LOS ANGELES – A lawyer for a family that lost its patriarch in a rollover crash in 2012 urged a jury Tuesday to find Wal-Mart Stores Inc. liable for the Lancaster man’s death, arguing employees should have recommended the replacement of a 20-year-old spare tire on a Jeep that failed during a belated Father’s Day trip.
“They don’t want pity, they want full justice, they want full compensation,” Adam Shea said during closing arguments in the trial of a negligence suit brought by the widow and two children of 55-year-old William Akins in Los Angeles Superior Court in May 2013.
But lawyer David Tarlow, representing Wal-Mart Stores, said that government and tire industry representatives generally agree that tires need not be replaced based on age alone. Tarlow said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Rubber Manufacturers Association Inc. and many tire and automobile manufacturers — including Goodyear, which made the tire that blew out on the Jeep — concluded that a tire’s service life should not depend on the year it was made.
Tarlow defended the company’s decision to not have a formal policy of recommending tire replacements after a specified number of years, even though implementing one could have allowed them to sell more tires.
“They sat and they considered what all the experts were telling them,” Tarlow said.
Shea disputed Tarlow’s argument.
“Wal-Mart can’t duck responsibility because some other retailer wasn’t doing something,” Shea said.
Shea also said that the NHTSA issued a statement that a tire’s age can be accelerated by heat and light as well as a separate assertion that 400 deaths occur annually due to some type of tire failure.
Some retailers such as Discount Tire have a policy of suggesting new tires after 10 years, while others said replacements should be made after six years, Shea said.
William Akins was killed when his son, Daniel, lost control of a 1990 Jeep Cherokee after a tire blowout on state Highway 58, about 68 miles from their home. The two were headed on a Father’s Day camping trip to Kings Canyon National Park on July 24, 2012.
Shea said Daniel Akins had no hope of keeping the Jeep under control after the tread separated from the left rear tire.
“This all happened in a matter of several seconds,” Shea said. “This wasn’t a professional driver going out on a test range.”
Shea represents Daniel Akins, 27, of Portland, Oregon, as well as the man’s mother, 61-year-old Diann, and sister, 31-year-old Esther Pollnow of Reeseville, Wisconsin.
According to Shea, Daniel Akins’ parents, who had given him the Jeep after his mother drove it for years, bought him new tires for Christmas at a Walmart store in Lancaster on Dec. 22, 2009. Diann Akins made the purchase and told two employees to keep the best of the tires being replaced as the spare, Shea said.
Shea said the spare tire in the Akins Jeep was wrapped in vinyl and kept in an upright position in the vehicle’s cargo area. He said the tire was never used before Daniel Akins placed it on the left wheel after he noticed the regular tire was losing air.
The tire appeared to Daniel Akins to be in good condition and the family believed employees at the Walmart store had followed Diann Akins’ request that the best tire be kept as the spare, Shea said. The family had bought one new tire in 2008 at the same Walmart store that could have been saved as the spare, Shea said.
Wal-Mart knew of many discussions in the industry about the potential failures of older tires, including a 2008 report by ABC’s “20/20” that research and tests showed that as tires age, they begin to dry out and become potentially dangerous, he said.
However, the company’s employees like those at the Lancaster store were not trained to inspect aging spare tires and make recommendations to consumers that they be replaced, even though every tire has a coded manufacture date that an employee can determine in seconds, Shea said.
“Your verdict will tell Wal-Mart that tire age does matter,” Shea said. “Your verdict will show that the life of Bill Akins does matter.”
Shea played for jurors an internal Wal-Mart video in which former tire and lube operations director Jay King said the company has a responsibility for customer safety and that it was not something that should be taken lightly.
But Tarlow said the video clips jurors were shown of the “20/20” report were “cherry-picked” and that they were not shown the rebuttal by a Rubber Manufacturers Association representative disputing that the age of a tire was as important as some suggested. He told jurors that one of the plaintiffs’ experts was fired from Goodyear and admitted he never recommended to the tire company that they adopt a policy regarding the service life of tires.
Shea said Goodyear also was sued by the Akins family, but that the company is no longer a defendant in the case.
Previous related story: Walmart sued in death of Lancaster man