Family of driver killed in crash awarded $15.5 million for dealership’s negligent sale
July 12, 2018
The estate of a plumber whose septic pump truck was involved in a fatal crash in 2013 was recently awarded more than $15.5 million in a lawsuit against National Truck Center, the business that modified and sold the truck. A jury agreed that the conversion of a tractor to a septic pump truck was akin to manufacturing a new vehicle and therefore was mostly responsible for the crash.
In May, a jury at the Circuit Court of the 15th Judicial Circuit in Palm Beach County, Fla., awarded Werner Letterman’s mother $15.5 million for Letterman’s fatal crash resulting from a tire blowout. Medical and funeral expenses were calculated at $2,880, loss of support for Letterman’s son at $500,000, and $15 million for all damages sustained by Letterman’s son.
National Truck Center was found to be 95 percent responsible, while the tire manufacturer, Shandong Linglong Tyre Co., was responsible for the remaining 5 percent. A total of eight defendants in the case had been named. The other six defendants were absolved of any responsibility.
Letterman v National Truck Center
The lawsuit filed in February 2015 is based around a truck that was sold to a company Letterman worked for. A truck, attorneys argued, that was negligently modified, including a defective tire.
In February 2007, National Truck Center purchased a 2001 Sterling AT9500 truck and installed a Shandong Linglong 385/65R22.5 tire on the right front wheel. The truck was repaired and altered so that its classification changed from “tractor” to “truck,” according to the complaint.
The lawsuit also alleges that the tire suffered from design and manufacturing defects, including insufficient rubber bonding, inadequate dimensions and insufficient inner liner thickness, among several other deficiencies.
Rudy’s Plumbing bought the modified truck in January 2008. The company would later be found not responsible as it was unknown to the owner that the truck was heavily modified. The truck would change ownership once again in December 2011 to Mr. Rooter, Letterman’s employer.
Despite the poor conditions of the right front tire, the truck passed a DOT inspection by Southeast Truck Services, another named defendant. The jury did not find Southeast Truck contributing to or responsible for the crash.
AJ Tires was hired in November 2012 to assess, service, and repair or replace tires on the truck. Although the left front Hercules 385/65R22.5 was replaced, the defective Shandong tire on the front right wheel remained on the truck.
On Dec. 27, 2013, Letterman was driving the truck on Interstate 95 northbound approximately 1.3 miles south of the 45th Street exit in Palm Beach County when the right front Shandong tire blew out. As a result, the truck lost control and collided with a tree. Letterman was pronounced dead at the scene. No signs of alcohol or drugs were found during an autopsy.
Attorneys for Letterman’s estate argued that National Truck Center should have known that using the Shandong tire on the right front wheel at the inflation pressure specified by Shandong would result in the tire being overloaded. Therefore, National Truck Center should be found negligent for not removing the tire.
All other parties who took part in the manufacturing, distribution, selling and maintenance of the tire were also accused of being negligent. However, the jury did not rule that they were responsible in the crash.
National Truck Center also was accused of essentially manufacturing an entirely new truck by modifying the original tractor into a pump truck. Manufacturing a new truck would hold National Truck Center responsible for strict liability. No sticker was placed on the truck warning that it had been modified or rebuilt.
The dealership denied wrongdoing, counterclaiming that Rudy’s Plumbing, Shandong and Southeast Truck Specialist were negligent in their actions and services.
After a three-year battle, a jury found National Truck Center to be 95 percent responsible for Letterman’s fatal crash, and responsible for $14.7 million on the award. Shandong was found responsible for the remaining 5 percent, and ordered the company to pay more than $775,000.