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Goodyear Knew Of Dangerous RV Tire Failures For Over 20 Years: Court Docs

Jalopnik logo Jalopnik 4/5/2018 Ryan Felton

a group of people standing next to a truck: The crash scene in one case involving an RV with Goodyear G159 tires.© Photo: Provided (David Kurtz) The crash scene in one case involving an RV with Goodyear G159 tires.

Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. received failure claims over a tire that was installed on thousands of RVs and is linked to at least nine deaths, dozens of injuries, and hundreds of crashes as early as 1996, the first year it was manufactured and installed on motorhomes, according to court documents obtained exclusively by Jalopnik. The documents also show that Goodyear appears to have vastly underreported the number of failure claims it had received over the tire to federal regulators during a previous inquiry more than a decade ago, and confirm the tire is almost certainly still on the road today.

The documents include a letter attorney David Kurtz, who is pursuing an ongoing case against Goodyear, sent to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last summer, requesting the agency to look into failures related to the tire. It spells out what he’s learned over the last 15 years during a protracted legal battle with the company. He sharply portrays what he describes as an effort by Goodyear to cover up serious issues with the tire, the G159 275/70R 22.5. In previous interviews with Jalopnik, he described the G159 as “the worst tire made in history.” 

In particular, the letter reveals for the first time that Goodyear received failure claims from the G159 as early as 1996—the year the tire was first installed on RVs—until as recently as September 2015, the last year for which Goodyear had disclosed data to Kurtz. The company said as recently as last June that the G159 is still on the road today, Kurtz wrote.

The 29-page letter—which you can read in full below—also says that in response to a 2006 inquiry from NHTSA, Goodyear disclosed only seven injuries from G159 failures, despite having received 74 death and injury claims at the time. Goodyear also represented to NHTSA at the time that it received only 58 failure reports over the G159, the letter says, even though it was aware of 458 crown separations. 

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It confirms previous reporting from Jalopnik, which has published stories on the G159 since an announcement earlier this year by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that it had opened a preliminary investigation into the tire. The probe focuses on tires manufactured by Goodyear between 1996 and 2003 that had been installed on thousands of motorhomes. The tire has been cited in at least 41 lawsuits filed against the company, which plaintiffs say wasn’t suitable for RVs, based on Goodyear’s own internal data and experts.

On Wednesday, a judge in Arizona, John Hannah, unsealed the letter—along with several hundred pages of documents—in response to a request from the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocate group based in Washington D.C. Jalopnik obtained a copy of Kurtz’s letter, along with more than 200 pages of records, from the Maricopa County Superior Court Clerk’s Office.

“Goodyear’s need to maintain the confidentiality of the information or materials produced pursuant to the protective order does not come close to outweighing the public’s need for access (through CAS) with respect to information that relates specifically to the G159 tire,” Hannah wrote.

“That information—primarily concerning the tire’s design, its testing, the decision to market it for use on motor homes, and the adjustment data generated by consumer experience with it—should be made public because it relates to and reveals a substantial potential risk to public health or safety.”

Kurtz declined to comment on the ruling. Goodyear didn’t respond to a direct

request for comment but on Wednesday the company requested that Judge Hannah stop the publication of the letter by calling Jalopnik directly, according to Kurtz and the Center for Auto Safety’s counsel.

The judge held a hearing by phone with Kurtz, and attorneys representing the Center for Auto Safety and Goodyear, the Center’s counsel said. Judge Hannah, the attorneys said, held that he could not and would not make the call, saying that Jalopnik’s not a party to the litigation and therefore not bound by any protective order.

Afterward, Foster Robberson, an attorney representing Goodyear, sent Jalopnik a letter stating that the documents were released in error by the Maricopa County Superior Court clerk’s office, and asked “that you refrain from publishing those documents ... as they remain under seal by the Court.”

“As stated, that is, in fact, the current circumstance,” Robberson said. “Please be advised that if the sealed documents are published or otherwise distributed through you, Goodyear reserves all its rights to pursue remedies at law and in equity.”

When equipped on motorhomes—commonly used for travel on highways at speeds well above 65 mph—the G159s were prone to heat-induced failure, numerous lawsuits allege. NHTSA itself had received claims more than 15 years ago, but the agency said in its announcement of the preliminary investigation that data “produced in litigation was sealed under protective orders and confidential settlement agreements, precluding claimants from submitting it to NHTSA.”

It wasn’t until Kurtz obtained a court order last summer that NHTSA was finally given access to records the attorney obtained during his legal battle with Goodyear that has stretched on for more than a decade. Kurtz first filed suit against Goodyear in 2003 over an incident involving the Haeger family, whose 38-foot RV had G159 tires and crashed on an Arizona highway in 2003, after the vehicle’s right front tire blew out.

Kurtz’s court pleadings describe an exhaustive legal campaign from Goodyear that involved obtaining secret settlements that prohibited victims from sharing evidence with anyone—including other victims—which prevented an official finding of a safety risk with the tire from being found. In that time, Goodyear has been accused of destroying pertinent evidence that includes alleged admissions by an employee that it knew the G159 wasn’t safe for motorhomes.

Kurtz summarized his findings to NHTSA in the letter he sent July 10, 2017. Kurtz alleges he has evidence “that Goodyear’s CEO, Richard Kramer, was personally familiar with failures regarding the G159.”

The Center for Auto Safety’s executive director, Jason Levine, couldn’t comment directly on Kurtz’s letter. The group’s attorneys believed Judge Hannah’s order meant the documents in the case technically still remained sealed, pending a possible appeal from Goodyear.

Levine nonetheless said he was pleased by the judge’s decision.

“What you’re describing, in terms of the widespread use of the tires over dozens of manufacturers and that they remain on the road … is exactly why we want to see these documents public,” Levine said, after Jalopnik described the content of Kurtz’s letter by phone Tuesday. “You’ve got a defective tire used by many thousands of people on many different motorhomes and has led to what is reported to be hundreds of injuries and deaths combined.”

Goodyear’s official line has been that no safety defect exists when the G159 is equipped on motorhomes, despite its own records that point to a serious risk when the tire is used on RVs, and that it was initially designed for “pickup-and-delivery trucks in commercial service.” But Goodyear has argued the issues stem from user error—deflated tires, overloading the vehicle, hitting road debris.

Kurtz’s letter includes an expansive section that’s effectively designed to refute Goodyear’s argument.

In one passage, Kurtz cites the testimony of Goodyear’s court experts in a previous case the attorney filed against the company. Goodyear’s witness, Jim Gardner, testified that a tire like the G159, when properly pressurized and operating at 75 mph or more, would generate an internal temperature of 140-150 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Once a tire exceeds a temperature at 200 degrees F, most commercial medium truck tires will begin to experience degradation of material properties that can lead to tread separation,” Gardner said.

Kurtz found that Goodyear didn’t conduct high-speed tests of the G159 until “eight months after sales commenced,” the letter said.

“The first two tests were taken in August 1996,” he wrote. “Both tires tested failed the 75 mph leg of the test.”

The tests concluded with worrying results, according to the letter. RVs, of course, are used at highway speeds, and Goodyear’s test found the “G159 was developing temperatures well in excess of 250 degrees when tested” for high-speed use.

Goodyear’s own internal publications set forth a maximum 194 degree threshold for the tires to handle, but that was never disclosed to RV manufacturers that used the G159, Kurtz wrote.

And when RV makers Fleetwood and Monaco approached Goodyear about significant failures involving the G159, Goodyear never mentioned the internal test results, according to Kurtz’s letter. The company always pointed to user error as the reason for so many failures.

In correspondence with Fleetwood, for instance, Goodyear wrote: “Tire blowouts can be related to a number of facts, however the key ones being overload, under-inflation, vehicle speeds and road hazards.”

The argument suggests Goodyear believes the more than 700 property damage and casualty claims it received over the G159 were all due to user error.

But Fleetwood or Monaco also weren’t told of the number of failure claims Goodyear had received over the G159, Kurtz wrote.

“... Goodyear would not share with Monaco what it knew about the failures, death and injury claims that had been advanced as of that date,” the leter stated. “Similarly, it would not reveal to Monaco what it knew about the temperatures the G159 was generating from its own tests.”

As an example to rebut Goodyear’s user-error argument, Kurtz cited an incident involving Mark Salem, who owned a Fleetwood motorhome that had G159 tires.

Salem, Kurtz wrote, “is a certified master mechanic and ... he too experienced multiple G159 failures on various positions on his motorhome (one front, two rears over three trips).”

“His coach was weighed,” Kurtz continued. “There was no overload conditions, no left to right weight imbalance and the tires were properly pressurized for the load. Each claim submitted was denied. Goodyear claimed the failures were customer caused.”

Jalopnik previously reported that Goodyear received claims as far back as 1999, but Kurtz’s letter shows the company has disclosed it received notices of G159 failures starting in 1996, the first year it was manufactured and installed on motorhomes.

The claims, Kurtz wrote, show the G159 failed “in all positions on the motorhome (front, rear inner, rear outer).”

“Almost universally all of the failures occur at highway speeds,” he wrote.

The letter also revealed for the first time how many manufacturers utilized the G159. Goodyear’s disclosures, Kurtz wrote, “reveals G159 failures in what appears to be 17 different motorhome manufacturers and 39 separate motorhome models commencing July 1996 and continuing through September 2015.”

For context, Kurtz points to the failure rate of the defective Firestone tires that ensnared Ford in a nationwide scandal nearly two decades ago. Court filings suggest the G159's failure rate is anywhere from 10 to 27 times worse than the Firestone tires deemed defective by NHTSA. Goodyear employees themselves can’t identify any tire made by the company that comes close to the G159's failure rate, Kurtz wrote in the letter.

“Goodyear admits it cannot identify a single Goodyear tire with death or injury claims that approach those revealed by the G159 on an equivalent production basis,” the letter stated.

Kurtz’s efforts found that Goodyear has received at least 98 injury/death claims in total over the tire. Those types of claims were of interest in 2006 to NHTSA, which at the time was conducting an engineering analysis over front tire failures that occurred in motorhomes made by Country Coach with Toyo-manufactured tires.

To compare, NHTSA’s office of defect investigations sent Goodyear what’s known as a peer request to:

Determine the approximate “failure rates” due to tire blowout, tread separation, abrupt loss of air, and the like, for front tires manufactured and sold by Goodyear and installed on Class A motorhomes; and to determine the approximate comparative failure rate due to tire blowout, tread separation, abrupt loss of air and the like, for equivalent tires manufactured and sold by Goodyear and installed in other (non-model) motorhome vehicle applications.

NHTSA, Kurtz wrote in the letter, “made clear the scope of its inquiry regarding ‘failure reports’ with an expressed definition.” That was to include “reports from all sources,” including but not limited to warranty claims, and owner, dealer or manufacturer complaints. Failure reports, NHTSA said, should include “reports of tire failures that Goodyear has determined in its normal and reasonable investigation” of warranty claims, complaints, and reports that were caused by normal wear, misuse or abuse.

NHTSA’s communication, according to Kurtz, “made clear that failure to truthfully respond would subject Goodyear to civil penalties pursuant to 49 U.S.C. Section 30165.” NHTSA has said that some of the claims weren’t required to be reported under federal law, but the discrepancy between what Goodyear knew and what it disclosed is vast, according to Kurtz’s letter.

Among the tires NHTSA was interested in learning about was the G159 tire cited in numerous lawsuits at the time. At the time, Goodyear was aware of 74 death and injury claims, Kurtz wrote, “and it was defending, unknown to NHTSA, dozens of suits across the nation.”

Nevertheless, Goodyear only disclosed seven injuries from G159 failures to NHTSA, according to the letter. The manufacturer was aware of 453 crown separations and hundreds of property damage claims, but in total, Goodyear disclosed to NHTSA only 58 failure reports, the letter said.

“Obviously,” Kurtz wrote, “NHTSA needs to assess the accuracy of Goodyear’s disclosures in light of the data now available.” 

Kurtz’s letter is a dense one that reads like an indictment of Goodyear, capturing how long the company’s alleged scheme to prevent the public from understanding the G159's problems has gone on. For years, the attorney fought Goodyear to turn over relevant property damage and injury and death claims, as well as testing data on the tire. Over time, he has accumulated more than 400,000 pages of documents and has filed more than 1,000 court pleadings.

“Handling this investigation over the last 14 years has caused tremendous personal sacrifice and financial loss for my family,” he wrote.

Kurtz said in the letter that he’s pleased NHTSA is taking up the investigation.

“It has been a long road to receiving judicial consent to share with NHTSA that which I have discovered,” he wrote. “My wife and I have spent years wondering how many more people will get hurt. We had the same discussion a few weeks ago following Goodyear’s acknowledgment in the public courtroom that the G159 is still on the road in 2017. I had no personal doubt that is true.”

Judge Hannah, in his opinion issued Wednesday that unsealed some of the documents, echoed some of Kurtz’s longstanding points about Goodyear’s conduct in handling G159 cases. Goodyear, Hannah wrote, relied on the protective orders it secured in the dozens of G159 cases to prevent “plaintiffs from communicating or sharing information among themselves,” selectively picking what testing data to reveal in certain cases. (A federal judge previously sanctioned Goodyear attorneys involved G159 cases for concealing “relevant documents” and making “misleading and false in-court statements,” according to the opinion.)

“Thus Goodyear could control the information available to each plaintiff,” Hannah wrote.

“Protective orders are meant to allow litigants to maintain the confidentiality of trade secrets and confidential business information,” Hannah said. “Goodyear appears to have been abusing that privilege in the G159 cases. Goodyear arguably used protective orders dishonestly to gain an unwarranted advantage in litigation and to avoid tort liability.”

He went on: “Even in the last stage of this case, after years of litigation over its practices concerning protective orders, Goodyear tried to use the Protective Order improperly for litigation advantage.”

It’s unclear if Goodyear plans to appeal Hannah’s order. A separate federal case filed by Kurtz remains pending. For NHTSA’s part, the agency asked Goodyear on Tuesday for more information on the G159, as well as tires that were used to replace the G159.

The company must respond to NHTSA’s request by May 4.

View letter here.

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