Defective Tires: Close up of a flat tire in traffic

Wal-Mart to Pay $4M in Tire Lawsuit

Wal-Mart will pay a $4 million judgment to Carolyn Thorne in a lawsuit stemming from a tire failure three years ago that caused a wreck and left the local woman paralyzed from her injuries.

A Montgomery County jury awarded Thorne the damages late Thursday.

Thorne was paralyzed in a one-vehicle accident on April 24, 2004, when the tread on the left rear tire of her Ford Expedition separated, causing the SUV to flip into the median on I-85.

The jury awarded Thorne $2 million in compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages after Wal-Mart failed to settle the case, according to Greg Allen, who helped represent Thorne for the Beasley Allen law firm.

Wal-Mart will not appeal the verdict but will pay the judgment, according to spokesman John Simley.

“We disagree with the decision, but we will respect it,” he said.

Thorne settled with tire manufacturer Continental Tire, Sonic Automotive/Friendly Ford and with Ford Motor Co. prior to trial. Allen said those settlements are confidential, but the jury heard the amounts prior to reaching its verdict.

Allen said he did not request any particular amount in the lawsuit, but he told jurors that a $20 million verdict would not be unreasonable in this case. The jury decided on a much smaller verdict, but Allen said it sent a message to Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart’s counsel tried to argue that the company was not responsible for Thorne’s tire failure since it did not sell or install the tires. Thorne argued that since she regularly had her SUV serviced at Wal-Mart, which included tire checks, that the retailer had some responsibility in the case.

Thorne had taken her Expedition to Wal-Mart for service just days before her accident. According to Allen, Wal-Mart’s service included tread and pressure checks and rotating her tires.

The tread check, Allen said, should have revealed a bulge where the tire’s tread was separating.

“It is hoped that this jury award will encourage Wal-Mart to change its policy of not notifying their customers of recalled tires,” Allen said through a media release issued Friday morning. “It is also hoped that Wal-Mart will re-evaluate its policy on tire inspections. Wal-Mart has misled their customers into thinking that they were receiving tire safety service.”

Simley said Wal-Mart is going to examine its tire practices, but he questioned how much responsibility the company had for Thorne’s accident.

“We did not sell the tire,” he said. “We don’t even carry that tire.”

As for changes in business practices, Simley said Wal-Mart executives are still examining what steps the company will take as a result of the verdict. Possible changes are more detailed tire inspections, or telling customers that their tires have not been inspected.

Thorne had the tires of her SUV replaced following an earlier tread separation, but the original spare remained on the vehicle. It was that tire that eventually failed, causing the accident, Allen said.

Allen said Wal-Mart serviced Thorne’s Ford nine times prior to the accident. Wal-Mart was aware of the tire recall during those service visits, he said, but did not warn Thorne of the danger.

Simley refused to speculate on whether the verdict would make the company more likely to settle in the future.

“It is hard to say because every case is unique,” he said.

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