Mobile Press Register

On July 31, 1980, 29-year-old Alan Whatley was involved in a one-vehicle accident in Escambia County, Ala., which left him permanently paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair.

In June of this year, a Mobile County Circuit Court jury awarded Whatley and his wife Nora Whatley, $5 million in damages as a result of a lawsuit Whatley filed against Ford Motor Co.

Citing the damages in the case to be "devastating and among the worst this court has ever seen," Judge Michael Zoghby denied a motion filed by Ford's lawyers for a new trial. Ford's attorneys are preparing an appeal of the case to the Alabama Supreme Court.

Whatley's attorneys claim the decision was landmark and one that could affect the use of multi-piece wheels on vehicles. "Five million dollars gets their attention," said Buddy Brown, one of the Whatley's two attorneys.

The issue in court was the safety of the multi-piece wheel on the 1979 Ford Truck which Whatley was driving. The multipiece rim is an assemble consisting of a base and either a side ring or a side and lock ring, depending on the type.

Firestone is the maker of the tire, but was removed as a defendant in the suit.

Attorneys for Whatley claim the truck was sold with "unreasonably dangerous multi-piece wheels." They said this particular type of multipiece rim, if underinflated, can disassemble on the road, which is what they claim happened in the Whatley case.

Ford's attorney said he presented documents which showed there were "no road accidents involving" this particular type of multi-piece rims and that the major hazard is to shop workers and not on the road.

Zoghby agreed with Whatley's attorneys. "There was clear and convincing evidence the multipitce wheel was unreasonable dangerous and that it was the proximate cause of injuries," stated Zoghby's order.

Whatley's attorneys presented a deluge of studies and written material on the multi-piece wheels.

"Ford didn't tell the consumer if the tire loses pressure it can explode. Nowhere in any manuals published b Ford did it mention that 80 percent of must be adhered to in the inflation of wheels," Brown said.

Whatleys attorneys feel that as a result of the large verdict, Ford should reconsider using multi-piece wheels.

"There is no reason to make this kind of wheel except for economic purposes. There have been singlepiece wheels on the market since 1955 and they're are just as functional and there have been no injuries in singlepiece rims," said John Crowder, Whatley's attorney.

Brown said he presented in court a study done by Occupational Safety Health Administration which showed "hundreds of people were either seriously injured or killed as a result of the multi-piece wheels."

Whatleys attorneys said Firestone's Rim/Wheel Safety & Service Manual gave a safety warning regarding air pressure in an inflated tire, but there was no warning in the owners manual for truck drivers.

"A field reference rim manual on the mult-ipiece rims/wheels distributed by Firestone said when the tire has bee driven at 80 percent or less of recommended pressure, tires shall be completely deflated before even removing them from the vehicle," said Brown.

An Insurance Institute for Highway Safety report in September 1980 cited that deaths and injuries caused by exploding multi-piece rims continue to mount, stated Brown.

Maintaining the hazards of the wheels were to shop people who work on the tires, Ford's attorney, Michael Knight, said, "We contended they were not dangerous."

Knight said in January 1980 OSHA did a survey on multi-piece rims, which showed there had been injuries and deaths, but not related to the particular type of multipiece rim involved in the Whatley case.

"There was never a single reference to an injury or death involving a rim in this case," he added.

He added that OSHA considered banning that particular type of wheel, but decided instead to "provide greater and thorough education" in the shop maintenance of multi-piece rims.

"Everybody agreed the way to reduce accidents is to institute thorough education program and show how to work with these things," he said.

Knight maintains that if the wheels were dangerous they would have been taken off the road.

He agreed there were "some cautions in the Firestone literature about underinflation of the tire, but most witnesses said that had to do with tire damage and nothing to do with the accident."

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