Goodyear claims lawyers negligent in personal injury defense

By Kelly Holleran | May 18, 2010

Goodyear claims its former lawyers forced it to settle with a couple who filed a complaint against the company instead of allowing the company to fight the allegations through a jury trial.

The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company and Goodyear Dunlop Tires North America filed a lawsuit May 5 in St. Clair County Circuit Court against Perkins Coie, Jeanne M. Cullen and Matthew J. Gehringer.

The plaintiffs claim their troubles began after Darla and Mike Green filed a 10-count complaint against Goodyear on June 6, 2008.

In their complaint, the Greens claim they left on their 2003 Harley Davidson Ultra Guide Classic motorcycle from Illinois and started to head toward Yellowstone National Park with two other couples on June 27, 2007. After about three hours of driving, the Greens and their companions stopped for lunch in Mexico, Mo., according to their complaint.

During lunch, Debbie Hausman, a passenger on a motorcycle following the Greens', told the group she smelled burnt rubber and noticed the Greens' rear tire looked low on air, Goodyear's suit states.

"After lunch, the group resumed their trip, and shortly thereafter, the Greens experienced a sidewall deflation on the Classic's rear Dunlop D402, MT90B1674H tire at or around mile-marker 46.8 on Interstate 70 in Lafayette County, Missouri," the complaint says. "Following deflation of the Dunlop tire, the Classic operated by Michael Green went out of control, skidded on its side, and crashed, ejecting both Darla and Michael Green."

At the time of the accident, the Greens wore only t-shirts and helmet-type plastic caps not endorsed by the Department of Transportation, Goodyear claims.

"The helmets stated on the inside: 'WARNING: This is a novelty item and not intended for use a [sic] safety equipment," the suit states. "USE AT YOUR OWN RISK!"

In addition, the Goodyear tire that deflated had only 2/32-inch tread, meaning the tire was 7/8 worn out, according to Goodyear's complaint.

The Greens further contributed to the accident by the amount of weight on the motorcycle, the complaint says. Goodyear claims Darla Green weighed 268 pounds at the time of the collision while Michael Green weighed 263 pounds.

"Coupled with the contents of the Greens' luggage for the trip, the bike was overloaded by at least 131 pounds," the suit states.

After the accident, emergency workers transported Darla Green to Research Medical Center in Independence, Mo., where she remained hospitalized for about one month, according to the complaint. She complained of brain injury following the collision, has a general loss of vision in both of her eyes, had a torn rotator cuff in her left shoulder and sustained frozen shoulder, anxiety and depression, the complaint says. In addition, Darla Green claimed she sustained scarring from road rash and scarring on her throat from a tracheotomy, which affected her singing in a church choir.

Michael Green walked away from the accident and initially refused hospitalization, but later admitted himself to the hospital where he received morphine for pain, the complaint says. Six months later, Michael Green complained of right knee pain, and doctors diagnosed him with a right knee meniscus tear, for which he endured two surgeries, Goodyear claims.

Goodyear removed the Greens' suit against them to U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois and hired Perkins Coie to represent it.

The law firm filed an answer to the Greens' lawsuit on July 3, 2008, saying the Greens' contributed to their own injuries when they failed to adequately maintain their motorcycle and its tires, failed to adequately inspect the motorcycle before operating it and failed to follow the owner's manual regarding the safe and proper use of the motorcycle, among a number of other negligent acts performed by the Greens.

Goodyear claims that because of the Greens' actions, it had no liability in causing the collision. The company even offered the testimony of its senior manager at its Buffalo plant, Ian Willetts, who inspected the Greens' tire, according to the complaint.

"By reason of Mr. Willetts' position with Goodyear, he would provide critical and unique testimony related to Goodyear's manufacturing and quality assurance processes and procedures, as well as testimony that the tire in question failed due to the Plaintiffs' overloading the tire and utilizing the tire in an underinflated condition for a majority of the tire's life, thus creating a condition that could lead to death or great bodily harm," the suit states.

Willetts was deposed twice – on Nov. 18 and Nov. 19, but completed an errata sheet with simple changes for each deposition after he finished them. Willetts forwarded the errata sheets to his attorney, Cullen, who only forwarded an errata sheet for Willetts' Nov. 18 deposition, but not for his Nov. 19 deposition, the suit states.

On Feb. 24, Perkins Coie submitted a motion to strike the errata sheet changes to Willetts' deposition, according to the complaint.

"On March 9, 2010, following the examination of Mr. Willets by counsel and the questioning of defendant Cullen by Judge Patrick Murphy, as a direct and proximate result of the negligence of the defendants, including, without limitation, the negligent use of the December 11, 2009, notary verification, the Court ruled that Ian Willetts was stricken as a witness for Goodyear," the complaint says. "Due to this ruling, Goodyear was unable to support its valid defenses with Mr. Willetts' critical and unique testimony."

Following the order, Goodyear attempted to file an offer of proof concerning Willetts' testimony, but Judge Murphy informed Goodyear he would be required to enter another order with additional findings that would supplement the prior order, Goodyear claims.

To make matters worse, when Perkins Coie filed Goodyear's answer to the court, it failed to request a jury trial despite the fact that it proceeded as if the case would be tried before a jury, according to Goodyear's complaint.

"Knowing that Defendants negligently failed to filed a jury demand, and that trial would proceed before Judge Murphy, representatives of Goodyear reasonably believed that they had no other choice than to withdraw their Offer of Proof," the suit states. "The Offer of Proof was withdrawn by Goodyear on March 12, 2010. The withdrawal of the Offer of Proof by Goodyear severely impaired Goodyear's ability to appeal a subsequent verdict.

"Having lost Mr. Ian Willetts as a witness and having suffered damage to their chances on appeal, Goodyear decided that it had no choice but to settle the matter immediately, rather than risk an adverse and substantial verdict by the Court at trial."

In its suit, Goodyear claims professional negligence against the defendants.

It seeks a judgment of more than $50,000, plus costs and other relief the court deems just.

Thomas Q. Keefe Jr. of Swansea and George W. Spellmire and Jefferey O. Katz of Spellmire and Sommer in Chicago will be representing it.

St. Clair County Circuit Court case number: 10-L-225.

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