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After crash, family claimed rebuilt truck was defective

Amount:

$15,502,880

Type:

Verdict-Plaintiff

State:

Florida

Venue:

Palm Beach County

Court:

Palm Beach County Circuit Court, 15th

Injury Type(s):

other-death

Case Type:

Products Liability – Tires; Wrongful Death – Survival Damages; Products Liability – Design Defect, Failure to Warn, Marketing Defect, Manufacturing Defect; Worker/Workplace Negligence – Negligent Assembly or Installation

Case Name:

Susan Letterman, a Florida citizen and resident, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Werner K. Letterman, deceased, a Florida citizen and resident v. National Truck Center, Inc., a Florida corporation and Florida citizen and resident and Shandong Linglong Tyre Co., Ltd., a foreign corporation,
No. 50-2015-CA-001204-XXXX-MB

Date:

May 25, 2018

Parties

Plaintiff(s):

Estate of Werner K. Letterman (Male, 41 Years)

Plaintiff Attorney(s):

Julie H. Littky-Rubin;
Clark, Fountain, La Vista, Prather, Keen & Littky-Rubin;
West Palm Beach,
FL,
for
Estate of Werner K. Letterman ■ Donald R. Fountain Jr.;
Clark, Fountain, La Vista, Prather, Keen & Littky-Rubin;
West Palm Beach,
FL,
for
Estate of Werner K. Letterman ■ Hampton Keen;
Clark, Fountain, La Vista, Prather, Keen & Littky-Rubin;
West Palm Beach,
FL,
for
Estate of Werner K. Letterman ■ Jason Cornell;
Clark, Fountain, La Vista, Prather, Keen & Littky-Rubin;
West Palm Beach,
FL,
for
Estate of Werner K. Letterman

Plaintiff Expert(s):

G. Buchner; P.E.; Engineering; Tallahassee,
FL called by:
Julie H. Littky-Rubin, Donald R. Fountain Jr., Hampton Keen, Jason Cornell ■ Dennis Carlson; P.E.; Tires; Tucson,
AZ called by:
Julie H. Littky-Rubin, Donald R. Fountain Jr., Hampton Keen, Jason Cornell ■ Frederick Raffa; Ph.D; Economics; Orlando,
FL called by:
Julie H. Littky-Rubin, Donald R. Fountain Jr., Hampton Keen, Jason Cornell

Defendant(s):

National Truck Center Inc., 

Shandong Linglong Tyre Co. Ltd

Defense Attorney(s):

None reported;
for
Shandong Linglong Tyre Co. Ltd ■ Douglas W. Barnes;
Kelley Kronenberg, PA;
Fort Lauderdale,
FL,
for
National Truck Center Inc. ■ James W. Sherman;
Law Offices of Richard A. Sherman, P.A.;
Fort Lauderdale,
FL,
for
National Truck Center Inc.

Defendant Expert(s):

Adam Iglesias;
Clinical Psychology;
Palm Beach Gardens,
FL called by:
Douglas W. Barnes, James W. Sherman ■ Ashley Dunn;
Mechanical;
Columbus,
OH called by:
Douglas W. Barnes, James W. Sherman ■ Howard Zandman;
Accounting;
Atlanta,
GA called by:
Douglas W. Barnes, James W. Sherman ■ Thomas Vadnais;
Tires;
Atlanta,
GA called by:
Douglas W. Barnes, James W. Sherman ■ Stephen Chewning;
Accident Reconstruction;
Richmond,
VA called by:
Douglas W. Barnes, James W. Sherman

Insurer(s):

Scottsdale Indemnity Co. for National Truck Center

Facts:

On Dec. 27, 2013, plaintiff’s decedent, Werner Letterman, 41, was driving a sewage-pumper truck north on I-95 in Palm Beach County, when the right front tire failed and the truck went off the road and crashed into trees. Letterman died at the scene. At the time of his death, Letterman was a single parent for his 14-year-old son, Tyler. Susan Letterman, Werner Letterman’s mother and Tyler’s grandmother, was appointed personal representative of Werner Letterman’s estate. Susan Letterman, on behalf of the estate, sued Miami-based National Truck Center and China-based tire-maker Shandong Linglong. The lawsuit alleged that both the truck and the tire, model 385/65R22.5 Linglong LLA38, were defectively designed and manufactured and lacked adequate warnings. The estate’s counsel, with support from a tire expert, argued that the tire failed as a result of design and manufacturing defects and a failure to test, and the tire company was both negligent and strictly liable. In the complaint, counsel contended that the tire’s defects included insufficient rubber to steel and/or rubber to rubber bonding, inadequate dimensions and tolerances for components, bad adhesion at the interface between the steel belt skim stocks, a lack of nylon belts or overlays, and a lack of adequate safety margin regarding the tire’s load-carrying capacity. Moreover, the company knew it was foreseeable that the tire, which was designed by Shandong Linglong to be used at the drive axle or trailer axle positions, might nevertheless be used on a front steer axle and could not safely carry such weight. In addition, the tire lacked warnings about its defects. Shandong Linglong settled with the estate, prior to trial. Terms were not disclosed. The company remained on the verdict sheet for apportionment of liability. According to the estate’s counsel, National Truck Center was at fault for the accident because it had substantially transformed the truck, after buying it from another company, without taking proper precautions or providing proper warnings. The truck was originally designed and manufactured as a “truck tractor,” but National Truck Center, in 2007, redesigned and converted it into a pumper truck. In doing so, the company extended the frame 5.5 feet, extended the drive shaft and installed a 4000-gallon tank on the modified frame. The company also replaced the original 11R22.5 steer-axle tires with two larger 385/65R22 Shandong Linglong tires and rims. The estate’s counsel argued that National Truck Center had negligently failed to perform the appropriate engineering analysis and safety testing on the refitted truck and tires and so failed to identify and remove the failed tire, which was not of the proper size or type for the front axle. National Truck Center also allegedly failed to properly warn consumers of the significant alterations and to attach a legally required supplemental placard identifying the alterations. National Truck Center sold the refitted truck to a plumbing company, which used it without incident for about 3.5 years. In late 2011, the truck was purchased by Werner Letterman’s employer. An expert engineer for the estate opined that after the tire failure, the pumper truck, because of its faulty reconfiguration and tire, exceeded its steering capacity, braking capacity, and front axle load capacity, thereby causing the truck to be uncontrollable during the accident. National Truck Center denied that the truck was defectively designed or manufactured. It also denied that it had significantly redesigned or modified the truck or the failed tire, and noted that the truck was sold in a “used” condition, with 617,000 miles on it. In addition, the company claimed that the truck was, in fact, controllable during the accident and that Letterman was negligent in not controlling the truck after the tire failure. In support of these contentions, counsel called an expert mechanical engineer, who stated that tests involving a staged tire failure on a tractor trailer on a test track supported the argument that the truck was controllable after the tire failed. The defense’s expert in accident reconstruction said that Letterman was traveling at 71 miles per hour at the time of the accident and this excess speed might have contributed to the accident. The estate’s counsel asserted that Letterman was driving between 60 to 65 mph. A tire expert for National Truck Center opined that the tire had failed because of a pre-accident impact, not from design or manufacturing defects. Further, the tire was properly on the steer axle and that the estate’s claims about the tire being on the wrong axle were without merit. National Truck Center maintained that if there were any defects in the truck or tire, such defects should have been found, and warned about, by one or more of the multiple companies which had serviced the truck in the years before the accident. The defense also insisted that because the truck had passed all requisite Department of Transportation inspections, the truck and tire were not defective. The estate’s counsel countered that these inspections are only checks for poor maintenance issues and do not include any engineering systems analysis. Counsel noted that National Truck Center’s failure to include a supplemental placard notifying anyone servicing the truck that the truck had been modified might have prevented those servicing the truck from recognizing potential problems.

Injury:

Werner Letterman suffered blunt force injuries in the collision. He died at the scene. The estate’s counsel sought damages for Letterman’s medical and funeral expenses and for Tyler Letterman’s loss of support and services, pain and suffering, and loss of parental companionship and guidance. Counsel argued that Tyler’s life was completely uprooted by his father’s death. His father had been his sole caretaker, so Tyler was forced to move in with Susan Letterman, his grandmother. He had to change schools and leave his baseball team. Tyler was an accomplished baseball player and had colleges scouting him prior to his father’s death. His counsel called one of Tyler’s coaches as a witness, and he shared that Tyler was an excellent baseball player with a real potential for a college baseball scholarship or to play professionally. owever, Tyler struggled after his father’s death and ultimately was committed to a facility under Florida’s Baker Act. He stopped playing baseball and was sent away from his grandmother to a school for troubled youth, from which he ultimately graduated. The estate’s counsel called an expert economist, who calculated how much Letterman would have earned in his lifetime had he not passed away. He said that this loss of support and services award should be between $400,000 and $600,000. The defense counsel contended that National Truck Center had no liability for the tragic accident and that if the jury determined that the company was liable, the estate should receive a maximum of $1 million in damages. The defense argued that Tyler had moved on from his father’s death and had a fiancée and a good job. An expert clinical psychologist said that Tyler had already gotten through the worst of his grief. An expert economist said Tyler’s loss of support and services award should be limited, since Werner Letterman was not a significant wage earner and had no savings. The expert also noted that Tyler did not require much parental care from his father at the time of Letterman’s death. The expert stated that Tyler was 14, attending school, and very involved with baseball practice and games and was not spending much time with his father.

Result:

The jury found that the truck and tire were defective, that National Truck Center was the manufacturer of the pumper truck, and that it had put the tire on the market with a defect. It also found that National Truck Center was negligent and that this negligence caused Werner Letterman’s death. It found that Letterman was not negligent in his operation of the truck. The jury had initially ruled that National Truck Center was 100 percent liable and awarded Letterman’s estate $15,502,880. However, the defense attorneys protested that the jury found the tire was defective, yet National Truck Center had not made the defective tire. Judge Artau agreed that an appellate court might later determine that the verdict was inconsistent. He sent the jury back to deliberate as to the liability of the manufacturer of the tire, Shandong Linglong. The jury found National Truck Center 95 percent liable and Shandong Linglong 5 percent liable. Since Shandong was no longer a defendant, the verdict against National Truck Center was reduced to $14,727,736.

Estate of Werner K. Letterman: $500,000 Wrongful Death: Tyler Letterman’s loss of support and services; $15,000,000 Wrongful Death: Tyler Letterman’s pain, suffering and loss of parental companionship, instruction and guidance; $2,880 Wrongful Death: medical/funeral expenses

Actual Award:

$14,727,736

Trial Information:

Judge:

Edward Artau

Trial Length:

2
 weeks

Trial Deliberations:

2
 hours

Jury Vote:

6-0

Jury Composition:

3 male/ 3 female

Editor’s Comment:

This report is based on information that was provided by plaintiffs’ counsel. Additional information was gleaned from court documents. National Truck Center’s counsel did not respond to the reporter’s phone calls, and Tyre’s counsel was not asked to contribute.