Mobile Press Register

A federal court jury in Mobile ordered Michelin Tire Corp. to pay damages exceeding $5.16 million in the case of a Grand Bay man who suffered serious injuries when a tire exploded 4 1/2 years ago.

The lawsuit had been brought on behalf of Leonard Richards, who was mounting and inflating a Michelin tire on a wheel when the tire exploded. Richards suffered severe brain damage.

Richards, according to Mike Worel, one of the plaintiff's attorneys, was a 32-year-old general farmhand working for Driskell Farms in Grand Bay in 1987. He was mounting the tire on a farm trailer wheel.

Worel and Jim Yance, the two Mobile attorneys representing the victim's father, John Richards, on behalf of the victim, said the victim was mounting a 16-inch tire on a 16 1/2-inch wheel when the tire exploded.

The plaintiff's attorneys said that the victim has been living in a nursing home since the accident on May 15, 1987.

Worel and Yance said Michelin failed to put a warning on the tire telling Leonard Richards and others not to mount and inflate the 16-inch Michelin tire on a 16 1-2-inch wheel.

Worel told the jury in closing arguments, "There are millions of those (16-inch Michelin tires) out there. There are millions of those wheels." He said of Michelin, "It will happen again if something is not done to stop them."

Yance, in his closing arguments, told the jury that Ford Motor Company had asked the major tire manufacturers to put a warning on their 16-inch tires, warning people not to try and mount them on 16 1/2-inch wheels. He said all of the manufacturers but Michelin subsequently put warnings on the tires.

Yance told the jury Michelin has known about the problems involving the mismatch of 16-inch tires and 16 1/2-inch wheels since the 1970s. he said others have been injured by mismatching the Michelins.

Attorney William Hardie, representing Michelin, told the jurors, "The tire blew up solely because it was on the wrong size wheel." Hardie said, "There is not warning that could have told Leonard Richards that he had the wrong wheel."

Hardie said, "If there is somebody to blame here it's the people who made the wheel, the people who didn't train Leonard Richards and who didn't put up warning posters" at the work site.

The plaintiffs asked for $164,465 in past and future lost wages for Leonard Richards and $10 million for his pain and suffering, as well as $100 million in punitive damages.

The jury awarded $161,475 in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages.

The trial had begun two weeks ago before Senior U.S. District Judge Virgil Pittman.