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Clandestine, or just savvy?

By LEONORA LAPETER
Published July 23, 2006


To drum up business, Frank Ruggier would hop onto the Internet and type in words like “death,” “accident” and “tire.”

Sometimes he’d hit pay dirt: an accident with a tire blowout.

Ruggier, who worked for Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. then, would drive hundreds of miles to accident scenes, some of them in Florida, and take photos of broken glass or gouges in the road. Sometimes he’d gather up tread pieces left behind and drive them to Cooper Tire in Ohio.

Ruggier, a 61-year-old ex-con who lived in California and Texas, unveiled this little known aspect of the tire industry in lawsuits filed against Cooper by families in Mississippi and Arizona.

Sending Ruggier to accident scenes was a “normal business practice” said Cooper spokeswoman Patricia J. Brown, and it is done well after police have cleared the scene.

“Preserving evidence is not a clandestine activity designed to thwart the law,” she said, “rather it is a reasonable and sound business practice to help us defend our products.”

***

Indeed, in a deposition, Ruggier said he has been collecting treads for two decades for auto and tire manufacturers, including Volkswagen, Goodyear, Dunlop and others. He and others called it the industry’s “early warning system,” identifying accidents that could land tire manufacturers in court.

“We stopped doing that in 2002, and now we just do it when a claim is made,” said Dave Wilkins, a spokesman for Dunlop Tires, a Goodyear brand. Officials from Volkswagen and Dunlop said they used Ruggier more than four years ago.

But tire lawyers say such acts are akin to finding shell casings at the scene of a murder and giving them to the perpetrator’s lawyer. And neither police nor plaintiffs are notified, said Hugh Smith, a Belleair Bluffs lawyer who has two cases in which Ruggier removed treads.

Contacted at home in Texarkana, Ark., Ruggier declined to comment.

***

Ocala lawyer Bruce Kaster first came across Ruggier after the death of a Mississippi woman on a New Mexico highway.

In 2002, Timica Bradley and her husband, both in the Navy, were driving through New Mexico with their 7-year-old son when a tire tread separated and their Explorer rolled over, court records say. Bradley, 28, died.

Cooper lawyers tried to discourage a lawsuit, citing lack of evidence, Kaster said. Then Cooper officials revealed Ruggier had collected the treads a few days after the accident.

Ruggier also was involved in the case of Elisa Loza, 59, of Phoenix. She died in September 2001, when the van she was in flipped near Gila Bend, Ariz. Nine others in the van and Loza’s family sued Cooper, blaming tire tread separation for the accident.

Ruggier, who lived then in El Toro, Calif., found the accident on the Web: “Passenger dies, nine hurt as van tire blows out.’’

He said he drove 355 miles to Gila Bend, where he found the van at a tow yard and determined it had Cooper tires.

Then he went to the accident scene and took about 200 photos of broken trees, glass and tire marks. He also said he found tire tread and took it to Cooper in Ohio.

But Cooper has told Smith, who represents Loza’s family, they don’t have the tread.

***

In depositions, Ruggier, a high school graduate, said he opened up his “early warning” business after working 15 years for a company investigating auto and construction accidents.

Stephen O. Schroeder, Cooper’s vice president and treasurer, said in a deposition that Ruggier was paid to inspect accident scenes and collect evidence, including treads. Accident victims were not typically notified, Schroeder said.

“My understanding from our legal department is that to be there promptly helps us get evidence prior to it being destroyed by wind, weather, and other things,” he said.

Ruggier said Cooper paid him $75 an hour, plus expenses.

In a deposition in the Loza case, Ruggier denied he was a convicted felon who spent time in a California jail. But court records show Ruggier pleaded guilty in 1987 to insurance fraud for submitting false claims of more than $29,000.

Cooper said it fired Ruggier the day after it learned of his conviction.

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.

[Last modified July 23, 2006, 22:36:26]


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