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Goodyear kept tire problems quiet

The company is accused of fixing tires when customers complained but not revealing the problem.

[Handout photo]
Three U.S. Air Force members stationed in Saudi Arabia were killed in the 1997 crash of this Chevrolet Suburban, which was equipped with Goodyear tires.

By COLLINS CONNER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 21, 2001


In late 1995, after learning that tread was peeling off its light-truck tires at an alarming rate, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company came up with a fix.

Then, according to records Goodyear has fought to keep out of the public eye, the company made two crucial decisions.

photo
[Times photo: Michael C. Weimar]
Jorge Garcia, 26, was on his way to a construction job when the van he was riding in veered off I-75 north of Brooksville and rolled several times. The tread on a rear tire, built by Goodyear, split.
First, it chose not to recall the problem tires on the road. After all, Goodyear officials reasoned, the tires were not "unsafe." They lost tread, but they didn't lose air, so a driver should be able to keep control.

Second, Goodyear chose to phase in the fix over three years, while letting production of some problem tires continue without the upgrade.

Now, the federal government is examining those decisions amid allegations that Goodyear conducted a "silent recall": fixing tires when consumers complained but never telling anyone there was a problem.

And plaintiff attorneys around the country are claiming that people were killed or injured because Goodyear not only left dangerous tires on the market, but it kept producing dangerous tires even though it knew how to fix them.

At this point, the bottom line looks like this:

Tread separations on Goodyear-built light-truck tires are implicated in at least 44 crashes, 19 deaths, 160 injuries and 15,000 product liability claims. The company also replaced more than 13,000 tires.

But in every case it has examined, the company said, its customers were at fault.

"There was no product defect, thus there was no reason for a recall," said Goodyear spokesman Chuck Sinclair.

[Handout photo]
Two chaperones were killed when the tread on a Baptist church van's Goodyear tire peeled away, causing the van to roll over in Alabama with 11 people on board.

The tires failed, Sinclair said, because they were run with too little air, too heavy a load, too fast, too hot or too seldom; they were punctured and poorly repaired or they were driven over sharp objects.

"That's so absurd," said Allan Kam, the former senior trial attorney for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the agency now investigating Goodyear's handling of the tire problem. He is now an expert witness for a crash victim suing the company.

"At NHTSA, we used to hear that same argument all the way back to 1978. We very rapidly came to the obvious conclusion that no manufacturer has cornered the market on overloaders, underinflaters or people who drive over nails."

The human toll

Among the dead in accidents involving Goodyear tires: a California minister's fiance, two chaperones for a church outing in Alabama and three U.S. Air Force personnel in Saudi Arabia.

Among the injured is Jorge Garcia, 26, a Tampa construction worker who bit off his tongue in a 1997 crash and suffered permanent brain damage. Garcia is an illegal immigrant from Honduras; the bill for his four-year hospitalization at Shands in Gainesville exceeds $500,000.

Another crash victim is Arizona middle school teacher Ramona Dow, on a field trip with her eighth-grade class when the district bus flipped. Her left arm was severed at the shoulder.

"I was very independent before," the art teacher told the St. Petersburg Times. "Now people have to cut my meat."

The tires in question include various sizes of Load Range E, heavy-duty tires used on big pickup trucks, some SUVs, 15-passenger vans, trailers, recreational vehicles and ambulances. They include some Goodyear Wranglers, Workhorse and Marathon tires, Kelly Springfield (a Goodyear subsidiary), Power King and Trailbuster lines, as well as "private brands" made by Goodyear but sold under other names.

It is difficult to determine how many problem tires Goodyear produced, but the records indicate the company made more than 3-million tires in the sizes that had problems.

The NHTSA is investigating whether Goodyear should have recalled the tires and if there's any need to do so now: most of the problem tires, according to Goodyear, have either been replaced or are no longer in service.

An attorney thinks that's nowhere close to being true.

"Many people are still riding on 1996 or 1997 tires," said Rebecca Epstein, an attorney with Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a public interest law firm that intervenes in cases involving consumer rights, the environment and social issues. "Many people don't get tires replaced for years. ... We really do think there are millions of tires out there."

In all this, Goodyear has suffered little of the publicity that devastated Bridgestone/Firestone, which last year recalled 6.5-million tires after they were implicated in 174 deaths and more than 700 injuries.

In part, that's because the toll linked to Goodyear tires is much smaller. The Firestone case was also complicated by the fact that the problem was primarily associated with the tires' use on a single vehicle, the Ford Explorer.

Ocala attorney Bruce Kaster, who has or is suing both companies, said Goodyear has handled itself better than Firestone.

"I don't want Goodyear to be overly criticized," Kaster said. "Goodyear did (install) a remedy at least widespread enough to substantially reduce injuries and deaths."

When customers complained about their Load Range E tires, Goodyear replaced them -- 10,000 by mid 1997. This is what prompted plaintiffs' attorneys to complain about a "silent recall" -- an accusation Goodyear flatly denied.

By October 1998, Goodyear had paid $11.3-million to more than 11,000 customers who reported that peeling tread damaged their vehicles, company records show.

At the time, according to the records, Goodyear anticipated "significant dollar expense from tires now in the pipeline." The projected expense: $35.8-million.

All together, Goodyear has spent more than $50-million in retooling costs, damage and adjustment payouts, and litigation expenses, including settlements of six lawsuits filed against the company or its subsidiary, Kelly Springfield.

Sealed records

As attorneys for the dead and injured began suing, Goodyear moved to keep records of the tire problems out of the public eye.

Last month, the Times found some of those records in a court file in Tampa, where they are part of Jorge Garcia's lawsuit against Kelly Springfield Tires.

After learning that a reporter had copies of the documents, Goodyear attorneys demanded their return.

"Should you and/or the St. Petersburg Times not immediately comply with this demand, defendants will move for judicial intervention requiring your compliance," said the company's Jacksonville attorney, Michael P. Milton.

The Times declined to turn over the copies; the originals have since been removed from public access.

For more than two years, the company has given those records to plaintiffs' attorneys whose clients are suing Goodyear or Kelly Springfield. But Goodyear has insisted that the plaintiffs' attorneys agree to have the records sealed. The attorneys also had to return them to Goodyear at the conclusion of their lawsuits.

Epstein, who has been trying to get the records unsealed, criticized the company's ongoing secrecy.

"This involves public health and safety," she said. "We feel this is a matter of public life and death since it involves, potentially, the safety of possibly millions of Americans riding on these Goodyear tires.

"We can't trust the company's actions and words to tell us the extent of the (tire) problem by virtue of what is taking place in the halls of the courts."

Sinclair said some of the records contain trade secrets, which are properly protected by law.

According to those confidential company records, the affected tires were built beginning in 1992, but the problem did not show up until 1995, when the company noted an alarming spike in the number of tread separations in certain lines and on certain sizes of light-truck tires.

Company records show that, from 1988 to 1994, when its production of Load Range E tires more than tripled, damage claims grew 14 times over.

Three Goodyear management teams spent four years studying the problem but could never find a manufacturing defect. Company officials discussed a recall in late 1995 or early 1996; they rejected the idea.

According to the federal rules, manufacturers who are aware of a safety defect must notify their customers, dealers, distributors and the NHTSA.

What constitutes a safety defect? One that "poses an unreasonable risk to safety" or one that "is common to a group of ... items of equipment of the same type and manufacture."

No 'unreasonable risk'

Goodyear officials decided neither condition applied to its problem tires.

The tread separations affected only a tiny number out of millions of tires, company spokesman Sinclair told the Times.

And, he said, the tire failures posed no "unreasonable risk to safety."

"You have to look at the number of (product liability) claims," he said. "Of 15,000 claims, 99 percent were nothing more than wheel-well damage or damage to the undercarriage of the vehicles. They (the vehicles) were drivable. They were controllable.

"We know those drivers are maintaining control of those vehicles. You've got 44 accidents out of 15,000 claims."

Sinclair stressed that, "in these cases, when we have been provided a tire to examine, in every single case, we can attribute the failure to either impact damage, puncture, overloading or under-inflation."

If customer misuse is the problem, the Times asked, why wasn't the tread separation problem consistent among all sizes of all Load Range E tire lines? Why, for instance, might a certain tire line come in 12 or 15 sizes but suffer problems with only three or four?

"Because the usage varies broadly," Sinclair said. "Those that fail at higher rates tend to be those subjected to the most severe service conditions. If you look at the type of vans, large vans that are used for business purposes -- construction vans, plumbing vehicles -- everybody has seen them going down the road packed with construction equipment, materials and things. Those would be severe service conditions.

"As you look at the passenger vans, the church vans ... those can sit weeks at a time without being used. Air seeps out of tires because rubber is a porous material. If vehicles sit around for a period of time, certainly tires can lose air."

"That's bull----," said plaintiffs' attorney Chris Spagnoli of California.

"It's very clear the tires are not capable of doing the job they (were) sold to do. That's a classic design defect. They are selling these tires for use on school buses, ambulances, police vehicles, multiple passenger vans ... and the tires are coming apart because they're not adequate for the job they're being put to."

Kam, the former NHTSA official working for some of the people suing Goodyear, said a tire should "be appropriate for its intended use."

"The manufacturer should build within that tire the necessary capability to meet that use. Load Range E tires are designed to bear more weight and perform in more severe service conditions than tires used on light vehicles. They make that large size tire for heavier vehicles, that's the intended use."

As for Sinclair's assertion that part of the problem is the sporadic use of church and school vans, Kam said "that doesn't even pass the laugh test, it's so absurd.

"That's sort of scary. Suppose you are taking a business trip and you're parking your car at an airport. You go away for few days. Are they saying, 'Don't drive out of the airport parking lot until you get some maintenance on your tires' ?"

The 59-cent solution

In 1996, Goodyear chose to fix the most problematic tires in the most problematic tire line by changing the way they were made: covering their steel belts with a nylon overlay to hold the tire together, according to Sinclair.

The overlay was cost-effective, company records show: it would eliminate damage and warranty claims, cutting the cost of repairs by 80 percent. That left a repair cost of 59 cents per tire, according to the company's 1998 projection.

The rest of the problem tires would get the upgrade to the nylon layer in time, the officials decided in January 1996. Sinclair said Goodyear officials delayed those repairs because they wanted to make sure the nylon overlay worked before installing it across the board.

Spagnoli, the California plaintiffs' attorney, doubts that. "I believe they delayed the repairs because they didn't want to spend the money," she said.

Besides, she added, Goodyear already knew the overlay worked: One of its own engineers got a patent in the early 1990s that described the effectiveness of nylon overlays in preventing tread separation in passenger vehicles and light trucks.

According to the Wall Street Journal, that same engineer testified in a deposition that adding the overlay to large numbers of tires involved "some megabucks" and the company had to be certain there were not "alternative solutions that were more cost effective."

Goodyear, according to the confidential court records, tried beefing up components of those problem tires that did not immediately get the nylon overlay. Those tweaks, the records show, were "not effective in reducing damage claims to acceptable levels."

Goodyear finished installing the upgrade on all Load Range E tires in mid 2000, according to Sinclair. By then, he said, several million of the nonupgraded tires had been produced.

Plaintiffs' attorneys said Goodyear's decisions killed and injured people.

One person possibly affected by the decision to phase in the upgrade was Mrs. Dow, the art teacher whose arm was amputated in a crash last year. The school district van in which she rode was equipped with Goodyear Workhorse tires made in October 1997. That's nearly two years after Goodyear decided not to put the nylon overlay on all its light-truck tires; Workhorse tires were near the bottom of the upgrade list, according to company documents, and the tires on the school district van did not have the overlay, Dow's attorney said.

In another case last year, a Baptist church van, carrying eight children and three adults on an outing in Alabama, was equipped with Kelly Springfield tires made in March 1996, three months after Goodyear decided to delay upgrading some tires. The wreck killed youth chaperones Charles and Lisa Johnson. Once again, the tire lacked the upgrade, according to the attorney representing their estate.

In 1997, a Chevrolet Suburban carrying six Air Force personnel to a base in Saudi Arabia was equipped with Goodyear Wranglers, made in August 1996 without the overlay. That's eight months after Goodyear chose to delay upgrading some tires. Two lieutenant colonels and a sergeant were killed; the other three servicemen were injured.

The wrecks that plaintiffs' attorneys blame on Load Range E tires involve five ambulances, three church vans, an LAPD bomb squad vehicle, a Department of Interior truck, an Idaho fire truck, a federal prison van, a University of Oklahoma van and a van owned by Camp Courageous, Iowa, a retreat for handicapped kids.

Again, Goodyear contends that the cause of the tread separations was misuse of or injury to the tire, not a manufacturing defect.

Epstein, the public interest attorney, isn't satisfied with that explanation.

"Goodyear didn't report this issue to government initially and didn't recall these tires," she said. "A lot of people don't know there's a problem. These tires are built for vehicles that carry a lot of people at a time, which increases the potential for harm per accident.

"We want it to be known to others, so they can understand this pattern of tires failing. It is a matter of public safety affecting so many Americans."

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