At 9:00 p.m. on the Friday evening before Memorial Day Weekend, May 25, 2018, a Palm Beach County jury returned a $15.5 million verdict for 19-year-old Tyler Letterman, who tragically lost his single father when he was only 14 years old. Tyler’s grandmother, Susan Letterman, brought the wrongful death suit as the Personal Representative of the Estate of her son, Werner Letterman, who was only 41 years old at the time of his untimely death. Her lawsuit sounded in theories of product liability and negligence against National Truck Center, Inc., a Florida corporation based in Miami.
The firm’s trial team of Don Fountain, Jason Cornell, Hampton Keen and Julie Littky-Rubin convinced the jury that National Truck’s transformation of a six year old tractor with 600,000 miles on it into a sewage pumper truck with a 4,000 gallon tank, effectively created a “new” product. The plaintiff asserted that because the modifications had doubled the weight of the vehicle, that National Truck was subject to strict liability as the manufacturer.
These modifications made by National Truck, includingextending the truck’s frame by five and a half feet, moving the rear tandems back five feet, adding heavier front axle springs,and changing the steer axle rims and tires from stock 11R22.5 tires, to much wider 385/65 R22.5 tires, substantially changedthe steering system, due to the load when the truck’s sewage tank had fluid in it.
Then, when the Shandong Linglong tire (385/65 R22.5) blew out while the vehicle proceeded at 65 mph during rush hour traffic on I-95 on Friday, December 27, 2013, the vehicle was rendered uncontrollable, leaving the road and rolling over, and killing Tyler Letterman’s 41-year-old father.
The jury found that these changes were “substantial” enough to render the vehicle “new” for strict liability purposes. The jury agreed that National Truck was the “manufacturer,” when in assessed liability.
The jury learned that Werner Letterman was an unmarried single father, who was left with his baby son when the babywas less than a year old. Because Werner Letterman had been abandoned by his own father, his mother testified he was committed to being the best possible father he could be. Several witnesses testified about how Tyler was Mr. Letterman’s entire world, and, as Tyler himself explained at trial, on that day, he “lost his best friend, his father, his Mr. Mom.”
As Jane Musgrave, the Palm Beach Post reporter put it so well in her article after synthesizing the testimony that she heard during the trial,
“For 14 years, Tyler Letterman was bathed in the love of his gregarious single father. They went fishing. Shared household chores. Had pizza nights with neighborhood kids. When Tyler embraced baseball, his father forgot all about his own preference for football. Werner Letterman signed up as a coach for his son’s teams in suburban Lake Worth. When others marveled at Tyler’s natural talents, Werner hired a pitching coach to help his son hone his skills. Tyler, they both believed, was headed to the majors. Those big league dreams exploded two days after Christmas in 2013.”
While the jury originally assessed 100% of the responsibility against National Truck, the Judge perceived an inconsistency in the verdict (despite the trial judge having ruled over plaintiff’s objection to keep a number of non-parties on the verdict form as Fabre defendants).
After being sent back to the jury room, the jury reduced its original 100% responsibility apportioned against National Truck, down to 95%, and apportioned 5% to the settling tire manufacturer defendant, Shandong Linglong Tyre Co., Ltd.