AKRON-There was no disputing that it was a bad accident. The evidence lay in a crumpled heap. Only the cause was contended.
The driver of the Corvette and his wife were speeding their way along the couple hundred miles of open roads from Las Vegas to Los Angeles when a tire blew. The car spun out of control and was demolished in the ensuing crash. Both occupants were seriously injured.
An insurance company adjuster declared that one of the speed- rated tires had failed due to a faulty previous repair.
After the case ended up in court, tire specialist and expert witness Edward J. Wagner was called in to inspect the tire in question. In his opinion, the repair had been done properly, within tire industry recommendations.
However, the essence of the case, as he later related, was that the tire dealer who originally did the repair had failed to communicate to the vehicle owner one bit of crucial information: After the damaged V-rated tire had been fixed, it no longer carried the same, if any, speed rating.
While the repairing of speed-rated tires was at issue in that lawsuit, the crux of the problem was the tire dealer's ``failure to warn'' the motorist, according to Mr. Wagner, a past managing director of the former American Retreaders Association in Louisville, Ky., and former editor of the Tire Retreading/Repair Journal.
Now ``semi-retired,'' he is president of Louisville-based Tire Technical Services Inc., and acts as a consultant, especially in product liability lawsuits involving tires.
Most of the information in this article was originally presented during a workshop on the repair of speed-rated tires that Mr. Wagner delivered at last year's Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week shows in Las Vegas.
``It's not so much the failure of the tire,'' he advised, ``as it is the concept of `failure to warn.'''
Mr. Wagner worked on a case last year involving a man in California who brought his 4x4 vehicle into a service shop to have its brakes checked. Told by a technician that the truck indeed needed a brake job, the man had the work done and went on his way.
Nine months later, while speeding on a rain-covered highway, the man lost control of the vehicle and it flipped. Not wearing a seat belt, he was thrown out and killed. Investigators discovered that the vehicle's tires were worn smooth-below the 2/32-inch legal tread depth limit.
His estate sued the service shop. At the trial the victim's lawyers contended that because the shop advertised ``complete automotive service,'' the customer was entitled to a warning that his tires were wearing thin. But the shop had ``failed to warn'' him.
During a trial recess, both sides settled. It cost the shop owner ``a lot of money,'' Mr. Wagner said.
``Failure to warn'' is expanding, he noted, pointing to the class- action lawsuit concerning silicone breast implants, and the infamous case of the elderly woman who spilled hot McDonald's coffee in her lap and won a multi-million-dollar lawsuit. On appeal, the award was eventually lowered, but the fast-food giant learned an expensive lesson.
Last year 170 million replacement tires were manufactured. Mr. Wagner said some 9 percent-approximately 15 million-were of the speed-rated, high- performance (HP) variety.
Today, there are more than 55 million speed-rated tires on the nation's roadways. The industry estimates that within a year's time span, about 20 percent of all the tires in use-including 10 million HP tires-will sustain a puncture, primarily in the tread area.
Based on their construction, performance tires are expensive, running anywhere from $150 to $300 per tire. ``Some are more expensive than a radial tire on an 18-wheeler truck,'' Mr. Wagner pointed out. ``But technologically, they're the finest thing our industry has to offer today.''
Although the federal government tests tires only up to 85 mph, speed-rating standards are set by the tire industry.
Performance tires-generally 70-series and lower-currently display 16 designations on their sidewalls. That's probably ``too many,'' Mr. Wagner said. Those include the assigned ``speed category,'' denoting the tire's maximum speed rating; and a ``speed symbol,'' indicating the speed at which the tire can carry a load corresponding to its load index under specified service conditions.
Some tire makers suggest they be consulted in the event of any questions concerning speed ratings.
``Can you see a tire technician in some little shop trying to reach a tire manufacturer on the phone to get information about the speed rating?'' Mr. Wagner asked.
``Advising someone to consult a tire maker, in my opinion, is strictly a copout.''
According to the tire industry's definition, a ``puncture'' is limited to no more than a quarter-inch (six millimeters).
Because of the wider footprint of a low-profile HP tire, it has more of a chance than a normal radial passenger tire to be punctured, Mr. Wagner explained.
So can a speed-rated tire be repaired and returned to service?
Yes, using industry-recommended repair procedures, he answered.
However, whether or not the tire loses its speed rating once repaired ``is where the problem begins. The answer is both `yes' and `no,''' Mr. Wagner said.
``Goodyear and Michelin state unequivocally that, if properly repaired to industry recommended procedures, the tires retain their speed ratings,'' he noted, while Bridgestone and Firestone maintain the repaired tire is no longer speed rated.
And then there are a number of companies ``in between,'' he said. Toyo Tires, for example, advises that any of its H-, V- or Z-rated tires, once repaired, then bear a lowered, ``H'' speed rating.
``What we have...is a lot of confusion among tire manufacturers.''
He recalled asking a Chinese tire maker about recommendations on repairing its V-rated tires and being told the company ``didn't know'' what its policy was, and furthermore had no advice for its customers because ``the issue has never come up before.''
As more off-shore-produced tires enter the U.S., the confusion will only deepen, he conceded.
``Part of the problems with our service facilities today is they just don't charge enough,'' Mr. Wagner believes. ``They have the responsibility of repairing expensive tires. They have to train people to do it. Yet many only charge $7.50 for on-wheel repairs for nearly three-quarters of an hour of work.
``I think it's ridiculous.
``The more professional shop will charge $25 to $30-a more appropriate fee to take the tire off the rim, inspect and repair it-for their time and expertise.''
He's afraid that a shop doing the cheaper repairs ``often looks for shortcuts to get the tire fixed as fast as possible and get the customer back on the road.'' And that could result in problems-and expensive court cases-later.
As confusion about speed-rated tires and their repair increases, and the number of ``failure to warn'' cases also grows, Mr. Wagner sees ``a lot of problems coming.'' He asserted that:
Some tire makers have either neglected or failed to properly address and provide recommendations or policies on repairing speed-rated tires;
Some tire makers have failed to communicate crucial repair information to those who sell their tires; and
The confusion among and lack of guidance for dealers will result in many problems such as lawsuits.
``Even our trade associations, which issue a lot of good information on the care and repair of passenger tires, have one sentence when it comes to speed-ratings: `Consult the tire manufacturer.'
With carmakers increasingly recommending performance-type tires on their luxury and high- performance vehicles, Mr. Wagner said dealers could encounter a dilemma when a motorist faced with replacing worn-out speed-rated tires opts to go with a tire with a lower, or no speed rating.
``What happens if a family member, unaware that the car no longer has speed-rated tires on it, drives it and something happens?'' he asked.
``Until the industry takes some definitive action,'' Mr. Wagner offered these precautions to dealers repairing speed-rated tires:
1) Examine each tire for its warranty on speed ratings.
2) Make all repairs according to industry-recommended procedures.
3) After the repair is done, stamp on the invoice-or offer a separate written statement-information concerning the repair. Then sign it, and insist that the customer do as well.
Such a statement could be:
``We have repaired your speed-rated tire as you requested. (List the tire brand, size, DOT number and speed rating). However, because this tire has been repaired, it no longer carries the speed rating of (state the original rating). Remember, the top speed of your vehicle is now limited to the lowest speed-rated tire on your car. Please drive safely.''
Although that is not a disclaimer to ward off potential litigation or a dealer's liability, Mr. Wagner said ``at least customers can't later say you didn't warn them.''