Defective Firestone Tires

Author(s): C. Richard Newsome
Date Published: February 1, 2002
Originally Published In: The Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers Journal

In this article:

Tire Defects Overview

During the past 18 months, there has been extensive media attention to issues involving defective Firestone tires on Ford Explorers. With both Firestone and Ford announcing massive recalls, and hundreds of related deaths, consumers and potential jurors have become much more receptive to the concept that corporate America often puts profits over safety.Recent focus groups have confirmed that both jurors and voters alike are more receptive to the issues we advocate as trial lawyers because of the Ford/Firestone story.

Because of the timeliness of this issue, this month's Product Liability column will provide an overview of the tread separation problem in general, an overview of other tire defect issues, and an update on Firestone and other litigation against tire manufacturers.

Defect Overview: Tread Separation

Most passenger car and light truck tires manufactured today are steel-belted radial construction. One of the most common failure modes in steel belted radial tires is tread belt separation—a problem that is now in the popular vocabulary because of the Firestone/Ford debacle. Tread belt separations occur primarily due to poor bonding or adhesion of the tread and belts to the tire carcass and may result from both manufacturing and design defects.

In the first stage of the radial tire building process, the inner liner, beads, bead reinforcing strips and sidewalls are assembled. During the second stage of the manufacturing process a rubber coating known as skim stock is applied, followed by the steel belts. A final layer of skim stock is added, then the tread is applied around the steel belts creating what is known as the "green" tire. The green tire is then put through a final curing process in which the tire is vulcanized or "cooked" using heat and pressure. The process of vulcanization bonds all the tire components so they become a unified structure. After vulcanization, the tire is mounted on a curing rim and cooled.

In order to bond the rubber to the steel belts in a radial tire, manufacturers coat steel belts with brass because rubber does not adhere to steel. While the rubber does adhere to brass, brass has a tendency to break down and degrades the adhesion over time. In addition to the difficulties with bonding between rubber and metal components, there is also the potential for rubber-to-rubber separation, which are almost entirely related to manufacturing or tire design problems.

There are a number of other reasons why tire components may not fuse together including under vulcanization, improperly sized strips being used in the building process, trapped air in the rubber, rubber compound blooming (blooming is when one or more of the ingredients in the rubber compound does not remain dissolved and migrates to the surface forming a layer), excessive swabbing with petroleum based liquids in an attempt to "freshen" skim stock that has lost its necessary tack, contamination introduced during the manufacturing process (sweat, grease, dust, moisture), and bad compound mixtures and skim stock formulas.

Many tread and belt separations begin as cracks at the belt edge, which is the area of the tire that subjected to the greatest amount of stress. The cracks grow over time during normal use of the tire, and can ultimately lead to a catastrophic tread belt separation resulting in the entire tread becoming separated from the tire. This problem is exacerbated by driving at highway speeds, by high ambient temperatures (such as in southern states), by low tire inflation, and by vehicle loading.

The Firestone litigation focused on Firestone ATX and Wilderness tires on Ford Explorers which experienced catastrophic tread separation. However, most other major tire manufacturers have also been sued for injuries and deaths caused by tread separation.

Defect Overview: Debeading

The bead area of a tire, which consists of reinforced steel bands, is designed to seat against the vehicle rim when it is inflated. A tire can "debead" when the bead area is forced from its seat and results in rapid air loss.

Debeading most often occurs when the vehicle is exposed to high lateral loads (i.e., either during extreme cornering maneuvers or when the vehicle is sliding sideways.) The potential for debeading increases with lower inflation pressures. Tire debeading results in rapid deflation of the tire and may cause a "rim trip" wherein the lip of the tire rim digs into the roadway or ground and causes the vehicle to rollover.

During handling maneuvers to test stability conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) three vehicles (Ford Ranger, Ford Explorer, and Chevrolet Lumina) experienced tire debeading. Interestingly, the now recalled Firestone Wilderness tires on the Ford vehicles were inflated to Ford's recommended 26 psi, which in addition to creating more heat build-up and risk of tread separation, contributes to debeading and subsequent loss of vehicle control. The 26 psi inflation pressure was alleged to be one of the causal factors of Firestone tire tread separation -- Ford now recommends 30 psi.

Defect Overview: Zipper Failures

A "zipper failure" can occur when the sidewall of the tire bursts and explodes primarily during inflation causing injury to tire mounters and those in the surrounding area. The pattern of the rupture usually resembles an open zipper, hence the name. When the sidewall of a tire has been crushed, the steel sidewall cords often become kinked. A kink causes permanent weakness in the cords. During inflation, the sidewall cords begin to fracture and if one cord breaks the remaining cords follow, succumbing to the additional strain. The fracture zips along the line of damaged cords and the tire violently explodes open.

While most zipper failures occur during the tire inflation process sometimes a weakened tire can be fully inflated without any signs of trouble until it is subjected to minimal stress. This type of failure is most commonly found in steel casing radial truck tires used by trucks and can occur with either new or retreaded tires.

Defect Overview: Mismatched Tires and Wheel Rims

The most common cause of tire mounting explosions occurs due to mismatching tire and rim sizes. This is a serious hazard to tire fitters who are required to select an appropriate tire for a wheel. Until the introduction of the 16.5 inch wheel, these types of accidents were rare. The 16.5 inch wheel will accept a 16 inch tire, but this mismatch will most likely result in bead hang up and explosion. Poor labeling and weak beads contribute to the hazard.

During mounting of the tire to the rim, the bead can get hung up on a portion of the rim. Additional inflation pressure is usually added to seat the bead; however, bead hang up stresses the entire bead bundle and the lack of robustness in this area of the tire contributes to a catastrophic failure. The trajectory of the tire can cause loss of limbs, crushed bones, permanent brain damage and death.

Defect Overview: Multi-Piece Wheels and Rims

Construction equipment and many older trucks utilize wheels that are made of multiple components. The mounting and assembly of multi-piece wheels and rims frequently result in serious injury or death to tire fitters at service stations or tire stores caused by the explosion of the parts during inflation. Because of the numerous types and configurations of multi-piece rims there is an increased chance of error during the assembly and inflation process.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sought to ban multi-piece rims but the tire industry successfully avoided the ban. Instead of a ban the industry was allowed to sponsor a program of public education in the workplace. This public education program amounts to little more than posting safety guidelines for workers of proper techniques for installing rims and mounting tires.

Defective Tire Litigation Update

Prior to Firestone announcing its first recall of ATX and Wilderness tires in August, 2000, there were dozens of personal injury and wrongful death cases filed against Ford and Firestone in state courts across the country. Following the recall, there were hundreds of additional personal injury cases filed in both state and federal court. There were also over 60 class action cases filed against both Ford and Firestone seeking an expanded recall of tires and the Ford Explorer. Some of the class actions also sought compensation for the diminished value of the class members' Ford Explorers. The federal personal injury cases and the class action suits were consolidated in a Multi-District Litigation (or "MDL") in the Southern District of Indiana. The MDL is still pending. While many of the state court personal injury cases have been settled by both Ford and Firestone, many cases are still pending. There have been only two cases in which a jury has been empanelled involving ATX or Wilderness tire tread separation; both of these cases settled prior to a verdict.

During the past 18 months there have also been a number of substantial verdicts, settlements and noteworthy news stories involving other tire manufacturers. A few of which are noted below:

  • On April 12, 2001, an El Paso, Texas jury awarded $9.7 million to Oscar Mendez, the driver of a minivan, and the estates of three of the passengers who died in a rollover accident in which the tread separated from a 14-inch Cooper tire. The plaintiffs charged that the tread separation caused the accident in which the minivan rolled. Mendez v. Cooper Tire and Rubber Co., 974119 (Co. Ct., El Paso, Texas)
  • The following day on April 13, 2001, a Los Angeles jury ordered Continental General tire to pay $55.32 million for a tread separation defect which caused a rollover accident that left Cynthia Lampe a quadriplegic. The focus of the case was Continental General's 15-inch AmeriTech ST tire. Lampe's lawyers argued that contaminants in the tire's rubber weakened the adhesion between the rubber and steel belts, causing the components to pull apart and for the tread to peel. Lampe v. Continental General Tire, BC 3131 (L.A. Super. Ct)
  • Goodyear was recently in the news because of allegations that it had conducted a "silent recall" - replacing tires that customers complained about without telling anyone there was a problem. The tires in question included various sizes of Goodyear's heavy-duty Load Range E tires used on large pickup trucks, 15 passenger vans, trailers, recreational vehicles, ambulances and some SUVs. These tires were involved in a large number of accidents, resulting in deaths and injuries. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is investigating whether Goodyear should recall these tires.

Consumer Advocate's Discovery of Firestone Oversears Recall Prompts U.S. Recall

On July 31st consumer safety advocate Sean Kane, President of Strategic Safety, issued a press release regarding Firestone Wilderness and ATX tires which set off an avalanche of media attention and public concern. Strategic Safety’s press release announced their discovery of Ford’s voluntary recall of certain Firestone tires in Venezuela.

A week after the press release, Ford and Firestone announced a limited recall in the US for Firestone ATX tires and for 15-inch Wilderness tires built in Firestone’s Decatur, Illinois plant. The recall excludes 16-inch tires and Wilderness tires built in plants other than Decatur, leaving millions of owners at risk. Consumer groups and attorneys reacted to the recall by demanding that Firestone and Ford expand their recall to include all ATX and Wilderness tires.

Arguments in favor of an expanded recall include:

  • Ford's overseas recalls show that the company replaced both 15-inch and 16-inch tires in foreign markets. Ford and Firestone continue to refuse to recall 16-inch tires in the U.S. claiming differences in environmental conditions and usage patterns, the same argument that the companies used when confronted with the foreign recalls. Ford and Firestone have failed to explain why environmental conditions and usage patterns affect one size tire and not the other.
  • Ford and Firestone argue that the 16-inch tires on U.S. models are being excluded from the recall because of the lower number of failures associated with this size. Overall failure numbers are expected to be lower because fewer vehicles and model years are fitted with the 16-inch tires.
  • Firestone documents indicate that the Wilderness A/T P235/75R15 tires made at the Decatur plant are produced with no significant differences from those produced at Firestone’s Joliette and Wilson plants.
  • Bridgestone/Firestone workers at the Decatur plant claim that tires built at their plant are made from the same stock and design used by all the plants.
  • Ford has an equal or greater responsibility to recall the subject tires, as 45 of the 50 known fatal injuries were to occupants in Ford vehicles, and 253 of the 270 complaints identified by NHTSA involve Ford vehicles. Ford's responsibility is heightened by its involvement in the design and specification of the tires Firestone manufactures for its vehicles.

Many lawsuits have been filed against Firestone and Ford in relation to the this problem. As NHTSA’s probe continues and as the litigation matures, additional information Firestone’s and Ford’s knowledge about the problem and their timing of the recall is expected to develop.

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