Defective tires can cause accidents, resulting in serious injuries to both drivers and passengers. Tire defects such as tread separations and tire blowouts have been responsible for many injuries and wrongful deaths. Statistics on tire defects show the rates of accidents due to defective tires are higher in SUV accidents and truck wrecks. When a defective radial tire loses its tread, the tire sustains a blowout, often causing a loss of control leading to an accident or rollover, possibly even flipping over several times. As it does so, the roof structure will crush in, shattering the safety glass or perhaps popping open the doors. Even if the occupants are properly buckled in, they will be subject to violent motions. Their limbs may protrude from the exterior of the vehicle, or the dynamic forces may cause their belts to fail entirely, throwing them from the tumbling vehicle. Tire makers have, as do manufacturers of all products, a responsibility to ensure that their products do not harm consumers. If they do, the manufacturer can be held strictly liable under the law.
Types of Tire Defects
Several types of tire failures can cause a tire to be labeled defective. Tire bead failure, Multi-Piece Wheel explosions, and zipper failures all result in defective tires. Tire bead failure explosions usually occur during the tire mounting process as a result of a latent design defect. Most light truck and passenger tires employ a .037 inch weftless bead configuration which is subject to failure at pressures as low as 38 pounds per square inch. Low pressure explosions most often occur if the splice of the bead wire becomes impeded during inflation of the tire. This is commonly referred to as bead hang-up and has been documented in the patent literature, industry documents, and litigation since the mid 1950s. When a bead failure explosion occurs in close proximity to a flat surface the resulting trajectory of the tire and rim can cause devastating injuries including amputation of limbs, crushing of facial bones and brain damage. The bead design hazard was substantially increased by the introduction of the unnecessary 16.5" rim size which will allow the mounting of a 16" tire but will always result in bead hang-up and potential low pressure explosions.
Multi-Piece Wheel Explosions
Multi-piece wheels (rims), often referred to as "widow-makers", have caused countless serious injuries and deaths to tire mounters since their introduction. There are various multi-piece wheel configurations, all of which are potentially dangerous. In almost all applications the multi-piece wheel can and should be replaced by a single-piece configuration wheel which has been available since the mid 1960s and which eliminates this hazard. OSHA has addressed the problem with guidelines that can somewhat reduce the hazard. However, one can still be injured or killed even if the OSHA guidelines are followed. For example, OSHA guidelines provide that multi-piece wheels should be inflated in safety cages. Tragically, accidents often occur after the tire and wheel are removed from the safety cage for mounting on the vehicle.
Sidewall zipper failures typically occur during the inflation process. There is almost no way to determine whether a tire is subject to zipper failure. The sidewall of a tire catastrophically fails, often injuring the inflator and/or bystanders. These failures are referred to as "zipper failures" because of the appearance of the sidewall after the explosion. Despite widespread documentation of the problem and numerous accidents and injuries, the only action taken by the tire industry to date has been to issue vague warnings of the hazard. Passenger and light truck tire tread separations are an unfortunate by-product of steel-belted radial tire technology. Due to the difficulty in obtaining adhesion of steel to rubber there is a potential for tread separation of all steel-belted radial tires. This is true especially at high speeds in hot weather. Industry records verify that tread belt separations are the most common mode of failure of steel belted radial tires. Separations result from both design and manufacturing defects. Recent examples of this have included the Firestone ATX and Wilderness tires on Ford Explorers, Continental General tires on Lincoln Navigators, the Firestone Steeltex tires on Excursions, and the Goodyear Load Range E tires on 15-passenger vans There are some alarming similarities between all of the recalled tires in both the failure mode and the causes for failure. It is noteworthy that tread separation problems often first surface in the warmer regions of this country and around the world. We also see the inherent design defects in many steel-belted radial tires exacerbated by underinflation which on some occasions is recommended by the vehicle manufacturer. It is important to note that all manufacturers have suffered steel belted radial tire tread belt separations since the 1970s. Tread belt separations are not limited to Firestone, Goodyear or General tires. There has been extensive tread belt separation litigation involving Cooper tires, Uniroyal-Goodrich tires, as well as other manufacturers. The results of tread separation can be catastrophic. Tread belt separations frequently cause tire blowouts. Even when the tire does not lose pressure the driver often loses control of the vehicle when the tread and belt separate from the carcass of the tire resulting in vehicle loss of control and rollovers that have resulted in thousands of serious injuries and fatalities. When the tread comes off of a vehicle at high speed, the driver sometimes hears a loud thumping noise before the vehicle goes out of control. The loss of control can be due to a combination of factors, including friction or braking action as the loose tread piece strikes against or catches on the undercarriage of the vehicle. When a rear tire is involved, this results in a braking action in the direction of the tire failure. When the driver attempts to correct for this braking action the vehicle usually goes out of control in the opposite direction. This is often mistakenly referred to as overcorrection. In truth, it is the normal appropriate reaction to the braking phenomenon experienced by the driver. This sequence of events occurs so rapidly that it is virtually impossible to handle most high speed tread separation failures and resulting loss of control of the vehicle. This was demonstrated by tests of Ford Explorers with Firestone tires in which an experienced test driver, who knew the tread was going to separate, lost control and the vehicle rolled over. The rollover problem is exacerbated by high-center-of-gravity vehicle designs such as employed in popular sport utility vehicles. The tire design problem can be overcome by use of proper wedges and cushions at the belt edges, an appropriate under tread protecting the steel belt edges, and a nylon overlay design modification known as "safety belts", widely used in tires manufactured for the European market as well as many American tires. Nylon overlays virtually eliminate tread separations unless the tire has a significant design or manufacturing defect. Even then, the nylon overlays will substantially delay failure. Manufacturing defects can be substantially reduced by appropriate adhesion, proper manufacturing practices, and adequate quality control measures. Some plant practices which contribute to tread belt separation include improper curing, the use of over aged "dry" rubber stock, use of petroleum solvent on tire components prior to vulcanization, moisture or foreign matter cured into the tire, improper repairs, inadequate final inspection and an emphasis on production or quantity over quality and safety. Many plants run on twelve-hour shifts with the tire builders working on a quota incentive system which unduly stresses workers. When examining a separated tire one should look closely at the separation interface to determine whether there is any rusty wire, bare wire or brassy wire exposed. Corroded wire is usually evidence of moisture contamination during manufacturing. Bare wire is an indication of a manufacturing adhesion defect. Brassy wire is a strong indication of no adhesion. High resolution photographs should be taken of any exposed surfaces as quickly after the accident as possible to document any exposed wire conditions and the condition of the surface where the tire has delaminated. Traditionally, the tire industry has attempted to shift the burden for defective tires to the victim in the accident. They assert that tread separations are the result of impact damage or underinflation. In fact, underinflation does not cause tread belt separation in a properly constructed, properly designed tire. However, if a tire has manufacturing or design defects and it is run underinflated, underinflation can accelerate tread belt separation. Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible for the consumer to determine whether a steel belted radial tire is underinflated by visual inspection. It is often difficult, if not impossible for people who are forensic tire experts to determine upon visual examination whether a tire has incipient tread belt separation prior to the actual failure of the tire that causes the steel belt(s) and tread to separate from the carcass. The potential for underinflation is increased by the air permeability of steel belted radial tires. All steel belted radial tires leak air. Design and manufacturing defects can accelerate this leakage rate. Because of the air permeability of steel belted radial tires almost all tires are run underinflated at some time during the course of their lifetime and, as noted, this is usually not observable by the consumer. Accordingly, the victim is usually unaware that the tire is underinflated and certainly unaware that underinflation will result in tread belt separation which in a properly constructed tire would not occur. Likewise, impact damage does not cause tread belt separation. Impact damage can cause failure of a tire, but it is not a tread separation failure. Tire manufacturers often claim that damaging information contained in their records is trade secret and should not be disclosed. The truth of the matter is, comprehensive analysis of steel belted radial tires is reported to tire manufacturers by Smithers Scientific Services so that all of the tire manufacturers are routinely provided with the physical properties and chemical makeup of their competitors' products. Tire manufacturers also reverse engineer their competitors' products on a continuing basis and are well aware of the composition of tires manufactured by their competitors. They purchase raw materials and tire manufacturing equipment from the same vendors. Accordingly, there is very little bona fide trade secret information that is not known by all tire manufacturers about their competitors' tires. They all build tires essentially the same way with essentially the same equipment. Tire manufacturers also occasionally build tires for their competitors under the competitor's brand name. Unfortunately, unless someone is seriously injured or killed, they have very little recourse against tire manufacturers. Consumers should, however, contact NHTSA to document their accident and should contact a local attorney to see whether it is appropriate to pursue a claim. Increasingly, we are hearing from consumers who are taking action into their own hands and filing small claims against tire manufacturers in local courts. They handle the case on their own because it is virtually impossible to find a lawyer who can pursue a tire claim when there is no serious injury or death. Defective Tire Class Action Lawsuits Consumer class action lawsuits are among the most effective tools consumers have of protecting their power over the marketplace. When a large corporation does something bad which affects a lot of people, a class action lawsuit enables all the affected people to act with one voice. Many lawsuits cannot become class action lawsuits, but those with many plaintiffs who have similar injuries and common legal issues may be combined and declared a class action lawsuit by a judge. Because forming numerous separate lawsuits into a class action is very efficient, it can ease the load on our judicial system and reduce the amount of time and money spent resolving consumer wrongs. Class action lawsuits have kept many defective products off the market and penalized manufacturers who intentionally sold them. Class action lawsuits have rid our schools of dangerous asbestos and eliminated harmful contraceptive devices; they have made cars safer, products more reliable and given consumers a power to effect the market that they would not have otherwise. Because of their power, many interest groups are at work to discredit class action lawsuits, the lawyers who file them and the plaintiffs who unite under them. Politicians scheme to enact laws to restrict them, while corporations seek means to undermine them, if not halt them altogether. Yet class actions remain the best means possible for groups of people to effect change for the benefit of society and to achieve individual justice for themselves. If your injury and case is substantially similar to the legal issues involved in an existing class action lawsuit, you may be able to join the class.