Fresno jury says Sears negligent, but awards no damages for bad tire

The Fresno BeeApril 9, 2014 

Brandon Horn

SPECIAL TO THE BEE

Sears was negligent in not warning a Fresno man about a bad tire, but the retail giant did not cause "substantial harm" resulting in a horrific freeway crash four years ago, a jury ruled Wednesday.

Brandon Horn, who suffered a severe head injury in the crash, was speechless when the verdict was announced. He sued Sears for more than $3.5 million for lost wages, medical bills and pain and suffering but got nothing from the verdict.

His attorney, Roger A. Dreyer, said the jury got it wrong.

"I'm very disappointed by this jury letting Sears walk after finding it was negligent," Dreyer said. "Giving Sears a pass is an unacceptable verdict. I plan to file a motion for new trial."

During the monthlong trial, Dreyer said Horn loved music, reading, writing, and drama, and had a job at a high-end north Fresno furniture store. But his life changed dramatically on June 11, 2010, when the left rear tire on his 2002 Volkswagen Jetta lost its tread, causing his car to flip off Highway 180 near Fowler Avenue east of Fresno. Horn, who was wearing a seat belt, suffered major head and spinal injuries after the Jetta rolled down an embankment and landed on its roof.

Dreyer argued that employees at Sears in the Manchester Shopping Center were negligent for not telling Horn to replace the left rear tire before it fell apart.

Horn went to Sears twice in 2009.

On Jan. 2, 2009, he bought two new tires for his Jetta and Sears workers put the new tires on the front axle, Dreyer said. At the time, the tire technician noted in his work order, which was shown to the jury, that the rear tires were "cupped," meaning the inner and outer edges of the tire tread were no longer smooth. Sears employees, however, only told Horn about worn tie rods, which he paid to replace, Dreyer said. They never mentioned that he should replace the worn rear tires, Dreyer said.

Horn returned to the Sears store on July 29, 2009, when the tread on the Jetta's right rear tire began to separate. A worker who had been on the job less than two months sold him one tire and never recommended replacing the other rear tire, Dreyer said.

Dreyer said Sears employees broke company policy when they failed to tell Horn to replace the worn left rear tire that was nearly six years old. Eleven months later, while Horn was traveling 65 mph on Highway 180, the tread of the left rear tire began to separate and Horn crashed, Dreyer said.

Attorney Kenneth C. Ward, who represented Sears, Roebuck & Co., said employees had no clue the left rear tire was worn out because "there was no outward sign that anything was wrong with it."

It wasn't until after the crash that an X-ray revealed the tire wasn't good, he said. In addition, the left rear tire wasn't a Sears tire, Ward told the jury.

Neither Ward nor the jurors could be reached after the verdict in Fresno County Superior Court Judge M. Bruce Smith's courtroom.

Horn worked at Williams-Sonoma, which sells luxury furniture and home decorations in the Fig Garden Shopping Center. He had to resign in October 2011 because his head and spinal injuries limit his mobility and his ability to focus, Dreyer said.

Horn, now 37, has chronic pain, headaches and mental fatigue. He also had several surgeries on his fractures in his spine, a large screw inserted near his neck, and had to learn how to walk again.

He was headed to Sequoia National Park to go camping with friends when he crashed. Others who were in his car, including his girlfriend, Jennifer Soria, settled their civil complaints before Horn's trial began. Soria is now married to Horn.

Dreyer asked the jury to award Horn more than $3.5 million in damages for lost wages, past and future medical bills and additional damages for the loss of his quality of life.

But Ward said in closing arguments that Horn could have prevented the crash if he had driven slower once the tire started to unravel. He also discounted Horn's traumatic brain injury, telling the jury that Horn was doing well in college, getting good grades and doing his homework.

The Sears attorney said Horn's treating physicians weren't doing him any favors by keeping him medicated daily on six drugs, including Lexapro and Oxycontin. Instead, Horn's doctors should be weaning him off the drugs and give him more physical therapy, Ward told the jury.


Note: Early versions of this story incorrectly specified where the fourth tire was purchased, based on statements made early in the trial. It's only clear that the fourth tire wasn't bought at Sears.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, plopez@fresnobee.com or @beecourts on Twitter.

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