TIRE REPAIR LAWSUIT SETTLED
May 29, 2003
Bay Minette - Press Register
By Brendan Kirby
Makers of Fix-a-Flat strikes confidential deal with widow whose husband was killed by an explosion
Moments before a jury was to report its verdict, a Baldwin County widow settled her lawsuit against the makers of a popular tire-repair product she blamed for a 1997 explosion that killed her husband.
The 12-member jury had deliberated a little less than four hours and was about to announce its decision when lawyers for both sides struck a deal. Attorneys said a confidentiality agreement prevents them from disclosing details of the settlement.
"We're happy with the result," said Joseph "Buddy" Brown, one of the attorneys for plaintiff Pamela Daniel. "And we're pleased Mrs. Daniel could have her day in court."
Brown, along with Allan Chason, a Bay Minette lawyer who represented Snap Products and its CEO, Sam McInnis, said they had discussed the possibility of a settlement throughout the three-week trial in Baldwin County Circuit Court.
"We were happy we were able to bring it to a conclusion that satisfies everyone," Chason said.
In closing arguments Tuesday, plaintiffs' lawyers had asked jurors for a $31 million verdict to punish the defendants for the death of Joe Ed Daniel at a former Loxley race track.
Daniel was welding the rim of a motor-grader on June 4, 1997, when a tire on the vehicle that had been repaired with Fix-a-Flat exploded, decapitating him, according to testimony.
The legal battle, which reached trial five years after Pamela Daniel filed the lawsuit, featured high-priced litigators from Mobile and Baldwin counties, as well as Atlanta and Denver. Several of the attorneys said the case was the biggest they have ever tried.
Throughout the trial, Daniel's lawyers contended that Snap officials kept deceptive labeling on Fix-a-Flat cans, despite mounting evidence that the propellant used in the product during the mid-1990s was highly explosive.
They introduced internal Snap documents, showing that the company faced a potentially devastating problem when the federal government banned the propellant used in the Fix-a-Flat formula in the early 1990s.
A five-page, handwritten memo from McInnis laid out three options:
Discontinue the product, which accounted for about half of the company's sales.
Switch to a nonexplosive, nonflammable propellant that would increase production costs from 95 cents per can to $1.95 per can.
Switch to a dimethyl ether propellant that actually would cut the company's production costs.
In a presentation to Snap's board of directors, McInnis concluded that the third choice was the only viable option.
According to testimony, numerous tests revealed that dimethyl ether, or DME, was explosive but the company did not change the formula until Pennzoil bought it in 1997 and issued a recall.
Defense lawyers suggested that about a half-dozen defendants who settled before the trial began shared responsibility for Daniel's death.
They also hung their hopes on a warning sticker that Snap added to Fix-a-Flat cans several months before Daniel's death. It read: "Danger; Never weld on a rim! See back panel."
Lead defense attorney Earl W. "Billy" Gunn argued that Daniel ignored those instructions, leading to the fatal explosion.
But Circuit Judge J. Lang Floyd instructed jurors that they could not consider defense arguments that Daniel's behavior contributed to the accident.
What's more, the plaintiff's lawyers argued that the warning sticker Snap belatedly added to the Fix-a-Flat cans was inadequate.
"It's so microscopic, I can't read it now without my glasses on," he said.