SAN BERNARDINO, Calif.-A judge has ordered a former Armor All Products researcher to return company test tires and papers he took to support his claim that the firm's products caused tires and air bag covers to crack. San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Paul M. Bryant Jr. ordered Pritam S. Dhaliwal on May 23 to return the 25 tires and 500 documents he took with him after the company fired him in February 1994.
Judge Bryant also levied a $6,215 fine against the former research manager, and sealed all court records in the ongoing civil suit, accepting Armor All's argument that the papers contain trade secrets.
The actions were part of a wrongful dismissal suit Mr. Dhaliwal filed against Armor All in October 1994 claiming his employment was illegally terminated after he warned supervisors that he found problems with several products during lab tests and outside research.
Armor All filed a counter suit the next month. It accused the 55-year-old researcher of violating trade secrets and of stealing the items after the company dismissed him for poor performance 17 months after hiring him.
Mr. Dhaliwal removed the company property without his bosses' knowledge to protect himself against potential lawsuits, said his attorney, John C. McCarthy. A California law holds managers responsible for failed products if they know problems exist but don't report them to their superiors, he said.
``He took them because the company told him to destroy them,'' according to Mr. McCarthy. ``He feared that if something happened, it would come back on him. If he didn't have any evidence, he felt that the company would blame him.''
However, Armor All said in court that Mr. Dhaliwal acted out of self-interest, not as a ``whistle blower'' protecting the public.
Mr. Dhaliwal's ``concern is not consumer safety, but his own pecuniary interests,'' lawyers for Armor All said.
The lawsuit by Mr. Dhaliwal said the company's Armor All Protectant causes tire walls and vinyl surfaces to deteriorate and crack quicker than without the treatments. It also claims Armor All Tire Foam, a product introduced a couple years ago, could reduce braking power by seeping into the treads on worn tires.
An Armor All spokeswoman denied the claims.
``These allegations have no valid scientific basis and are totally without merit,'' she said. ``We have found no relevant facts to support his claims, nor has he identified any incident or injury data involving the use of Armor All Protectant or Tire Foam to substantiate his charges.''
The firm has sold more than 750 million bottles of the protectant over 20 years, she added.
Armor All, based in Aliso Viejo, Calif., is a leading maker of automotive appearance products.