By Russ and Tiña De Maris
A consumer group is saying Goodyear Tire could be treading on thin ice with the federal government’s safety watchdog, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Earlier this month, the agency opened an investigation of complaints concerning Goodyear’s G159 tires, popular among some Class-A motorhome owners.
The tires in question were manufactured between 1996 and 2003, but only came under NHTSA’s radar recently – which at this point figures there could be as many as 40,000 of the tires still in service on America’s roadways. What problems raised the red flag? Here’s a sampling:
A motorhome owner reported that within a two-month period, two of the G159 tires on his rig blew, both “occurred on the inner sidewall of the inside right tire, the tire tread was undamaged but a hole was blown in the sidewall of the tire.”
Another user reported tire tread separation causing his unit to hit a guardrail. On impact, the steering wheel jerked hard enough to injure the driver. Another motorhome owner reported two of his G159s blasted apart, just four days from one another. On the first occasion a blown tire damaged his rig. Four days later, another blew, this time careening the motorhome into oncoming traffic. Happily no accident occurred but, reported the RVer, “Goodyear denied any responsibilities.”
The federal safety agency says it hasn’t been in the light on a great deal more data that Goodyear has been sitting on – because of court orders that have sealed reportedly thousands of documents pertinent to the failures of other G159 tires. Why sealed? Because of court-approved settlements – information that consumer-advocacy group Center for Auto Safety (CAS) wants the light turned on by an official release to the public.
CAS claims that these motorhome tires have brought on “at least 98 deaths or injury claims,” in addition to more than 600 property damage claims. CAS says that Goodyear has settled numerous cases with consumers and buried the information under confidentiality clauses.
On the other hand, Goodyear maintains that quality and safety are hallmarks of their products. In a statement to reveal.com, a Goodyear spokesman wrote, “Our tires undergo rigorous testing and inspection throughout the product release and production process to ensure our specifications are met. And before they are shipped, our tires are tested for uniformity, visually inspected and evaluated to make sure they conform to our rigorous standards. We also continuously monitor the performance of our tires in the field to confirm the integrity of our products.”
One case involving an RVing family may cause some to wonder whether Goodyear has a higher concern for its bottom line than for the safety of its customers. In June 2003, LeRoy Haeger was piloting his 38′ Class A motorhome from Arizona to a conference in New Mexico. At a fateful moment on Interstate 25, the rig’s right front tire, a Goodyear G159, blew out, causing LeRoy to lose control.
The rig blasted off the pavement, over an embankment, stopping on its side. The family dog, a Great Dane, was ejected through the front windshield. LeRoy was pinned behind the steering wheel, and remained so until first responders could literally saw through the wheel to free him. When doctors assessed his injuries they found his right leg nearly severed below the knee, he had injuries to his abdomen and chest, as well as a dislocated elbow. Two other family members in the motorhome were trapped and had to wait until rescuers could free them. LeRoy went through 17 surgeries and dealt with chronic pain in the years that followed. He finally died – not from his injuries—but from cancer.
Two years after the accident, the family filed a lawsuit against Goodyear, alleging the tire company’s culpability in the accident. Before reaching the courtroom in 2010, Goodyear settled with the family. Here’s where it gets a little scary: A year or so later, the attorney which had represented the family in the case spotted an article about Goodyear’s G159 tires. That article indicated that Goodyear had done specific testing on those tires – and had information in its possession that the family had asked for prior to settlement, and yet was never provided to them by Goodyear.
THE ATTORNEY THEN FILED a motion to have Goodyear punished for allegedly committing fraud by refusing to disclose the testing information in discovery. A court found that Goodyear and its legal representative had “deliberately tried to frustrate attempts to resolve the case on its merits.” While the court could not impose monetary sanctions on a settled matter, it could order Goodyear to pay the Haeger family’s legal expenses for all costs for the time after their attorney had requested the never-provided records, to the tune of more than $2 million dollars. Goodyear appealed; an appeals court agreed with the original ruling. Goodyear appealed again to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that Goodyear couldn’t be held liable for the whole amount, and remanded the case back to the lower court to come up with a final amount.
Consumer group CAS says it knows of at least 40 legal cases against Goodyear over the G159 tires in a decade. It feels many of those cases were settled – and, just as was done with the Haeger family, the information was sealed as “confidential.” So confidential, that not even the federal agency charged with keeping an eye on the safety of America’s driving public could have it. However, a relatively recent court order released some sealed data to NHTSA, including the information from the Haeger case.
“This is a case between Goodyear and a private party,” says a NHTSA statement. “NHTSA is not a party to the litigation. The court order authorized the release of Goodyear information to NHTSA. In so doing, the court modified a prior order forbidding the parties from disclosing the Goodyear information to any other person or entity.” It is this data that the Center for Auto Safety wants released, and it has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for it. Just how this will fall out in the long run remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, NHTSA officials say that not only do they have the previously hidden data from Goodyear, they also have 10 individual consumer complaints of tire failures from G159 customers – two cases which involved crashes. NHTSA has also received information from Goodyear about nine other tire failure reports, these involving 13 injuries and one death. With all this in hand, NHTSA says, “The number of these claims suggests that the failures may stem from a safety-related defect.” While a recall can be initiated by the manufacturer, and has not happened in this case, NHTSA, after doing an investigation, may decide to issue one. If a recall order is issued, then, according federal regulations, “the manufacturer must file a public report describing the safety-related defect or noncompliance with a Federal motor vehicle safety standard, the involved vehicle/equipment population, the major events that resulted in the recall determination, a description of the remedy, and a schedule for the recall. NHTSA monitors each safety recall to ensure the manufacturers provide owners safe, free, and effective remedies according to the Safety Act and Federal regulations.”
Got one or more Goodyear G159 tires? You might not want to drive on them, but you may still want to