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Molino v. B.F. Goodrich Co.

Decided: December 18, 1992.


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Morris County.

Shebell, A.m. Stein, and Conley. The opinion of the court was delivered by Shebell, J.A.D.


[261 NJSuper Page 89] Plaintiffs, Bruce Molino, and his wife, Nerina Molino, appeal from the Law Division's dismissal of their suit against defendant, Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Company (Uniroyal), for injuries Mr. Molino suffered when a tire and rim assembly exploded on

June 19, 1987, while he was handling an inflated Goodrich tire that was mounted on a multi-piece rim manufactured by Firestone Tire & Rubber Company (Firestone). We reverse and remand.

Plaintiffs sued Uniroyal as the manufacturer of the tire; Firestone; Ford Motor Company, the manufacturer of the truck; the tire company which may have mounted the spare tire onto the rim assembly sometime prior to the accident; and other defendants including the garage where Molino suffered his injuries. Certain defendants, including Ford Motor Company, were granted summary judgments before trial. Before jury selection, the Judge granted Uniroyal's motion in limine to exclude evidence of warnings on tires manufactured after 1973, the date the tire in this case was manufactured. On the second day of trial, a settlement agreement was reached between plaintiffs and all remaining parties except for Uniroyal.

The trial continued against Uniroyal. Mrs. Molino testified that she had to constantly supervise her husband due to the fact that he suffered serious head injuries and brain damage from the accident. Molino took the stand but had no recollection of the events leading to the accident. Medical testimony revealed that his condition was unlikely to change.

On the liability issue, plaintiffs introduced expert testimony from Loren Forney. Forney outlined his extensive knowledge about tires and rim assemblies and testified that a warning should have been placed on the tire. The court, however, determined that Forney could offer no testimony concerning the language or adequacy of any warning because he admittedly had no background in ergonomics. Therefore, Uniroyal moved for a directed verdict and involuntary dismissal. The trial Judge granted the motion and this appeal followed.

Molino operated a landscaping and paving business from his home in Chatham. He purchased a used 1967 Ford dump truck with dual rear wheels for the business. The events leading to the accident are sketchy because of Molino's lack of memory.

It appears that on June 19, 1987, he drove the dump truck to Hickory Tree Garage to change a flat tire on the right rear of the truck. The spare tire, already mounted onto the rim assembly, was in the back of the dump truck when Molino arrived at Hickory Tree Garage.

The spare tire, a Goodrich 12 ply Silvertown Rib Logger, size 10.00-20, was approximately "chest" high. It was mounted on a Firestone "R" type multi-piece rim, manufactured in the 1930s. Three parts were involved in the rim assembly. The major part was the removable base rim. The remaining parts were the side ring and the lock ring which secure the rim assembly to the tire after the tire is put in place. Only after these parts are "locked in place" is air to be put "in the assembly." Uniroyal did not manufacture such rim assemblies. Molino suffered serious head injuries and the loss of an eye when the tire and rim assembly exploded after he attempted to affix the already inflated tire to the truck.

Both the tire and the rim assembly were admitted into evidence at trial. Plaintiffs' expert testified that nothing was wrong with the tire but that the fifty-five to sixty-year-old rim assembly was "[badly] rusted, corroded," the rivets were gone, and a piece of the lock ring was missing. Forney testified that the tire contained no warnings or instructions "to people who are using these parts." Although he was not permitted to testify about what an adequate warning should have stated, he did indicate that a warning should have been on all parts of the assembly, including the tire. The warning should have, according to Forney's testimony, contained language that the tire be secured or fastened to the truck before inflation, that persons should stand some distance away, that the tire should not be replaced if the rim assembly was broken or corroded, and that only specially-trained persons should mount these tires.

Forney also testified that if the wheel assembly was secured, it could not cause injury in the event of explosion because the wheel is not going to go anywhere since it's secured to the

truck, and because the rings would be on the inside, away from the person installing the tire. Forney stated that in his opinion, based on a reasonable degree of engineering and scientific probability, if an adequate warning were on the tire, it probably would have prevented the accident.

In dismissing plaintiffs' case, the trial Judge stated:

It's my Conclusion of other analyses that I made in reading these authorities, the briefs, the facts as I understand them in this case which are undisputed so far, that this is not a type of case where an issue of warning should be referred to the jury absent some competent expert testimony as to what that warning should have been, what its result would have been and how it would have prevented this incident from occurring.

Secondly, I don't find that there is a need to have the defendant tire company Goodrich warn about a possible defect in the rim furnished by Firestone and that's in connection with the case I just cited. I feel that there should have been something more in the nature of ergonomics in order to demonstrate how such a warning would have prevented this accident and what the outcome would have been whatever that warning would be. [Emphasis added].

Plaintiffs maintain that the trial court erred in holding that Uniroyal had no duty to warn of potential dangers associated with the multi-piece rim assembly because the danger evolves from the "entire pressured assembly and not in the individual parts." Furthermore, plaintiffs contend that considering the surface area, the tire provided the best location for the warning. Uniroyal alleges that liability can only be imposed on a manufacturer if a defect in its own product causes harm, and plaintiffs' own expert testified that the tire could be used safely and was not defective.

New Jersey's Product Liability Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:58C-2, provides:

A manufacturer or seller of a product shall be liable in a product liability action only if the claimant proves by a preponderance of the evidence that the product causing the harm was not reasonably fit, suitable or safe for its intended purpose because it : a. deviated from the design specifications, formulae, or performance standards of the manufacturer or from otherwise identical units manufactured to the same manufacturing specifications or formulae, or b. failed to contain adequate warnings or instructions, or c. was designed in a defective manner. [ N.J.S.A. 2A:58C-2 (emphasis added)].

Our Supreme Court has held: "Under New Jersey law a manufacturer is strictly liable for damages resulting from use of its products when the manufacturer fails to produce and distribute a product that is fit, suitable, and safe for its foreseeable purposes." Feldman v. Lederle Laboratories, 125 N.J. 117, 144, 592 A.2d 1176 (1991), cert. denied, U.S. , 112 S. Ct. 3027, 120 L. Ed.2d 898 (1992) (Feldman II). If a product contains an inadequate warning or fails to warn altogether, it may be unsafe. Ibid. In addition, when a manufacturer fails to include a warning on a product, but subsequently learns of dangers associated with the product, the manufacturer has a duty to warn of the dangers "as soon as reasonably feasible." Feldman v. Lederle Laboratories, 97 N.J. 429, 456, 479 A.2d 374 (1984) (Feldman I). The goal of warnings is that "the risk from the product be reduced to the greatest extent possible without hindering its utility." Beshada v. Johns-Manville Products Corp., 90 N.J. 191, 201, 447 A.2d 539 (1982).

Here, the tire manufactured by Uniroyal contained no warning. Although the rim assembly to which the tire attached was not itself the product of Uniroyal and was never in its possession or control, this particular tire was made to be used with a multi-piece rim assembly. Forney, plaintiffs' expert, testified that when the tire was manufactured in 1973, the industry "knew they were having problems with the multi-piece rims." Forney established that all of the parts of the assembly were necessarily involved with the explosion even though the tire itself was not physically defective. He asserted: "It takes the whole assembly for this to happen."

The trial Judge erred in ruling as a matter of law that Uniroyal had no duty to warn of potential dangers involved with the rim assembly unit. We find nothing in the Products Liability Act to support the trial Judge's ruling. N.J.S.A. 2A:58C-1 to -7. We stress that the underlying policy justification of strict liability is the promotion of safety.

In Michalko v. Cooke Color & Chem. Corp., 91 N.J. 386, 451 A.2d 179 (1982), the Supreme Court held that it was incorrect for a trial Judge to relieve the defendant of liability because another manufacturer was expected to place a safety device on the product. The Michalko Court stated:

The general rule is that the manufacturer of a component part of a product may be held strictly liable for injuries caused by a defect in that part if the particular part did not undergo substantial change after leaving the manufacturer's hands. [ Id. at 399].

Here, even though the tire was separate from the rim assembly, the pieces were by design required to be used together. The evidence appears to support plaintiffs' contention that the tire manufactured by Uniroyal was part of the system involved with the multi-piece rim assembly unit. The issue should not have been decided as a matter of law as the court was required to consider the evidence and all legitimate inferences in plaintiffs' favor. R. 4:37-2(b); Dolson v. Anastasia, 55 N.J. 2, 5, 258 A.2d 706 (1969). The jury should have been given the opportunity to consider whether it would accept Forney's testimony as credible and reasonable. If convinced that Uniroyal should have foreseen or actually knew of the dangers involved with the rim assemblies used with its product, the jury would then consider Uniroyal's duty to provide an adequate warning of hidden dangers to reasonably foreseeable users, unless the danger was so obvious that such users would know of it. See Height v. Kawasaki Heavy Indus., Ltd., 190 N.J. Super. 7, 461 A.2d 757 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 94 N.J. 615, 468 A.2d 244 (1983).

Plaintiffs also argue that the trial Judge abused his discretion by refusing to allow plaintiffs' expert to testify about the contents of an adequate warning and how this should be conveyed. The plaintiffs assert that the Judge's ruling granting Uniroyal's motion for a directed verdict was a result of the Judge's belief that proximate causation issues should not be submitted to the jury without expert testimony regarding the

relationship between the absence of a warning on the tire and the injury suffered by plaintiff.

In Shatz v. TEC Technical Adhesives, 174 N.J. Super. 135, 415 A.2d 1188 (App.Div.1980), a general contractor's employee bought a product called TEC 21F, which contained flammable material. A fire occurred when the product was used in a room without ventilation. Id. at 139, 415 A.2d 1188. A label warned of the dangers of the product. Id. at 140, 415 A.2d 1188. Plaintiffs attempted to offer the testimony of an expert about the alleged ...

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