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Lawsuits Over Tire-Tread Separations Gain Momentum

Dec 17, 2004 | The National Law Journal Auto accidents allegedly caused by tire-tread separations are sparking lawsuits across the country, with plaintiffs charging that tire manufacturers are selling tires without warning consumers of the potential risk when the tires get older.

A handful of cases have settled, and about 25 lawsuits are currently pending in several states, including California, Florida, North Carolina and Texas, according to attorneys involved in tire litigation.

The lawsuits allege that tires older than 6 years even if never used could cause fatal accidents due to the degradation of the chemical adhesive that bonds tire treads to tires.

Attorneys for the tire industry counter that many factors could cause tires to deteriorate, and that tire-aging claims are merely a creative way for plaintiffs to present products liability cases. And not all tire-aging cases are plaintiffs' victories or settlements. One case in federal district court in Georgia resulted in a defense verdict in 2003. Miller-Bristow v. Pirelli Tire Corp., No. 1:01-cv-0176-cap (N.D. Ga.).

Much like the actions against the tobacco industry, the heart of the litigation against tire makers is the manufacturers' knowledge of the alleged risk of old tires.


Manufacturers are aware of the potential dangers of old tires, citing European tire manufacturers' recommendation that tires older than 6 years be replaced, regardless of the condition of the tire treads.

In a recent petition to the federal government, Safety Research Strategies, a private Massachusetts-based research and consulting firm specializing in motor vehicle safety, urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to issue consumer advisories warning the public of dangers involving old tires.

In the petition, Sean Kane, president of Safety Research, asserted that "tires with acceptable tread and no significant visible signs of defect or degradation are likely to find their way into service or continue to remain in service regardless of their age."

In a separate interview, Kane asserted that "[t]here's no doubt there are more incidents that are not accounted for."

But Dan Zielinski, a spokesman for the Rubber Manufacturers Association, whose membership includes Bridgestone-Firestone, Michelin North America Inc. and Uniroyal, asserted, "Our members have told us there's no scientific data to establish uniform tire performance limit based on age."

Roy Littlefield, executive vice president of the Tire Industry Association, said tire aging as the cause of accidents is rare. "I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but I've been in the industry since 1979, I've never heard of hard facts [that support tire aging]," he said.


But to prove that manufacturers have knowledge of such risk is not easy. The discovery process in tire-aging cases is time-consuming and costly, attorneys assert.

Zielinski, the rubber manufacturers' spokesman, denied allegations that discovery is burdensome because manufacturers are allegedly hiding test data.

"They're looking for the one document saying 'this is how we screwed up.' Until they get that, they're going to say 'we're not getting what we want,'" Zielinski asserted.

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