AKRON-A young woman is taking her son to a youth soccer match when she realizes her right rear tire has deflated. She pulls into a nearby tire dealership, where an employee puts her car on a jack. ``Please. Can you hurry?'' she pleads as the technician finds a small nail embedded in the tread.
``Am I gonna miss my game?'' the woman's son asks.
``Don't worry,'' the technician replies. ``Looks like we can plug this right up.''
In a matter of minutes, mother and son are on their way again.
That scenario, or one similar to it, plays out thousands of times a day at tire dealerships and other service outlets across the country.
Most times, the repaired tire gives no further trouble.
But one day, one week or even a few months later, that tire could fail-maybe from an internal problem seemingly unrelated to the plug repair.
If that happens, the dealer could be in a position to lose a multimillion-dollar lawsuit because his technician failed to inspect the inside of the tire.
What makes some dealers and service shop owners put themselves in a position to lose their businesses-their livelihoods-through lawsuits?
On-the-wheel repairs are a quick, inexpensive and reliable service they can offer their customers, according to a number of dealers contacted by TIRE BUSINESS for this special report.
``Plugging is not a catchall for everything,'' said one Utah dealer who sometimes repairs tires on-the-wheel.
``If there is any question, demount the tire and probe inside. You can tell (which tires need to be demounted) if you've been in the business for 20 years,'' he continued.
About 16 percent of the tire dealers surveyed by TIRE BUSINESS said they sometimes make outside-in plug repairs.
All of them also said on-the-wheel repairs can only be performed in a limited number of cases-typically, when the injury is small and near the center of the tread, and the tire is only slowly leaking air.
Douglas Dunsmore, president of North Shore Laboratories Corp., which markets Safety Seal Tubeless Tire Repair for outside-in repairs, agreed there are limited instances when repairs should be performed without inspecting the inside of the tire.
Technicians should not perform on-the-wheel repairs with Safety Seal when the perforating object cannot be located or did not appear to produce a straight puncture path or there is evidence the tire was driven underinflated or has structural or internal damage, Mr. Dunsmore said.
However, in cases where the injury has not damaged the structure of the tire, Mr. Dunsmore said his product can seal the inner liner and plug up to a 1/4-inch hole from the outside.
It is a safety issue but ``it obviously is not a major safety issue or the subject would have been addressed in the past,'' said Jim Osborne, vice president-technical, Oliver Rubber Co.
Plugging a tire without first demounting it is not illegal. But tire manufacturers, acting under the auspices of the Rubber Manufacturers Association, have endorsed the practice of first removing a tire from the wheel before repairing it. (See RMA repair guidelines on page 14.)
``The technology is available to plug a leak from the outside. That's not why (the practice) needs to be stopped,'' Mr. Osborne said. ``It ought to be stopped because you can't inspect the inside of the tire by doing it from the outside, and, as a result, you potentially can put back in service a product or a tire that may go down the road and fail.''
Dealers who perform on-the-wheel repairs, however, said they are aware of the potential liability. But they are quick to note that on-the-wheel repairs are not the only form of liability they incur everyday.
``If you get a good attorney, he could probably sue me for blowing my nose the wrong way,'' said Dick Erickson, owner of Sun Tire Corp. in Jacksonville, Fla. ``There are a lot of sue-happy people out there.''
The Utah dealer, who asked not to be identified, said he is equally concerned one of his employees might accidentally damage the tire when doing an inside tire repair.
Rene Ghirardi, owner of Rene's Tire Center Inc. in Houma, La., said he worries about repair liability even though he said he never plugs tires. The last person to touch the car is responsible, he said.
``I don't care if you do the brakes and the air conditioning goes out two days later, (the customers) come back to you and say: `What did you do to my air conditioner?'*''
``Always something can happen'' that could make a dealer liable, he continued. ``But with a plug repair, you're not minimizing the odds (of a liability suit) as much as you can.''
North Shore Laboratories' Mr. Dunsmore said he believes anyone repairing a tire is potentially liable-no matter what method is used.
``To cite outside repairs as the sole cause of putting a dealer at risk is incorrect,'' he said. ``It is important to remember that most tire failures result from trauma occurring at the time the tire is punctured and before it is repaired. The internal injury is almost never detectable by a visual examination of the inner liner....
``To blame any one type of tire repair product for the type of trauma that can lead to tire failure misses the point,'' Mr. Dunsmore said.
Sometimes the pressure from a customer to perform a quick, inexpensive repair is intense, according Dave Meier, owner of Lignite Tire Service in Beulah, N.D.
Mr. Meier said he recently had a customer ``explode'' with anger when he refused to plug a tire he thought was unsafe. The customer eventually went to a competitor, Mr. Meier suspected.
``He evidently did, because I was in a local pub, (the customer) didn't know who I was, and he was telling a couple of people about what a rip-off company we were for not repairing the tire. I had all I could do to keep from losing my cool.... I am sorry that I value his life more than he does.''
Larry Jaffe, owner of Jaffe Tire Co. in Marlboro, Mass., agreed that some customers will take their business elsewhere when he refuses to plug a tire.
``There are a lot of jerks out there. Those I lose, and those I don't care about,'' he said.
But that fact alone can weigh heavily on the minds of small independent tire dealers fighting to survive in an aggressive market.
``When do you say (to the customer) `We'll do what you want'? I don't know,'' Mr. Ghirardi said before adding: ``You have to give them what they want, but, again, you can't give up your values.''