Missouri Jury Awards $105M in Exploding Tire Rim Case

Documents show that Bridgestone/Firestone knew about defects and prior accidents

A jury awarded $105 million to a man who was seriously injured when a multi-piece wheel explosively separated while he was airing up a tire. This caused the rim to strike his face with such force that it could have lifted a 3000-pound car 15 feet off the ground.

The verdict was the culmination of a thorough investigation involving careful review of both federal safety records and the discovery produced in a separate multidistrict litigation matter.

“Before we filed suit, we launched an extensive investigation into the safety history of the RH5 multipiece wheel assembly made by Firestone,” Simon explained. “What we found was a defective product with a decades-long history of accidents accompanied by internal corporate warnings that identified the safety dangers.”

Multipiece Wheel Assembly

In 1991, while working for Tri Star Tire Co., Randy Dorman began inflating a Firestone-made RH5 multipiece truck wheel assembly. The wheel explosively separated, sending a 15-pound side ring flying into his face.

Dorman, 32, sustained extensive injuries in the accident: a fractured cheekbone, a broken jaw and mandible, fractured left and right arms, and a shattered right wrist. He required 26 surgeries, including amputation of the middle finger of his right hand, and lost the use of most of his right arm and hand.

Side Ring Defect Timeline

Firestone began mass-producing the side ring in 1948, and documents reveal that company engineers were aware of explosive separations as early as 1950. A timeline prepared by the plaintiff’s attorneys, which was ultimately shown to the jury, demonstrates:

  • A patent application for a single-piece rim, filed in 1953, contained a statement from a Firestone engineer indicating that one of the advantages of the product was that it did not carry a risk of side ring explosion.
  • In 1955, a Firestone advertisement promoting the single-piece rim touted the fact that there was no chance that a side ring would blow off.
  • A 1960 memo written by Firestone’s engineers singled out the safety advantages of a single-rim assembly.
  • In 1971, a Firestone engineer recommended increasing the price of side rings to cover the costs of product-related lawsuits and claims.
  • In 1972, a Firestone engineer identified the RH5 multipiece rim as the most dangerous in the industry.
  • An internal Firestone memo dated 1973 indicated that the RH5 was being phased out for safety reasons.

Exploding Tire Rim Accidents

In addition to the internal memos, Simon explained, the early investigation helped the plaintiff’s legal team uncover 360 prior incidents involving the multipiece truck wheel assembly. Using this information, the lawyers were able to categorize each incident by date, whether the explosive separation had occurred with the wheel on or off the axle, whether any safety devices had been used and the manner of the separation

Defense Arguments Refuted

Firestone claimed that Dorman was at fault for the accident because he did not use a safety cage to inflate the tire. However, Simon noted, the argument was refuted by the plaintiff in several ways.

Dr. Alan Milner, a metallurgist and expert in problems associated with the RH5 multipiece wheel, testified on behalf of the plaintiff. Simon notes that Milner had been involved in about 25 cases involving exploding tire rims. Milner testified that safety cages weren’t often used because the manufacturer had failed to warn the public that the multipiece truck assembly was dangerous.

A 1952 Firestone-produced instructional film, “The Right Way Is the Easy Way,” showed how the side ring should be serviced. It did not involve the use of a safety cage. Dorman had followed the example given in the movie.

Damage Calculations

The plaintiff’s team’s trial strategy during the damages portion of the trial centered on three parts: actual damages, Firestone’s side ring costs, and the amount that would serve as a deterrent in the future.

Dorman’s past medical bills amounted to approximately $235,000, Simon explains, and his future lost earnings were approximately $700,000.

It cost Firestone $2.70 to make each side ring, and the company sold approximately 20 million of them. Simon recalls that the jury was asked to multiply $2.50 by 20 million and award Dorman $50 million.

Then, to deter similar behavior in the future, the plaintiff asked for another $50 million in punitive damages.

After three hours of deliberation, the jury awarded Dorman $105 million.

For any questions contact John G. Simon.