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Lawsuits stack up for tire maker

Cooper Tire is accused of making defective tires that have resulted in fatalities, and of using questionable tactics to win the lawsuits that result.

By LEONORA LAPETER
Published July 23, 2006


By LEONORA LaPETER
Times Staff Writer

A St. Petersburg mother was on her way back from a wedding in Atlanta when it happened. A Miami driveway installer and father of three was on his way to work. And a 23-year-old painter who left Mexico to make a new life in the United States died on Interstate 75, just east of Naples.

The families of all three have accused Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. of manufacturing defective tires that suffered tread separations and ultimately killed them.

At least 21 lawsuits involving 12 deaths have been filed against Cooper Tire in Florida since 2000. They are among dozens nationwide that claim Cooper tires separated at high speeds.

Last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration initiated a defect investigation into one line of Cooper tires — the Dominator Sport A/T. (The Florida lawsuits involve other models.)

The company, which makes replacement tires, is the country’s fourth largest tire manufacturer. Cooper says there is no problem with the Dominator, or any of its other tires.

“Our records show nothing which would indicate there is any issue with this tire,” said Cooper spokeswoman Patricia J. Brown. “The overwhelming majority of tire failures are caused by service-related conditions that have nothing to do with a tire 'defect.’ ”

But it’s Cooper Tire’s tactics to win lawsuits that have drawn attention: hiring private investigators to pick up tire tread evidence at accident scenes; aggressively pursuing gag orders and sanctions against attorneys; and sealing documents, claiming they contain trade secrets.

A South Carolina judge wrote in one case that Cooper had engaged in “misrepresentations, concealment, and disobedience” in the discovery process.

Ocala tire lawyer Bruce Kaster, whom the Wall Street Journal dubbed the tire industry’s “public enemy No. 1,” has battled Cooper on a dozen cases.

He calls them the “Attila the Hun” of tire manufacturers.

***

Somewhere near Ocala on Interstate 75, Vicki Batz, 34, became concerned that the steering wheel in front of her sister, who was driving, was too high. The air bag would not deploy safely, she told Rina Doering.

The pair were returning to St. Petersburg from a cousin’s wedding in Atlanta on Oct. 13, 2003, in Batz’s 1996 Ford Explorer. A Pat Benatar CD was playing. Their daughters, Kayla, 6 months, and Zoe, 4, sat in the back seat with their grandmother.

In a deposition, Doering recalls her sister reaching over and moving the steering wheel down. Batz then told her sister to make sure she kept control of the car if a tire blew out.

“You just got finished telling me about how you had the tires already checked out and worked on,” Doering recalled telling her sister.

Several weeks before, Batz had felt a vibration in the Explorer and had taken it to Bob Lee’s Tire Co. Inc. The St. Petersburg company told Batz the tread on the back tires was separating, according to depositions. They moved the front tires to the back and replaced them with two new Cooper tires.

Back on the road, Doering heard a noise and lost control of the Explorer. “Oh my God,” she exclaimed.

All Doering remembers after that is Batz reaching over to try and help steady the steering wheel and shattered glass. The Explorer flipped seven times. Batz died immediately.

Last year, her husband, Leonard, her high school sweetheart and an electrical engineer at Raytheon, sued Cooper Tire, Bob Lee’s and Ford Motor Co. His lawyers say a tire expert deemed it a classic tread separation. The tire in question was a Cooper Discoverer brand.

Cooper is typically one of many defendants in such cases. Auto manufacturers also are listed. But most lawyers point to tire tread separation as starting the accident.

“A tire shouldn’t come apart by tire tread separation,” said Jay Halpern, a Coral Gables attorney who has had three cases against Cooper.

Todd Murrian, an owner of Bob Lee’s Tire Co., could not talk about the Batz lawsuit, but he said any problems with Coopers are likely related to bad maintenance like underinflated tires.

“The truth of the matter is there is no  eminent Cooper tread separation problem,” Murrian said. “I find Cooper is an excellent product at a great price for consumers. I’m in the market to make money and I’d never sell a tire if there’s a problem with it when there are a gazillion other tires.’’

***

Hugh Smith, a Belleair Bluffs lawyer, has filed 10 lawsuits against Cooper and has seen countless internal documents.

But he can tell you very little. Cooper got a $14,000 sanction against Smith for sharing documents with an Arizona lawyer. Smith has appealed.

“They’re more aggressive in litigation than most tire companies,” said Smith, a former FBI agent and U.S. assistant state attorney in Tampa.

At least half a dozen lawyers said Cooper settles many of its cases, and they remain private. (One of Smith’s cases went to a Texas jury, which gave a victim’s family $11-million. The Texas Supreme Court overturned the judgment.)

Cooper officials say settlements are typically business decisions because lawsuits are expensive.

The case of Senon Oliva, the painter who was in a van taking friends to the airport near Naples in October 2002 when he died, was settled. His van had a Cooper Trendsetter tire. Also settled was the case of Sergio Del Olmo, the 32-year-old Miami driveway installer, who died in March 2003

In court records as far back as 2000, former Cooper employees tell stories of everything from watches to chicken bones being baked into tires. But Cooper says the stories are old and from disgruntled employees.

Still, it makes product liability lawyers wonder what may have wound up in tires now on the road.

Kaster, who sends Cooper tires to an Arizona lab to be analyzed, and other lawyers, say Cooper tires lack critical components: a strip called a belt edge wedge to prevent tread separation; a nylon overlay as an extra safety measure; and a good combination of chemicals and thick inner liner to prevent aging.

Cooper officials say not all tires need a belt edge wedge or a nylon overlay and that its inner liners perform so well that Consumer Reports listed four of its tires among the top 10 tires with the ability to retain air.

***

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is responsible for figuring out if tires are defective.

In August 2000, Firestone voluntarily recalled 14.4-million tires, shortly after NHTSA began investigating reports of four U.S. fatalities.  

Federal complaint logs show 115 complaints against two to three dozen Cooper tire lines. But Rae Tyson, an NHTSA spokesman, said the agency does not rely on the complaint log or lawsuits to start an investigation. Instead it relies on tire production versus tire failure rates. All of that data is supplied by tire manufacturers, a requirement in the post-Firestone recall era.

“That’s like asking the fox to guard the henhouse,” Kaster said. “You’re relying on the culprit to tell you whether you have a problem or not.”

Tyson said tires from all major brands are going to fail.

“The thing that’s tricky about tires ... is that tires are expected to fail at a certain rate because people abuse them, they keep tires on too long, they may not run them properly inflated,” Tyson said. “Our goal is to determine whether the failure is excessive and whether the failure is the result of some defect.”

Texas attorney Brantley White represents the family of a 5-year-old boy who died two months ago on an Arizona highway after a tire tread separation with Cooper Dominator tires. White has sent the tire to the company in hopes of a settlement.

But he and other lawyers say NHTSA needs to investigate other Cooper tire lines. Last week Kaster wrote a letter to NHTSA pointing to the deaths involving other Cooper tires.

“You have missed the point,’’ he wrote.

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.

Tire safety

- Underinflation is considered the leading cause of tire failure, so check inflation pressure regularly. Air pressure enables a tire to support the load.

- Inspect your tires once a month for signs of uneven wear.

- Unbalanced wheel and tire assemblies can create an annoying vibration when you drive on a smooth road and may result in irregular treadwear.

Source: Rubber Manufacturers Association
 

[Last modified July 23, 2006, 22:37:05]


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