If you’ve been around awhile you might remember the deadly Ford-Firestone tire fiasco. The law on reporting tire safety issues was changed because of it. Today, there’s a federal investigation you probably haven’t heard about into a different brand of tire. Goodyear tires once used on motor homes. Goodyear says the tires are safe. But there are serious allegations of a cover up.
Norman Samuel: It was a perfect day for be driving. We got all the way into Alabama and we were about 30, 35 miles out of Tuscaloosa.
Norman Samuel’s wife was driving their motor home in 2002 when they heard a pop it was the sound of the tread peeling off of one of their Goodyear tires.
Norman Samuel: The rig dropped down on the left front and my wife yelled out to me, "Norman, I can't hold it, we're going to crash." And I said, "just do the best you can, it'll all be okay.”
It wasn’t. They had a catastrophic crash. His wife was pinned in the driver’s seat.
Norman Samuel: She was talking, she was wide awake. It was tough, I could see her head starting to swell a little bit from where she had impacted the windshield. Her left foot was severed, completely off. It seemed like it took for an eternity, but the ambulance finally did get there. She went to the hospital and she was conscious the whole ride in, but in the operating room they just couldn't save her. She was just too far gone. Her head was damaged that much.
Samuel, whose dad ran a service station, says he was always a stickler for checking and taking care of his tires.
Sharyl: How did you come to believe the tires were defective?
Norman Samuel: When I saw the tread, actually I was at the hospital and a buddy of mine, who was a truck driver, heard about the accident. He had the presence to go back and get the tread. It might've been a tougher case to prove if he hadn't found that, but you could put the tread together and it made the entire tread was all in just one piece.
It turns out the same disaster was hitting other families.
In 2003, the Haegers crashed their motor home in New Mexico after the tread tore off of their right front Goodyear tire. All four family members inside were hurt.
Donna Haeger, the grandmother, still suffers from her injuries seventeen years later. She was trapped in the rear with a broken jaw, teeth, wrist, foot, ribs, toes and a severed Achilles tendon.
Attorney David Kurtz took the Haeger case and received a confidential settlement from Goodyear. But instead of that ending the story, it was only the beginning.
Sharyl: You’re saying that Goodyear misled the court— there was data showing this problem?
David Kurtz: Oh, absolutely. By the time the Haeger’s accident happened, there'd been over 450 highway speed failures of the G159.
Sharyl: But you didn't know that?
David Kurtz: I had no idea.
The court battles over Goodyear’s G159 have now spanned two decades. Kurtz has argued in legal documents that the tire is linked to at least 98 deaths and injuries and hundreds of property damage claims.
And the case against the tire maker has expanded into a federal investigation and allegations of a cover up.
Sharyl: The G159 is a tire that was originally made for what?
David Kurtz: It was made for stop and go delivery vehicles, like a FedEx truck.
Sharyl: But it began to be used for something else?
David Kurtz: It also, that particular size fit on motorhomes and so Goodyear sold it for that application.
Sharyl: What was the problem with that?
David Kurtz: The tire when it was released was not subject to any kind of high speed testing, but it has a temperature limitation that it can't exceed. And that's not a problem when you're stopping and starting in inner city traffic. But when you get out on the freeways, it would generate excess heat that would slowly degrade the tire until you get tread separations that followed.
Charges of coverup come into play because Goodyear hid that key information from the Haegers. It turned up later when a watchdog group called Safety Research and Strategies pored through documents in a Florida case. At highway speeds routinely traveled by motor homes, Goodyear tests showed the G159 tires generate heat that would be "cause for concern" though thousands of tires were sold for that very purpose.
David Kurtz: Understanding, we started our lawsuit in the Haeger case in 2005. In 2012, we finally got the tests that showed that Goodyear had been hiding for years, that showed temperatures in excess of 250 degrees when traveling at freeway speeds.
Sharyl: You alleged that Goodyear conspired to keep safety information secret from the public and federal authorities. How?
David Kurtz: You know the federal regulation is pretty— and it has been for a long time— it’s really straightforward. It says, if you believe there's a defect related to motor vehicle safety, you have to tell the government within five days. And Goodyear knew by 2000, the end of 2000 they knew the tire was defective.
Armed with the the new information, Kurtz launched a multi pronged attack that included new lawsuits against Goodyear and going to the feds.
It didn’t take long for a federal judge to agree that Goodyear and its attorneys had cheated the Haegers and owed them $2.7 million in penalties.
Goodyear appealed and both sides are still fighting over the amount of the final payment.
The trial court judge found the Goodyear team made “repeated deliberate decisions to make misleading and false in-court statements, and conceal relevant documents The little voice in every attorney's conscience that murmurs ‘turn over all material information’ was ignored.”
Kurtz filed a separate fraud case against Goodyear where he questioned Goodyear executive Linda Lovell.
David Kurtz: We're on the record. Were you aware that there have been over 600, over 600, property damage claims alleged to have occurred as a result of G159 failures?
Linda Lovell: I don’t have a specific number but I’m aware that there were allegations for property damage claims and there were allegations for deaths and injury. In each one of those we worked to understand what could be causing those incidents, as we do with any allegation for property damage claim and any allegation for death and injury.
David Kurtz: It is truly the worst truck tire made in history to the best of my knowledge. The most common information people know about is the Firestone failures back in the year 2000 that led to some federal legislation called the TREAD Act for public safety for tire failures. And to the best of our calculations, a Goodyear failure rate is 27 times worse than the Firestone.
Goodyear settled the fraud case for a confidential amount. But the whole controversy was still far from over.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or NHTSA opened a preliminary investigation into the G159 based on information Kurtz provided. The “failures may stem from a safety related defect,” wrote NHTSA. “Claimants contend the Goodyear G159 tires were allegedly not designed for extended use at highway speeds as would be experienced during motor home operation.”
Goodyear declined our interview requests but said in a statement, “Nothing is more important to Goodyear than the safety of the associates who produce our products and the consumers who use them. We continue to believe that there is no safety defect with the G159 tire. We are fully cooperating with NHTSA on their investigation.”
Sharyl: It’s been 13 years since Goodyear settled Norman Samuel’s case for a confidential amount. He says he still finds himself looking at random motor homes to see if their tires are G159s.
Norman Samuel: Goodyear is a huge company and employs thousands of people and I'm sure that most of them are just as great as they can be, but somewhere along the line somebody slipped up and they let this thing snowball. They didn't take the right action at the right time and save some people's lives.
NHTSA wouldn’t tell us what’s next, but if Goodyear is found to have been deceptive it could owe up to $105 million in penalties.