[Update, August 26, 2013: After some further bickering and litigation in the Haeger case, the Court granted the plaintiff’s motion for attorney’s fees, then ordered “judgment in favor Plaintiffs and against Graeme Hancock in the amount of $548,240.23 and against Basil J. Musnuff and the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. in the amount of $2,192,960.93.”]

Over at Safety Research, Sean Kane details a recent order from the federal court in Arizona entering sanctions against Goodyear and its lawyers for concealing testing data in a tire failure case. As every product liability lawyer knows well, the concealment of evidence by tire manufacturers and car companies is pretty much routine these days. It doesn’t matter how specific your request is, how many times you ask, or if you have several court hearings or court orders on your side: the car and tire companies will tell you that they have no safety testing or crash investigations that relate in any way to the products involved in your case. That is, of course, until you retain an expert to point out that the company apparently didn’t do any safety testing of its own products — at which point you will have thousands of studies and investigations dumped on your lap, but none involving the product at issue in your case. It’s a funny coincidence that way.

I’ve written before about the national scandal of tire failures, in which old and otherwise defective tires kill people every day. Tires are more than just rubber — numerous compounds are woven and glued together — but, when all is said and done, the tire is only as strong as its weakest link, and that weakest link is often a rubber compound or an adhesive. In hotter temperatures, and at higher speeds, the temperature of the tire goes up, making failure more likely. Simple chemistry.

Simple, but still too much for Goodyear. The deadly Goodyear G159 tire is well-known among trial lawyers. The tire was first designed for use on regional delivery trucks, which typically don’t travel at high speeds and which often stop. As baby-boomers began to age into their fifties in the 1990s, the Recreational Vehicle market grew rapidly, and Goodyear wanted to capitalize on it, so they re-branded the G159 as an RV tire, and it was adopted as the standard tire on several Fleetwood and Monaco RVs.

Problem was, the G159 wasn’t meant to withstand the weight of an RV at high interstate speeds (and sometimes in high temperatures in the South and the Southwest) for long durations. The tires began to fail at an alarming rate, prompting a wave of litigation, but no recall — and plenty of G159 tires are still out there, some as spares, getting older and even less reliable as the rubber and glue compounds dry out over time.

The Haeger case is thus almost routine by product liability standards: back in 2003, a husband and wife were seriously injured when the Goodyear G159 tires on their motor home failed while they were driving on the interstate. In the Haeger lawsuit, Goodyear was asked to produce a variety of high temperature and high speed testing, but didn’t, and repeatedly told the Court and the plaintiff’s lawyers otherwise. The case settled on the eve of trial; nearly a year later, the plaintiff’s lawyer was reading about another G159 case that went to trial and resulted in a $5.6 million verdict. The newspaper article mentioned the plaintiffs there had used at trial “Goodyear documents including internal heat and speed testing and 13 failure rate data” — the same studies Goodyear and its lawyers said didn’t exist in the Haeger lawsuit.

The plaintiff’s lawyer was, shall we say, upset, and wrote to Goodyear’s lawyer, who promptly admitted they hadn’t produced the studies, and claimed everyone — Court included — knew it! Unsurprisingly, the plaintiff’s lawyer disagreed, and so filed for sanctions.  Sean Kane’s post includes the sanction order itself, and I must admit it’s comforting to see, in a court order, confirmation of what product liability plaintiff’s lawyers like me say all the time: corporations routinely conceal evidence. As the Court dug up while considering the sanctions motion, Goodyear’s lawyers didn’t disclose evidence as required by court rules and court orders; instead, their internal emails showed they only produced what, they said, “serves our best interest to produce.”

But I don’t want to dwell on those details. 
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Once you’ve been a trial lawyer for long enough, there are some consumer products you just don’t look at the same anymore, because you’ve heard about them too many times from other trial lawyers or because you’ve sat across a conference table from someone telling you about the worst thing that ever happened to their family. ATVs cause a death or two every day. Gas cans without a flame arrestor or a spill-proof lid severely burn a child under six years old every day or two. Trampolines send 275 kids and teenagers to the emergency room with serious injuries every day.

So it goes with tire failures, which cause a death or two a day, and 15-passenger vans, which have a fatal crash or two every week. Tire blowouts and tread separation are so common, and passenger vans so prone to rollovers, that, when I saw the main characters in Inception get into a Ford E-Series, I instinctively thought, “they’re going to roll it.” (Sure enough, they did, though in fairness to the van, they were being rammed.)

Last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sent out a well-meaning press release warning “colleges, church groups, and other users of 15-passenger vans” to take additional precautions, because:

Recognizing that 15-passenger vans are particularly sensitive to loading, the agency warns users never to overload these vehicles under any circumstances. NHTSA research shows overloading 15-passenger vans both increases rollover risk and makes the vehicle more unstable in any handling maneuvers.

Tire pressure can vary on front and back tires that are used for 15-passenger vans. This is why the agency urges vehicle users to make certain the vans have appropriately-sized and load rated tires that are properly inflated before every trip. Taking into account the fact that tires degrade over time, NHTSA recommends that spare tires not be used as replacements for worn tires. In fact, many tire manufacturers recommend that tires older than 10 years not be used at all.

It’s those last two sentences that drive trial lawyers like me bonkers. The NHTSA knows that’s a grossly inadequate warning and knows most consumers have no idea about the real danger of tire failure or how to prevent it. Old tires and their propensity towards tread separation and blowout are a simple scientific fact, but the $30 billion tire industry, the NHTSA, and some courts have all resisted accepting it for years.

Nudged forward by the Bridgestone / Ford Explorer tragedies, the NHTSA in August 2007 finally published its report on tire aging and accidents, but frustratingly concluded only that “NHTSA’s research supports the conclusion that the age of a tire, along with factors such as average air temperature and inflation, plays some role in the likelihood of its failure,” without making any real conclusions. They’ve initiated a follow-up study.

The car manufacturers, though, have long since distanced themselves from the idea that tires can last forever, or that the only time that matters is “time in service.” The ten year expiration date referenced by the NHTSA is what the tire manufacturers begrudgingly admit to, but the real figure from the car manufacturers is six years. Ford, Chrysler, Nissan, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Toyota all say six years. I don’t know of any car manufacturer willing to recommend a longer date.

Why not? Because they know tires after six years, particularly in hot climates, will oxidize and break down, so that the glue holding the tire together starts to degrade, making tread separation far more likely. Car companies may or may not make safety job #1, but they sure do respond to lawsuits, and the more times they get hit with multi-million dollar verdicts for knowingly having defective tires on their vehicles, the more likely they are to do something about it.

Yet, apparently there haven’t been enough lawsuits, because there are still tens of thousands of expired and dangerous tires out there. As Rich Newsome noted while discussing a Yokohama recall, the danger is a matter of high-school chemistry: 
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