In what appears to be the largest wrongful death settlement for a child in California history, the family of a 4-year- old girl killed in a traffic accident has reached a settlement with the manufacturer, distributor and retailer of a “monster tire” that investigators said failed and caused the accident.
The $4 million structured settlement could pay the child’s parents $10.6 million over their lives, according to the parent’s attorneys.
Sencera Alain Smith died in September 1985, two days after a Chevrolet Blazer blew a tire, crossed the center divider and plowed head-on into a car driven by her mother, Judy Smith. The driver of the Blazer, Kent Haskovec, was also sued, and that part of the case is pending.
Police investigations concluded the driver of the Blazer lost control due to the blow-out of the left front tire of the vehicle. The settlement in Smith v. Haskovec, H 18954-0, in Alameda County was reached after two years of litigation against those responsible for making and selling the Grand Prix, a 36 1/2-inch tall “high flotation” tire used on elevated off-road vehicles and promoted as the “biggest, boldest, baddest” tire by its designer-distributor, Tire and Battery Corp. of Memphis, Tenn.
For the tires to mounted on it, the vehicle had to be raised to a level that made it unstable, according to the plaintiffs’ attorney, Andrew R. Gillin.
According to Gillin, the tires were also mislabeled so that buyers were directed to over-inflate them, increasing the potential for blowouts. Vehicles such as the Blazer are treated as farm vehicles and are exempt from federal car safety regulations, although Sen. Tim Wirth, D-Colorado, has petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to regulate the vehicles and require restrictions on bumper heights that would preclude use of the over-sized tires.
Gillin said he believed the defendants feared a jury award of from $2 million to $10 million in punitive damages, an amount he said would probably have put at least one of the companies out of business. Expected $10.6 Million Payout The settlement calls for the companies’ insurance carriers to pay $4 million to the child’s parents, Judy and Joseph Smith, to be invested in annuities expected to yield about $10.6 million during their lifetimes.
According to Gillin, a partner with the Berkeley firm of Gillin, Jacobson & Ellis, the largest previous verdict or settlement in a case involving the wrongful death of a child was $2.2 million. Although the child’s mother was seriously injured in the accident, Gillin said, most of the settlement was based on damages related to her daughter’s death. Damages for the mother’s injuries would have been about $250,000, Gillin said.
Gillin attributed the magnitude of the potential punitive damages expo sure in great part to what he called a “smoking gun” memorandum written in 1979 by an official of the tire’s designer-distributor and uncovered during discovery. The memo revealed that the company knew that installing the over sized tire could reduce stability and that TBC had reported the danger to retailers by alerting them to the importance of informing buyers of the potential hazard, but continued to distribute it nevertheless.
In addition, the manufacturer of the tire, Denman Rubber Mfg. Co. of Ohio, had previously settled a multimillion-dollar suit by a girl who was paralyzed following a collision involving a nearly identical tire marketed under another label. D. Michael Lyden, who represented Denman, would not comment on the settlement beyond calling Smith a “doubtful and questionable case.”
He said the settlement contained no agreement or stipulation that there was anything defective about the tires or assessing blame for their manufacture. Lyden is a partner in the Encin o firm of Byers, Kroll & Lyden.