By Brendan Kirby
A lawsuit scheduled to go to trial Monday accuses a Houston firm of mislabeling a tire-fixing product that company officials knew was explosive - a misdeed the plaintiff's lawyers contend led to the death of a Silverhill man six years ago.
The suit, filed in Baldwin County Circuit Court by Joe Ed Daniel's widow, promises to be one of the biggest product liability cases in the county's history. Lawyers said they expect the trial to last at least three weeks.
"We're going to be dropping bombs all over this courthouse," said Joseph "Buddy" Brown, a partner in the well-known Mobile firm of Cunningham, Bounds, Yance, Crowder & Brown.
The suit seeks punitive damages but does name a dollar amount sought.
Daniel, 42, was performing minor repair work on a motor grader on June 4, 1997, when an explosion decapitated him, according to news accounts at the time. The lawsuit, filed the following year, alleges that a spark ignited a tire inflator called Fix-a-Flat that had been used on one of the motor grader's tires about two weeks earlier.
Brown said Daniel, a farm equipment repairman, was performing work as a favor to the owner of L.A. Raceway, a former dirt track race course south of Loxley.
Brown said Fix-a-Flat was "dangerously and deceptively mislabeled" as non-explosive. The lawsuit accuses Snap Products and its corporate officers of keeping the erroneous label even after three previous accidents involving Fix-a-Flat explosions and testing that showed it be highly flammable.
"Without any question whatsoever, this company knew of the explosiveness of their product," Brown said in a recent interview. "Their testing had demonstrated the highly explosive nature of Fix-a-Flat."
In addition to Snap Products, the suit names several other defendants. They include Sam McInnis, the company's CEO; Aerofil Technology, the product's manufacturer; and Safety Consultants Engineers, a Park Ridge, Ill. firm that the suit accuses of falsifying results of product test.
Lawyers for the defendants expressed reluctance to comment just days before the trial begins.
"We don't agree with the allegations in the complaint, but that's about all I can say," said Mobile lawyer Charles Fleming, who represents Safety Consultants Engineers.
Allan Chason, a Bay Minette lawyer who represents McInnis and Snap Products, said, "We'll just put on our case in the courtroom."
The plaintiffs have lined up a powerful array of lawyers. In addition to Cunningham Bounds, attorneys representing Pamela Daniel include Wilkins, Bankester, Biles & Wynne - one of Baldwin County's top firms - and Denver lawyer Thomas Dolven, who has sued Snap Products before.
The lawsuit alleges that after flammability concerns were raised one of Snap Products' predecessor companies, based in Durham, N.C., stopped marketing a version of Fix-a-Flat that used propane and butane propellants in 1990.
The firm switched to a nonflammable propellant, but Congress banned the use of that chemical and other ozone-depleting agents with the Clean Air Act, and the company had to switch again at the end of 1993.
The suit alleges that Snap officials rejected a safer alternative because of its cost and instead decided to use a propellant called dimethyl ether.
"The company elected to go to a propellant system that was even more hazardous, more explosive and more energetic than the butanpropane system that they had had in the late '80s," Brown said.
What's more, the suit alleges, Snap officials did not warn customers about the volatility of the new version of its product and, in fact, retained the "non-explosive" label.
Company officials maintained the label in order to maintain market share because officials did not want to jeopardize a planned sale of the company to another firm, the suit alleges.
The suit contends that explosions resulted in serious injuries to a Denver man in 1995, an Arizona man in April 1996 and a Minnesota man in October 1996. All three accidents occurred before the explosion that claimed Daniel's life in 1997.
"It's a damnable event that took place, and the facts, once they are known, should not be countenanced by anyone," Brown said.
Penzoil-Quaker State Co. which ultimately bought Fix-a-Flat, recalled the product in 1999 and replaced it with a nonflammable product, according to a news story. That company was named as a defendant in the Baldwin case but later was dismissed.
Fix-a-Flat is not the only tire inflation product to come under the scrutiny of the courts. In 2001, a Texas jury awarded $80 million to a couple injured by a similar product, called Patch-a-Flat. That product used an accelerant of propane and butane, according to a story published by the San Antonio Express-News.