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Iowa court upholds $32.8M Cooper tire case verdict

David Pitt, Associated Press

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- The Iowa Court of Appeals on Wednesday upheld a $32.8 million jury award against Cooper Tire and Rubber Co., affirming the verdict is in line with the evidence.

The case involves a 2007 rollover crash near Bondurant that killed Assata Karlar, 27, and paralyzed Ivon Toe, 42.

In a ruling published Wednesday, the court said the jury's damage award is in line with the evidence presented "and reveals no indication of improper passion or prejudice."

Court documents show there were seven people in the van when it crashed on U.S. Highway 65 northeast of Des Moines. They were employees of the Swift meatpacking plant in Marshalltown and carpooling to work. Attorney Fred James said passengers are refugees from Sudan who immigrated under the sponsorship of church organizations.

Court documents indicate the left rear tire manufactured by Cooper separated, causing the driver, Alfred Lang, to lose control of the van, which rolled several times. All but Lang were injured and Karlar died. The survivors sued Cooper claiming the tire was defectively designed and manufactured and that the company failed to warn of the tire's dangers.

In 2010, a Polk County jury concluded that Cooper Tire was at fault because its manufacturing design caused the van's left rear tire to lose tread. Jurors awarded the passengers $32.8 million, including $28.4 million for Toe, most of which was for future medical expenses such as 24-hour nursing care.

Cooper appealed the 2010 verdict, claiming some of the Polk County judge's rulings on evidence were wrong, including one that permitted evidence about failures of tires that were different from the one in the van accident.

The company also objected to jury instructions that said Cooper would be liable for defects caused by a nail in the tire; there was insufficient evidence to submit punitive damages; and future medical expenses for Toe were "flagrantly excessive" because they exceeded reasonable and necessary medical expenses.

In its decision, the appeals court wrote: "The jury tailored its verdict to the evidence, and we will not disturb it simply because it is larger than Cooper would like."

Cooper Tire spokeswoman Anne Roman said the company is "very disappointed and strongly disagree with the Court of Appeals decision today."

"Cooper Tire is currently exploring all available appellate options," she said.

James said he expects the company to appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court, which must be filed within 20 days.

Toe continues to live in an Indianola nursing home on a ventilator. James said the money awarded her will allow her to live at home and be closer to her family.

"It's very frustrating for her," he said. "She's isolated from her family and a large part of the verdict was for cost of future medical care ... We're one step closer to bringing this to a conclusion for Ivon Toe and her family and friends but it's not over yet."