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.”

Michelin Rapped for "Bad Faith Conduct"

A federal judge in Atlanta has ordered to Michelin North American to pay attorneys’ fees and established that a Uniroyal Laredo Tire was “defective and unreasonably dangerous” as a sanction for nearly two years of discovery abuse.

“In sum, Michelin’s bad faith conduct caused serious prejudice to the integrity of the legal process and to Plaintiffs’ orderly, effective development and proof of their case,” U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg, of the Northern District of Georgia, wrote in her 61-page decision. “The pattern of abuse by Michelin is extremely troubling.”

Judge Totenberg’s patience was pushed past its limits in Bates v. Michelin North America, a tread separation case. In November 2009, Johnny and Patricia Bates of Evergreen, Alabama sued Michelin North America for negligence and strict liability in a tire-related rollover crash. On December 25, 2008, Johnny Bates was belted and at the wheel of his 2001 GMC Jimmy travelling northbound on I-85 in Fulton County, Georgia, when the left rear tire, a Uniroyal Laredo suffered a tread separation. The tire failure caused a loss-of-control rollover, leaving Mrs. Bates with injuries. Mr. Bates suffered catastrophic and permanent spinal and brain injuries that have left him a quadriplegic.

The Atlanta firm of Butler, Wooten & Fryhofer LLP, who represented the Bates family, requested that Michelin produce, among other things, warranty adjustment data, design and production tolerances and documents relating to specific defects. But, after a year of wrangling over confidentiality and the scope of the request, Michelin had only produced a “strikingly small” number of documents. On January 3, 2011, the Court ordered Michelin to produce all of the documents the Bates family sought. Michelin petitioned for reconsideration, and, after losing that round, continued to withhold the documents.

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