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Jury Award Ends Domino's 30-Minute Delivery Pledge

December 22, 1993|BRUCE HOROVITZ and ELAINE TASSY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The concept of time saved--perhaps one of the most precious commodities of American culture today--has become a marketing ploy used by everyone from airlines to pizza makers. Now it has come back to haunt one of the companies most closely linked with it.

Domino's Pizza, the nation's No. 1 pizza delivery chain--which built its reputation on a 30-minute guarantee--scrapped its quick-delivery promise Tuesday. The move was prompted by a jury award last week of nearly $79 million to a St. Louis woman who suffered severe spinal and head injuries in 1989 when a Domino's delivery driver ran a red light and hit her car broadside.

In Orange County, drivers and managers at several pizza restaurants, including a Domino's in Costa Mesa, applauded the company's decision.

While speeding pizza delivery drivers have not been much of a problem in the county, two Fullerton children were killed on Halloween when a driver for an independent pizzeria hit them as the were walking in a poorly lit crosswalk.

Everyone from U.S. presidents to college students pulling all-nighters has come to expect pizzas delivered in 30 minutes--or less. But given the potentially horrible consequences, companies may now have to rethink that approach.

"People all think they need to do much more in less time," said Carol Moog, a Bala Cynwyd, Pa.-based advertising psychologist. "But no one can control time--not even Domino's."

Several Orange County pizza delivery drivers, however, said they have not experienced a wholesale demand for 30-minute delivery or else.

"Every once in a while a customer calls in because I took more than 30 minutes," said Phu Nguyen, a driver for the Pizza Hut delivery store on Tustin Avenue in Orange. "But we explain that we don't guarantee 30-minute delivery and that we think safety is more important, and most people understand that."

David Flores, 29, a former Marine and a Domino's driver in Costa Mesa for the last two years, said that only "about 5% of my customers ever mentioned the (30-minute) guarantee. As long as it's hot and doesn't take too much time, most people are happy."

Flores said the Domino's policy of firing drivers for getting just one moving traffic violation while on the job has kept things from getting too hectic at his store.

Other pizza store operators, however, say the Domino's guarantee has put pressure on at least that chain's store operators and drivers.

Dropping the guarantee "is a good decision," said Ron Kay, owner of the Round Table Pizza restaurant on 17th Street in Santa Ana. "We haven't felt any (competitive) pressure because we always tell our customers when we take their orders that we don't guarantee a delivery time, but now there won't be the pressure on Domino's people."

It was not the first time that the Domino's pizza chain, which has 5,200 outlets, has been sued for auto accidents or faced costly judgments because of its delivery policy.

Last May, Domino's agreed to pay $2.8 million to the family of an Indiana woman killed by a pizza driver accused of speeding in a truck to keep the company's delivery promise. Delivery Service Negligence Group, an association of attorneys who handle cases involving accident injuries, says Domino's drivers have been involved in many of its cases.

And Domino's is not the only pizza deliverer to be involved in such accidents. This past Halloween, a delivery driver for an independent pizzeria struck and killed two 9-year-old cousins who were out trick-or-treating in Orange County.

Thomas S. Monaghan, president of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Domino's, acknowledged Tuesday that the decision to eliminate the 30-minute guarantee was influenced by the St. Louis jury award, which the company plans to appeal.

"That was certainly the thing that put us over the edge," Monaghan said. But he defended the company's safety record, saying that "we are the safest delivery company in the world." All delivery personnel are required to take defensive driving classes, he said.

The jury last week awarded Jean Kinder, the woman who was hurt in the 1989 accident, $750,000 in actual damages and $78 million in punitive damages. An attorney representing Kinder offered cautious praise for Domino's announcement on Tuesday.

"We are pleased that Domino's has heeded the message the jury was sending when they spoke as the conscience of the community," said Paul E. Kovacs of the Missouri law firm Brinker, Doyen & Kovacs. "We only wish it had happened long before our client was injured."

The announcement sent some Domino's affiliates scrambling Tuesday.

"We are trying to draft something right now to put on each of our pizza boxes," said Rick Swisher, president of L.A. Pizza Inc., which operates 13 Domino's in the Los Angeles area. On the inside flap, the pizza boxes now say "Guaranteed: 30-minute delivery and product satisfaction. Call store for details."

Domino's introduced the delivered pizza more than 30 years ago. It added the 30-minute guarantee in 1984.

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