mississippi into Alabama. The trailer was equipped with a 21-foot roll-out awning attached to the driver side of the trailer. These are the same type awnings used on large motor homes. While driving north along a rural Alabama highway, the young man glanced into his rear-view mirror and saw that the front end of the metal and fabric awning assembly had broken loose from the trailer and was hanging out toward the oncoming lane of traffic. Because he couldn’t immediately pull off the road, he continued to drive with the awning assembly dangerously hanging on the side of the trailer.
On the same day, Terry Bassett, a Uniontown city councilman, attended a meeting of the Perry County School Board in Marion, Alabama and was driving back south to his home along the same rural highway. When the two vehicles met, the awning assembly from the trailer struck the windshield of Terry Bassett’s oncoming minivan. The metal frame and roller tube punctured his windshield and killed him instantly. At first blush, this case appeared to be a tragic accident. As defense lawyers like to say during trials “sometimes bad things happen to good people and no one is to blame.” However, our investigation and pretrial discovery revealed that Terry Bassett’s tragic death was entirely preventable and that there was fault because of the defective product.
Mike Andrews, who handled this case for the firm, discovered that the retractable arms of the awning were equipped with metal folding locks that were defectively designed and manufactured. As a result, the locks were insufficient to withstand the effects of wind experienced while traveling down the highway. During pretrial discovery, Mike found a variety of alternative designs which are marketed to prevent such awning failures – some alternative locks are available online through various companies – and other locks were purchased on EBay. Apparently awning failures are such a problem in the RV industry that one company stated on its website “There are two types of RVers – those that have had their awning blow off and those that will!” Our experts tested several of the designs and found them to be superior to the faulty locks implemented by the awning manufacturer. Our experts also conducted metallurgical testing and took radiograph x-rays of the internal composition of the cast zinc locks. Their testing revealed that the cast zinc locks were cheaply made and defective because they contained unacceptable amounts of impurities which rendered them weak and ineffective.
Although nobody at our firm had ever met Terry Bassett before his tragic death, we were proud to represent his family in this case. Terry was not only a city councilman, but he was active in his community through the local school board. He operated a small local grocery store and was the pastor of two local churches. Terry will be missed in his community and in his home. Lawyers who evaluate cases involving serious injury or death should always evaluate every facet of the case to determine if a defective product is to blame. Mike did an outstanding job in this case of recognizing a defective product and then developing the case for his client. The amount of the settlement is confidential, but we can warn the public about the dangerous condition that exists and the risk that persons are subjected to.