Legal issues intrude on all sorts of business relationships these days, whether they are with an employee, customer, supplier, insurance company or local, state or federal government. Anyone who has had a brush with our legal system understands how quickly things can become scary and expensive. Even the possibility of a lawsuit can turn into a waking nightmare. ``Sue me, sue me'' is not a refrain from a Broadway musical, it has become the American way of life.
The tire dealer or retreader not only must deliver a quality product or service at a competitive price to be successful, he must also learn to live with the law on a daily basis.
But every cloud has a silver lining. In response to pent-up national outrage, Congress is spending a great deal of effort to come up with legal reform legislation. Bills have been introduced in bewildering numbers by legislators in their desire to pass ``common sense legal reform.''
But a wide gap exists between the bills passed in the House and Senate, and it is unlikely Congress can get its act together and produce a consensus bill that can be sent to the President for his signature within this session.
The headline grabber that fueled the push for liability reform was the $2.9 million awarded to an 81-year-old motorist who burned herself when she spilled carry-out coffee from McDonald's. However, it was later settled for an undisclosed sum.
Over the past year, what seems hardest to understand about the legal profession's current ethic (or lack of one) is its willingness to encourage the flimsiest of factual claims.
For example, a New York City Transit bus was hit by a garbage truck and within a month lawyers filed lawsuits against the city on behalf of 18 people claiming injuries when they were ``thrown down'' in the bus.
What the claimants obviously did not know was that the bus was not in service at the time of the accident-it was parked. Their scam, which often succeeds in liability cases, resulted from their assumption that the city usually settles such suits rather than face the expense of pleading its case in court. Tire companies, too, often settle lawsuits without court action.
As Prosecutor Marcia Clark reminded F. Lee Bailey during the O.J. Simpson trial, lawyers traditionally have been ``officers of the court'' with a responsibility for objective truth. What is alarming is how much this has changed.
Nothing restricts a lawyer from filing a questionable lawsuit if nothing counts objectively as ``true'' or ``false'' until a court issues a ruling. The worst he can do is fail.
The products we sell are of critical safety importance to those using them. Human lives depend upon the integrity of those fabric-reinforced rubber balloons. It's encouraging that most tires deliver unbelievable performance considering the conditions under which they're used.
But keep in mind that no company can claim it never sold a substandard or defective tire.
If a tire failure occurs, and if you are negligent in any way, you just might be in very serious trouble. If it was a new tire, don't assume that only the tire's manufacturer is going to be sued, leaving you in the clear. If you sold the plaintiff the tire, you can be expected to be named in the lawsuit.
If the plaintiff's attorneys can prove you were negligent in any way, your liability insurance coverage is about to be put to the acid test-in court.
It's a different story if you retreaded or repaired the tire. In that case, you are the manufacturer. No one can be certain that a tire will not fail in service, no matter how meticulous a manufacturer might be. The human element cannot be ignored in the manufacture of any product.
We are in a service industry where there has been in the past, and indeed still is, insufficient training in tire technology and the whys and wherefores of tire repairing. This is inconceivable to most outsiders considering that people's lives are at stake.
Tire manufacturers are constantly striving to improve their products through advanced technology, modern manufacturing methods and the use of high quality materials, as are the major repair material manufacturers. Yet all of these efforts can be quickly nullified by some inexperienced, poorly trained tire repairer.
Time and time again, industry experts have stressed that all punctured or damaged tires must be removed from the wheel for internal and external examination to ensure there is no secondary damage which could cause later failure.
In order to avoid such a possibility, neither plug-type repairs applied externally to mounted tires nor liquid puncture sealants can be recommended for anything but a temporary ``get-you-home'' repair.
Like far too many tire repair workers, those employed at Army Trail Tire & Service in Carol Stream, Ill., used an external string repair method to repair a puncture on a Ford Bronco, even though they were aware of proper repair methods. The tire failed in service, the Bronco overturned and five passengers were injured, leaving one a quadriplegic.
Ford settled a claim out of court and the dealership was socked with $12.7 million in damages, less $850,000 paid by the string plug manufacturer.
One of the big problems in our industry has been the use of non-standard repair methods by people who should know better. The risks occurring from tire repairs increase with the severity of service. The tire repairer not only must consider the damage caused by a penetration, but also the future use of the tire. Responsibility for the repair lies solely with the person making it.
We have to explain to customers why certain types of repairs are necessary, which means we also must be able to explain the technicalities to repair personnel and train them to do the job right. Inferior quality and workmanship have a high price.
Some insurance policies have clauses to the effect that coverage is voided if the holder knowingly commits any illegal, unsafe or imprudent act resulting in a lawsuit.
This means that the insurance company has a perfect out. And you can be sure they are going to take it! All of a sudden you can wake up to the fact that your company really doesn't have any liability coverage at all. You just thought it did. And that is often the beginning of the end.