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.”

Let’s stop our story here for a minute. First, we have to ask: What is the value of Early Warning Data, if a company — and NHTSA, which receives these reports — ignores the red flags it raises? Second, why didn’t Goodyear perceive tire damage from “stone drilling” (tire-speak for stones becoming stuck in the grooves and damaging the tread) as a problem?

The tire manufacturer specifically advertised the Wrangler Silent Armor as a big, beefy tire, tough enough to stand up to the rigors of off-roading. Here’s some marketing straight from Goodyear:

“Are you looking for on and off-road all terrain tires? Do you want tires that are going to fit all of your versatile needs? Are you only interested in buying tires that are safe, durable, and will provide you with the most comfortable ride possible? If so, you should consider purchasing the Goodyear Wrangler Silent Armor tires.

The rubber compound is molded at the base of the tread grooves in an effort to increase resistance to stone and rock drilling, which is a plus. The internal structure of the tire involves an Armor Zone that is made up of twin, high tensile steel belts that are reinforced by a layer of Dupont Kevlar cord to add strength and comfort to the abilities of the tire. The Durawall rubber compound is also used in the sidewalls to resist scuffing and abrasion and to protect the polyester cord body. There are also rim guards to protect the wheels from accidental on and off road hazards.

“These tires really will take you anywhere and you never have to worry about your safety or the durability of the tires!”

Goodyear took a similarly confident tone about the safety of the Wrangler Silent Armor tire in its Part 573 Defect and Noncompliance Report to NHTSA:

“Goodyear continued to monitor this early warning data for the first three quarters of 2011 and conducted inspections of several returned tires, but found no safety issue with these tires.”

Four months after the deaths of Smith and Hall, Goodyear examined the tire: “The inspection revealed that the tire sustained damage due to stone drilling as well as other external road hazard damage,” Goodyear reported to NHTSA. (Curiously, Goodyear characterized the twin fatalities in its defect report as “one injury claim.”)

The tiremaker continued: “Goodyear still found no safety issues with these tires, but determined, in the interest of customer satisfaction, to conduct a customer satisfaction campaign for these tires in January 2012.

Hmm. No safety issues? Missing from Goodyear’s chronology of the events leading to the recall is its assessment of what went wrong with the manufacture of these six tire sizes during those critical months of March through May 2009. Perhaps an answer could be found in this March 2010 headline, courtesy of North Carolina television station WRAL: “Fifteen Goodyear employees charged after undercover drug raid.”

On March 30, 2010, just two months before Goodyear’s warranty review that revealed higher than usual claim rates, narcotics agents from the Cumberland County Sheriff’s office raided Goodyear’s Fayetteville plant, and arrested 15 workers. The 69 charges among them allege that the suspects were operating a full-service drugstore, trafficking cocaine, marijuana, Ecstasy, opium and other prescription drugs.

“Is it a coincidence that Goodyear only recalled tires made at the Fayette plant during the same time period as when police were conducting a big undercover drug operation?” asked Bright’s co-counsel, John Gsanger of the Edwards Law Firm, also in Corpus Christi. “The busts came 10 months after the recall period. They were selling marijuana and opium. It wasn’t a lemonade stand; obviously it was going on in March and May of 2009.”

The undercover operation was initiated in August 2009, at the invitation of Goodyear executives in Akron, Ohio. But according to several interviews with Cumberland County Sheriff Earl “Moose” Butler, Goodyear’s Fayetteville reputation as a den of drug dealers long preceded that date. According to several news accounts, Butler had waited his entire career as the head of the county’s law enforcement to infiltrate the Fayetteville plant.

“Shortly after I came into office 16 years ago, we tried to do something out here,” Butler said. “Course we knew at the time that there were drugs in the plant and we haven’t been able to get anyone inside,” he told WTVD.