NTSB to Release Long-Awaited Tire Safety Recommendations

In February 2014, there were two tragic, fatal, and high-profile tire crashes on U.S. highways that might very well constitute a tipping point for tire safety.

One involved an 11-year-old Michelin Cross Terrain tread separation on a 2004 Kia Sorrento that led to a crash into a school bus carrying 34 members of a Louisiana high school baseball team in Centerville, La. Four of the Kia occupants died, and the fifth was severely injured. Thirty of the bus passengers suffered injuries.

Federal Appeals Court Upholds Goodyear Sanctions

The Safety Record Blog has been most pleased to inform our readership, from time to time, of the skullduggery emanating from the corporate offices of the Goodyear Rubber Company. Goodyear has made quite name for itself as champion discovery hardball player – years-long production delays, withholding relevant documents, offering less-than-truthful testimony from corporate reps and lying repeatedly right to the judge’s face about the evidence in its possession.

Haeger High-Stakes Poker

So, if you bluff your way out of handing over legitimate discovery after the case settles, do you really owe the plaintiff’s attorney $2.6 million? That’s the story Goodyear may be telling in its appeal of a November sanctions order in the Arizona G-159 tire tragedy otherwise known as Haeger v. Goodyear, now in its eighth year of litigation.

When we last left the case, attorney David L. Kurtz, who represented Leroy and Donna Haeger, sought damages from Goodyear on a separate but parallel track (see The Wages of Fraud). In June he filed a seven-count, 153-page lawsuit, in Arizona State Superior Court, seeking punitive damages via a jury trial for five years of delay and deception in the original product liability action. But the history of Goodyear, the G159, and the Haeger case is so long and sad, we’re going to start from the beginning.

In June 2003, Leroy and Donna Haeger, along with their passengers, Barry and Suzanne Haeger, were seriously injured when the right front G159 tire on their Spartan Gulf Stream Coach RV failed, causing a rollover. The G159 and a Class A motorhome had a lousy marriage; the tire design was prone to overheat on RVs that typically travel at greater than 65- mph speeds for extended periods. Goodyear knew that from its internal testing – but, loathe to miss a market-share – it promoted the match successfully in the 1990s and 2000. Eventually, though, the G159 and RVs produced numerous lawsuits when the tires failed, injuring and killing motorhome occupants. The Haegers were among them, and in 2005 they filed suit. The action was torturous, with more than 1,000 pleadings. Kurtz had asked for all internal testing regarding the G159, and Goodyear responded by employing a tactic that it had used – with varying degrees of success in other cases – turning over as little as possible, and swearing to the court that it had no more.  The Haegers settled in 2010.

In June 2010, Kurtz learned from The Safety Record Blog about a $5.7 million plaintiff’s verdict in another G159 case, Schalmo v Goodyear. At trial, the blog reported, Schalmo’s attorneys presented Goodyear documents including internal heat and speed testing and failure rate data showing that Goodyear knew the G159 was improperly approved for 75 mph continuous highway use. Kurtz began corresponding with Basil Musnuff, formerly of Roetzel & Andress and formerly Goodyear’s national coordinating counsel, to determine if Goodyear had withheld such tests in Haeger. Eventually, Musnuff conceded that Goodyear had, but wasn’t obligated to turn over any more than its NHTSA compliance test results.

Thoroughly Modern Tire Dealer – Not.

Bob Ulrich’s column If the TIA is the Puppet Master is NHTSA the Puppet? in February 14ths Modern Tire Dealer, casts me as an impatient crusader who has single-handedly ginned up a non-existent controversy about the dangers of tire age and used tires in the service of trial lawyers.

The issue of tire age surfaced in the U.S. in the wake of the Ford Explorer/Firestone Wilderness ATX. In 2003, NHTSA fulfilled a Congressional mandate by initiating a tire age rulemaking, which sought manufacturers’ comments. The industry did not exactly distinguish itself. Its responses ranged from denial of any problem to ignorance of testing, analysis or the very concept of tire age.

Our research showed that industry was studying rubber oxidation and heat as early as the 1930s. We also located a pair of German studies from the 1980s which concluded that tires failed at a greater rate after six years and recommended manufacturers alert consumers to prevent potential crashes. We identified the vehicle and tire makers who followed that advice, publishing tire age recommendations as early as the 1990s. Not one industry representative alerted the agency to wealth of information it had about tire age.   

Pattern of Fraud Brings Down Goodyear

Is it time for Goodyear to just give up the ghost on the G159 tire? Sure, they had a good run for a while, selling the tire to the motor home industry – even though the tire was designed for urban delivery vehicles and speed-rated for only 65 mile per hour continuous use. And when those tires failed on motor homes, causing rollovers, catastrophic injuries, deaths and lawsuits, Goodyear had a good run limiting the damage by keeping the damning documents from spreading from one litigant to another – or just keeping them to themselves. But their run seems to be about done, for the tire and the legal strategy.

The Chief Justice of the United States District Court for the District of Arizona, Roslyn O. Silver, has issued a lengthy and devastating sanctions order against Goodyear, and attorneys Graeme Hancock of Fennemore Craig PC and Basil Musnuff formerly of Roetzel & Andress, who represented the tiremaker against the product liability claims lodged by the Haeger family.

 Judge Silver’s order starts like this:

“Litigation is not a game. It is the time-honored method of seeking the truth, finding the truth, and doing justice. When a corporation and its counsel refuse to produce directly relevant information an opposing party is entitled to receive, they have abandoned these basic principles in favor of their own interests. The little voice in every attorney's conscience that murmurs turn over all material information was ignored.”

The Heavy Price of a Delayed Recall

Goodyear has notified the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that it is recalling 40,915 Wrangler Silent Armor flagship tires, more than a year after the company observed a higher rate of warranty and property damage claims, and three months after two Texas college students died in a tire failure that precipitated a rollover crash.

The August 1, 2011 incident claimed the lives of Matthew Smith and his passenger Kerrybeth Hall, as Smith drove southbound on U.S. Highway 67 in Pecos County, Texas. The left rear Wrangler Silent Armor tire on the 2008 Ford F-150 pickup de-treaded, causing the pick-up to skid and rollover. Smith was fatally ejected from the F-150. Hall, who was properly restrained, also suffered fatal injuries in the crash.

“I think Goodyear was getting lot of warranty claims, but said, ‘Let’s see what happens,” says David T. Bright, an attorney with Sico, White, Hoeschler & Braugh of Corpus Christi, TX, who represents Gerry Lynn Wilkinson, Kerrybeth’s mother, in the civil case against Goodyear. “Then Goodyear waited another 12 months, and decided:  Hang on. Let’s wait a while longer. And three months later, these two people got killed.”

According to documentation Goodyear filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on February 22, the tiremaker had first noticed elevated property damage and warranty claims for the Wrangler Silent Armor tire, during its May 2010 review of Early Warning Data. Over the next 12 months, the company would continue to see high levels of warranty and property damage claims specifically for six sizes of the tires produced at its Fayetteville plant. But Goodyear still resisted a recall, passing off the uptick as isolated cases caused by “stone drilling damage and other external damage to the tires.”

Will Manufacturers Kill the Used Tires Biz?

Tiremakers have long held the re-sale market at arms length, out of a healthy respect for the boundaries of anti-trust regulations.  But a number of factors are aligning that may shift the market away from the re-sale of used tires for vehicles. The cost of selling used tires is going up – the scrap market is growing in tandem with the demand for used tires to be recycled into fuel to meet the energy requirements of rising economies, such as China’s. At the same time, tire litigation is getting more sophisticated and manufacturers have a keener understanding of their liability.

In 2007, Safety Research & Strategies kick-started this shift by publishing Used Tires: A Booming Business with Hidden Dangers. The report made the link between crashes, tire age and used tires, using data to show that nearly one-third of aged tire crashes investigated involve used tires. It also noted that inspections by used tire wholesalers are cursory and lead to dangerous tires entering the market and recommended used tire sellers adopt higher standards that included visual reviews and internal examinations, such as shearography or X-rays.

Goodyear G159 Tire Failures on RVs Finally Dragged Into the Public Eye

Goodyear’s G159 and a Class-A Motor Home was always a bad match. The tire was designed for urban delivery vehicles and speed-rated for only 65 mile per hour continuous use.  Nonetheless, Goodyear had marketed the G159 to the RV industry for nearly a decade in the 1990s and 2000s, even though the tire design was prone to overheat on RVs that typically travel at greater speeds for extended periods. Goodyear knew it was dangerous for motor homes, but didn’t want lose a market segment. So, in 1998, after speed limits increased nationwide, Goodyear bumped the speed rating of the G159 to 75 miles per hour.

By 1999, there had been two recalls and one Product Service Bulletin to replace G159 tires on RVs, but the recalls blamed inadequate load margin and customer misuse, and did not identify the tire design itself as defective. In fact, Goodyear has consistently assured the public that the tires are safe for all uses.

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