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Two tire companies punctured by juries

Has Firestone fallout created a “tort du jour” with tires as the main course?

The National Law Journal
By Margaret Cronin Fisk
SPECIAL TO THE NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL

The bad publicity over the failures of Firestone tires may be affecting actions against other tiremakers.

On two successive days in April, Cooper Tire and Rubber Co. was hit with $9.7 million verdict in Texas and Continental General Tire was hammered with a $55.32 million jury awarded in California, providing the latest indications that this is not the best time to be a tire company.

Lawsuits claiming failures in tires have become “the tort de jour,” said defense attorney John Bell of Chicago’s Johnson & Bell. “It’s like a feeding frenzy. Plaintiffs’ lawyers are looking through their inventory, seeing if any of their cases can be turned into a tire case.”

Because of widespread reports of Firestone tire-tread separations causing accidents, he said, “the prospective jury pool is now sensitized to charges of bad tires and cover-ups and defense attorneys have had to deal with this psychology.”

Any increase in lawsuits against tire companies is not being caused by plaintiffs’ attorneys attacking a newly vulnerable industry, countered Brian J. Panish of Santa Monica, California’s Greene, Broillet, Taylor, Wheeler & Panish, the plaintiffs’ counsel in the trial against General Tire.

The suits are a reflection of practices in the industry which are creating blow-out-prone tires, he said.

“Tire manufacturers are trying to product too many tires,” he said. “The tires are being driven at higher speeds and the tire makers haven’t improved the designs” to handle the higher speeds.

The verdict in California was the largest ever against a tire manufacturer in a tread-separation case.

In June 1996, plaintiff Cynthia Lampe was driving a 1993 Ford Taurus when “the left rear tire tread separated and came flying off the tire, causing her to lose control of the car,” Mr. Panish said. Ms. Lampe was rendered quadriplegic; her mother Sylvia Cortez, was also injured.

Ms. Lampe and her parents sued Continental General Tire, maker of the AmeriTech ST tire on the Taurus, contending defects in the design and manufacture of the tire. The tire on the Taurus was manufactured at General Tire’s Mount Vernon, Ill., plant, said plaintiffs’ attorney Taras Kick of the Los Angeles’ The Kick Law Firm.

“The plant management routinely ordered the floors swept up, then instead of dumping the waste, worked it back into the rubber mix.” This contaminated the tires, he said.

The plaintiffs also contended, said Mr. Panish, that “the insulation strips on the tires were not thick enough,” and that General Tire “didn’t use belt wraps to prevent tread separation.”

“There were no defects in the tire,” said defense counsel Walter Yoka of Los Angeles’ Yoka & Smith. The separation was cuased by “prior impact damage,” which likely occurred several hundred miles before the accident, he said. Whatever the contamination, he said, “this did not cause or initiate the separation.” The other AmeriTech ST tires on the Taurus, he added, “showed no evidence of any separation.”

But, on April 13, a Los Angeles jury ordered Continental General Tire to pay $55.32 million, including $49.85 million to Mrs. Lampe. The jury found defects in the manufacture of the AmeriTech, but no design flaws.

Mr. Yoka said that the publicity over the Firestone tires “may have bled over into our case, but its hard to be certain. I think it’s fair to say that the monumental amount of publicity has had some impact on the ability of a tire manufacturer to get a fair result.” General Tire is filing motions to set aside the verdict.

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