Deadly rollover accident results in $5.5 million verdict against New Jersey car dealership for failed maintenance

Posted
by Jay Pate

Roy Allen purchased a new Chevrolet Trailblazer in 2004 from Flemington Buick Chevrolet Pontiac GMC in Flemington, New Jersey. Allen also purchased extended warranties—the General Motors Major Guard Protection Plan and the GM Smart Care Protection Plan. From the time of purchase until December 2008, Flemington serviced or inspected the vehicle twelve times. On six of those occasions, the tires were rotated. Allen was diligent in having the vehicle serviced in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations.

In January, February and April 2009, Allen brought his Trailblazer to the dealership for various service items. Only three days after the April 2009 visit to the dealership, the Allen family was involved in a serious rollover accident. The Trailblazer’s right rear tire blew out on Interstate 95 in Virginia while Allen and members of his family were traveling to Florida. The SUV rolled over multiple times.

Allen’s daughter, Carla Ceasar, was driving the SUV when it overturned. She sustained serious head injuries in the wreck, and still suffers migraines, hearing loss and involuntary hand tremors. Allen’s wife Erna sustained neck, shoulder and back injuries that will require treatment for the rest of her life. Roy Allen was killed.

An inspection of the tire after the accident found a hand-sized bald spot. Caesar and the Allens sued Atlantic Tire & Service and Flemington Buick Chevrolet Pontiac GMC. Atlantic Tire settled with the plaintiffs, and the claims against Flemington went to trial, ultimately resulting in a $5.5 million judgment.

The jury agreed with the plaintiffs that the dealership failed to detect a bald spot that caused the tire blowout during three inspections of the vehicle in 2009 and thus failed to recommend a tire replacement that would have prevented the accident. Ceasar was awarded $1.1 million; Erna Allen was awarded $450,000, plus an additional $100,000 on her loss-of-consortium claim; and $350,000 was awarded to Roy Allen’s estate.

The jury also found that the dealership knowingly and wantonly disregarded a high probability of injury when it failed to recommend tire replacement on April 9, 2009. The jury awarded $5.5 million in punitive damages, but the trial judge later reduced that award to $3 million.

The dealership appealed but a New Jersey appellate court has now affirmed the judgment. Ceasar v. Flemington Car and Truck Country, 2014 WL 1613422 (N.J.Super.A.D. April 23, 2014). The court found that the evidence at trial established that The Flemington dealership knew that a dangerous rear tire on an SUV like Roy Allen’s Chevy Trailblazer could cause a blowout and vehicle rollover.

When the vehicle was at the dealership in January 2009, all the tires had failed a tread depth check, according to an internal checklist of the dealership. However, that information was not disclosed to Allen. Instead, the tire that ultimately blew out was rotated from the front to the rear of the vehicle. The plaintiffs introduced expert testimony at trial that the bald spot that caused the accident should have been detected by the dealership no later than January 16, 2009.

Just days before the blowout and accident, in April 2009, Allen brought the vehicle back to the dealership and complained about how the rear of the vehicle was driving. Not only were the prior service records not reviewed and, in fact, ignored by the dealership, but the dealership’s technician missed the bald spot on the tire where the blowout later occurred.

The dealership’s service technician failed to follow a company policy in April 2009 that required review of the vehicle’s prior service records. The evidence at trial established that had he done so, he would have recommended tire replacement. In addition, dealership employee witnesses agreed that the technician should have recommended tire replacement based upon the earlier observation that all tires fell below minimum tread depth.

The New Jersey Appellate Division rejected the dealership’s arguments that it was deprived of a fair trial and that the judge’s reduced $3 million punitive damages award was too much. The judgment for the plaintiffs was affirmed.

Defective products: protect your rights

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HO&P and Auto Safety

If you or a loved one have been seriously injured in a car or truck, it may well be that the injuries were caused or made worse because the vehicle was not properly designed or manufactured. In order to determine whether you may have a case, you need to retain experienced, qualified legal counsel at the earliest opportunity. At Heygood, Orr & Pearson, we have the experience and knowledge to pursue product liability claims against any of the major auto manufacturers.

Contact the lawyers at Heygood, Orr & Pearson for your free case evaluation and to learn more about your legal right to compensation. You can reach us by calling toll-free at 1-877-446-9001, or by following the link to our free legal consultation form.

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Michael Heygood, James Craig Orr, Jr. and Eric Pearson were selected to the Super Lawyers List, a Thomson Reuters publication, for the years 2003 through 2014.