Six years after Goodyear’s efforts to conceal the defects of its G159 truck tire enraged a U.S. District Court judge, NHTSA appears ready to take its own bite out of the tiremaker’s hide.
To close out 2017, the agency opened a Preliminary Evaluation into the field performance of the tire, based on claim and complaint data obtained via “a court order authorizing the release of Goodyear records to NHTSA.”
As loyal readers of this blog know, that case is Haeger v. Goodyear, one that we’ve written about in our decade of coverage on the G159s trail of destruction. (See links below to The Safety Record’s G159 coverage.)
In June 2003, LeRoy and Donna Haeger, along with their son and daughter-in-law, Barry and Suzanne Haeger, of Tucson, Arizona were on their way to a medical symposium in New Mexico, when the right front tire – a G159 275/70R.22.5 – on their Spartan Gulfstream Class A motorhome, suffered a catastrophic tread separation. The steer axle failure caused the motorhome to become uncontrollable and it careened off Interstate 25 and down an embankment, where it came to rest on its side. Barry Haeger escaped with minor injuries. But his parents and wife were all pinned under parts of the collapsed motorhome and all suffered major injuries that included multiple fractures, head trauma and nerve damage.
The case, filed in Arizona U.S. District Court in 2005, morphed for more than a decade from a mere product liability case to an indictment of the G159 tire on a motorhome, and of Goodyear’s sleaze-ball trial tactics. (For an easy-to-follow outline of the case, read our Haeger v. Goodyear Timeline.)
At the heart of the controversy was a titanic discovery battle that resulted in fraud charges, career-ending attorney sanctions, a U.S. Supreme Court decision, multiple settlements, and it rages on, still. In the meantime, LeRoy died of cancer in 2008, still blamed by Goodyear for the crash. Donna Haeger is now in her 80s, and Suzanne Haeger still struggles with partial use of one arm, a permanent injury from the crash. All of the survivors are still coping with the stress of prolonged litigation.
What got NHTSA’s interest was a Moby-Dick of a fact that the Haeger’s attorney, David L. Kurtz sought for 12 years, as relentlessly as Captain Ahab hunting a whale: The failure rate of the G159 on motorhomes. It turns out to be phenomenally high.
Kurtz represented the Haegers in two actions against Goodyear. The first was a civil liability lawsuit filed in U. S. District Court in 2005 and settled confidentially in 2010 without any disclosure of significant Goodyear documents, even though Kurtz suspected that Goodyear had been less than forthcoming. The second lawsuit, filed in Arizona Superior Court in 2013 and, again, confidentially settled in 2017, alleged fraud. In June 2010, Kurtz learned through a Safety Record Blog story that Goodyear had disclosed internal heat and speed tests performed on the G159 in Florida case, Schalmo v. Goodyear (See Goodyear G159 Tire Failures on RVs Finally Dragged into the Public Eye). Armed with that knowledge, Kurtz began to pry the most complete record of G159 failures ever seen outside of Goodyear’s General Counsel office.
By January 2017, Kurtz had forced Goodyear to disclose all of the liability lawsuits: 41, from 1999 to 2010; all of the deaths and injuries: estimated to be 98; all of the property damage claims: more than 600; and all of the warranty adjustments: 3,484. The last piece of the equation – how many out of the 160,000 G159s produced were placed on motorhomes – came a year ago.
In 2006, Goodyear submitted information about the G159 to NHTSA as part of an investigation into Toyo tires. The agency opened Engineering Analysis 05-011 in July 2005 to probe front tire failures in 1995-2000 Country Coach Allure and Intrigue Class A motor homes equipped with Toyo s 275/70R22.5, 275/80R22.S or 12R22.5 (load range H) tires. The Office of Defects Investigation sent peer information requests to Michelin, Goodyear and General Tire in search of a basis of comparison. The agency told Goodyear that it was trying to determine the approximate “failure rates” due to tire blow-out, tread separation, abrupt loss of air, and the like, for front tires manufactured and sold by Goodyear and installed on Class A RVs; and on other vehicle applications.
Hmm. What are the odds that Goodyear gave the agency complete information?
The agency also asked for the number of tires in the specified size or size ranges that Goodyear sold each year since 2000.
All of the peer responses were deemed confidential, so it took Kurtz a while to get Goodyear’s response – through NHTSA via a court order. With this information, Kurtz was able to estimate that only a quarter of the total universe of G159s sold to the motor home market between 1996-2003. With a denominator of 40,000 and a numerator of at least 600 publicly disclosed property damage claims, according to Kurtz, the parts per million failure rate – as typically expressed – of the G159 is somewhere around 15,000 Goodyear representatives have testified that a typical ppm is 3.4 ppm, so a ppm of 15,000 would be beyond extraordinary.
(Only NHTSA or the courts can reveal the data that will bring decision to the calculation. One thing is clear, the rate will be off the charts.)
A Brief History of the G159
Goodyear began producing the G159 in 1996, the design was intended for use on delivery trucks, predominantly traveling on in-town roads making frequent stops. But the tire was also marketed to the motorhome market, because like a delivery truck, Class A motorhomes had six tires and a similar weight capacity. But the reasons behind the dual-market decision are murky, because Goodyear engineers knew from internal testing soon after the tire was offered for sale that the G159 could not withstand the prolonged heat build-up of long-distance highway driving common to RV users.
Goodyear performed at least 26 tests on the G159: crown durability tests, bead durability tests, heat rise tests and DOT endurance tests – most of which were conducted after tire was put on the market. For example, four of the heat rise tests were conducted in April 1996 to “determine the dynamic heat build-up at specific loads, speeds, and inflations.” The tests were conducted on a “67.23 [inch] diameter flywheel.” at 35 miles per hour to simulate highway speed on a road surface and checking the temperature of the tire at certain intervals.
The G159 was developed to withstand temperatures of only 194° F. But testing showed that prolonged use at highway speed could cause the tire to reach temperatures of up to 229˚F, causing a loss of strength in the material components and eventually separation of the tire's structure.
The problems began to appear in the field, almost as soon Class A motorhomes were outfitted with G159 tires. Between 1996 and 1998, RV owners filed 25 tire failure claims Nonetheless, in 1998, as many states raised their highway speed limits to 75 mph, Goodyear raised the G159’s speed rating to keep pace.
In 1999, Goodyear implemented design and compound changes to make the tire more heat-resistant and less prone to tread separations. But this did not stop the flood of failures. Claims rose steadily from 54 in 1999, to 59 in 2000. By the end of 2005, Goodyear had fielded 540 death, injury and property damage tire failure claims, and faced 29 lawsuits.
The constant tread separations forced two motorhome recalls and one customer satisfaction campaign to replace G159s with more robust tires made by other manufacturers.
The tiremaker never told Goodyear about the results of its heat rise test data nor of the tire’s limitations, instead it erroneously advised one of its OEM customers, Fleetwood RV, that “running hotter can take its toll on rubber, and asserted that the average temperature at the belt edge was 160 F at 55 mph, and increased to 185 F at 75 mph.” In November 1998, Goodyear attempted to shift the blame for failure on drivers overloading and underinflating their tires, driving too fast and failing to avoid road hazards. In a letter to Fleetwood, which ultimately tallied 41 tread separations on a G159, Goodyear wrote:
“Fatigue and separation are somewhat allied properties of tire endurance. Both can be adversely affected by excessive conditions of load, deflection, inflation and speed. All of these conditions relate to heat buildup, and heat is the greatest enemy of a tire. Excessive heat will cause a degradation of material properties which in turn can impact the tire's endurance and durability. Tires are designed to perform at specific operating temperatures, which is sometimes called 'equilibrium temperature.' At equilibrium the heat generated within the tire structure is equal to the heat dissipated from the tire surfaces. Exceeding this temperature for short periods of time is not a problem but exceeding it for long periods begins to cause loss of strength in the material components and eventually separation of the tires structure.”
When Fleetwood questioned whether construction changes in the G159 or the tire’s increased speed rating would account for all of the tread separations, Goodyear wrote:
“A question was raised relative to the possibility of 75 MPH compromising the tire's safety margin. Goodyear evaluates the test results and then determines whether to authorize 75 MPH or keep the tire at 65 MPH. To date if a tire did not meet our standards, the tire remained at a maximum speed rating of 65 MPH. In the case of the tire in question, the tire performed to the level that satisfied our high speed requirements and we approved the tire to 75 MPH.”
In June 1999, Fleetwood recalled 17 Class A American Heritage motorhomes because of inadequate total front tire weight capacity. The company replaced the G159s with a larger Michelin XZA 275/80R22.5. On October 1, 1999, Fleetwood again recalled its 275/70R22.5 Goodyear G159 tires, this time on some 3,400 Class A models made in 1996 to 2000 after four incidents involving two fatalities. The crashes Fleetwood reported to NHTSA occurred on September 15, 1998; July 7, August 29 and September 9, 1999.
According to pleadings in the Haeger case, the Monaco Corporation – another G159 OEM – received a similar set of explanations for the rash of tread separations its customers were experiencing (a total of 93) in August 2000. The failures eventually forced Goodyear to release a Product Service Bulletin announcing that the Monaco Coach Corporation would be issuing a letter to owners of 1999, 2000 and certain 2001 Windsor model Class-A motor homes offering to replace their G159 275/70R22.5 tires with 295/80R22.5 LR H, G391 tires.
Again, Goodyear blamed consumers:
“The letter will inform the customer that it has come to Monaco’s attention that in a number of instances, it was found that tire air pressure was being reduced in order to gain better ride comfort and in doing so tires were operated in an under-inflated and overloaded condition,” the Goodyear bulletin said. “In the interest of customer satisfaction, Goodyear and Monaco are offering to replace the original 275/70R22.5 LR H, G159 with 295/80R22.5 LR H G391 tires. The higher aspect ratio tire will allow customers to operate at a lower inflation pressure that will give a more comfortable ride while maintaining tire loading that is within the operating range of the tire.”
By the first month of 2003, Goodyear stopped making the G159. But they continued to fail on motorhomes, accruing deaths and serious injuries.
Defending the G159
Goodyear’s main line of defense from Day One has been concealment, because the tests showing the G159’s unsuitability for motorhome applications and the huge number of tire failures made any other strategy untenable. During its period of manufacture, it failed to inform its OEM customers of the tire’s limitations. The Safety Record doubts Goodyear has been honest with NHTSA. But it has been in the courtroom where Goodyear did everything it could to keep the real story of the G159 under wraps.
Consider the fate of the deposition of Kim Cox – a Goodyear claims administrator who testified in Phillips v. Goodyear, a 2002 injury and property damage case in San Diego.
During Cox’s June 19, 2003 deposition, Cox, allegedly admitted that Goodyear knew that the G159 tire did not “perform properly” on Class A motor homes.” The admission was so damning, Goodyear’s attorneys swiftly shut down the deposition, negotiated a settlement and arranged for every scrap of the deposition’s existence to be destroyed. Goodyear even unsuccessfully sought sanctions against the Phillips attorney Guy Ricciardulli for even mentioning its existence to another attorney who had a G159 case in Arizona. (see Goodyear Destroys Testimony Admitting RV Tire is Defective; Court Rules Deposition is Not Protected)
Harold and Georg-Anne Phillips made their initial complaint in August 2000, when two of the tires on the left rear side of their Monaco Windsor motor home failed, damaging the rear of the vehicle. Goodyear reimbursed the couple for the cost of replacement tires and for repairs to the motor home. But a year and a half later, the Phillips’ were again the victims of a tread separation crash. While traveling on Interstate 10 in Arizona, the motor home's left front tire failed, causing the Phillips to crash into a roadside embankment resulting in serious injuries and property damage.
Consider the trail of sanctions and frustrated judges who have dinged Goodyear for discovery abuses in at least seven cases involving the G159 and other tires.
Now consider the current NHTSA investigation – extremely late though it may be. Despite Goodyear’s Herculean obfuscations, a pretty good record of this crappy motorhome tire – which, by the way, an internet search shows that you can still buy – has accrued, even though much of the raw source material remains out of the public eye.
How are things likely to go?
A G159 sells for upwards of $350 – so times 40,000 – that’s roughly $14 million in sales to the motorhome market. We know the Schalmos won a $5.6 million verdict against Goodyear. Now we’re down to $8.4 million. How much did Goodyear pay its National Coordinating Council, Basil Musnuff, and all of the lawyers who carried their water in local jurisdictions in 41 civil actions, or running things up the judicial chain? How much did Goodyear pay out in secret settlements? Warranty losses? How much will it ultimately owe for the Judge Silver’s sanctions in the Haeger case? How much will it pay in the forthcoming federal Consent Agreement?
The Safety Record doesn’t know. But we can guess that the numbers long ago wiped any profit Goodyear made from a boneheaded decision made in 1996 that left so much human damage in its wake.
The Safety Record Blog has been writing about motorhome tire failures, the G159 tire and Goodyear’s vicious trial tactics for more than 12 years. If you would like to get caught up, grab a beer, pull up a chair, and take a read:
Nov. 2012 Pattern of Fraud Brings Down Goodyear
June 2013 The Wages of Fraud
Sept. 2013 Haeger High-Stakes Poker
June 2014 Litigating the Goodyear Way