CAROL STREAM, Ill.-The Illinois tire dealer ordered to pay nearly $12.7 million in damages following the failure of a plug-repaired tire and the plaintiff's attorney in that controversial 1995 court decision both offer the same advice to those who repair tires. Don't jeopardize your business by using string plugs or other outside-in repair methods considered unacceptable by nearly every tire maker in North America.
Defendant Ed Stahl of Ress Enterprises, which does business in Carol Stream, Ill., as Army Trail Tire & Service, and plaintiff's attorney John Cabaniss of Milwaukee hold differing views on the controversial outcome of the case. But both men agree on the message it holds for tire repairers.
The bottom line is: ``Don't plug any tire,'' said Mr. Stahl, who has kept his $2 million per year, Goodyear-franchised outlet going despite the difficulties imposed by the litigation and the staggering damages granted the plaintiff-a 22-year-old, male college student left paralyzed following a 1989 accident.
Dealers and other tire repairers are ``starting behind the eight ball'' if a plug-repaired tire fails and someone is killed or injured as a result, said attorney Cabaniss, who is frank in describing just how easily a trial lawyer can prove negligence in such cases.
Tire manufacturers, through their trade group, the Rubber Manufacturers Association, have been saying since the 1960s that tires shouldn't be repaired in that way. So it's not difficult to convince a jury that thetire repairer was negligent in making a plug-type repair.
Then, the only question is whether that ``negligent repair'' caused the tire to fail or whether something else was responsible.
Dealers and other tire repairers are the ones left holding the bag, he contends, because ``you have this whole tire repair industry making plugs for use in a repair that tire manufacturers say shouldn't be done.''
While the use of string plugs and similar outside-in repair methods long has been described by the RMA and others in the tire industry as ``suitable only for temporary repairs,'' Mr. Stahl said the personnel at his dealership were unaware of this fact in 1988 when the owner of the tire in question elected to have it plugged rather than pay the higher cost of having it patched.
At the time, he said, plugging accounted for about 20 percent of the outlet's repair business. But that situation long since has changed: ``We have not plugged a tire in many, many years. The proper way to do it is with a patch/plug-and that's what we do,'' he told TIRE BUSINESS.
Had he known plugging wasn't a proper tire repair method, Mr. Stahl said, he never would have permitted it at the 11-year-old, Goodyear G110 outlet.
Today, he said, customers who insist on a plug repair are politely told by Army Trail they'll have to purchase it elsewhere. Whatever business this policy might have cost the company at the time, it would have been a small price to pay compared to what Mr. Stahl said he's had to endure as a result of the accident and damage suit that followed it.
For the moment at least, it appears the Carol Stream dealership will be responsible only for about $2 million out of the approximately $12.7 million awarded by the jury.
Early on in the case, according to Mr. Cabaniss, Army Trail had instructed its insurer to settle the plaintiff's claim for $2 million-the maximum allowable under its liability policy.
But the insurance company failed to settle on that basis and the case went to trial, ultimately leaving the dealership owing about $12.7 million in damages, minus $850,000 which was the portion assessed to the manufacturer of the repair plug.
Since then, he said, Army Trail has signed over to the plaintiff all rights to its ``bad faith'' claim against the insurance company for the rest of the $12.7 million award. Now, as the plaintiff's attorney in the case, Mr. Cabaniss must attempt to collect the balance from the insurance company.
Meanwhile, lawyers for the insurance company have appealed the court's decision, contending the tire involved in the accident may not have been the one Army Trail repaired.
The issue came up after the spare tire on the Ford Bronco involved in the accident was stolen from a police impound lot before the case went to trial.
In the meantime, Mr. Stahl doesn't know for certain whether or not the dealership's legal nightmare is over.
At the heart of the problem industrywide, according to Mr. Cabaniss, is the fact that RMA advisories and other industry documents merely discourage the use of outside-in tire repairs while encouraging the repairing of punctured tires from the inside-out using a patch to seal the innerliner plus a plug or other suitable material to fill the injury area.
Nowhere, he contends, are independent dealers and other tire repairers explicitly told that outside-in tire repair is a dangerous practice.
Yet ``that's what the tire manufacturers say (in court) when we take their testimony-that it's a dangerous repair, that it shouldn't be done and here's how it causes tires to fail. But they're not doing anything to get that word out to the dealers,'' Mr. Cabaniss said.
As a result, thousands of repair outlets unknowingly continue plugging tires and inevitably some of them will wind up in ``a world of hurt,'' said Mr. Cabaniss, whose own legal victory in the Army Trail case shocked many in the tire industry.
News of the $12.7-million damage award brought letters of protest from dealers and others who called the huge financial settlement outrageous-particularly since the plug repair had not ``failed'' but kept the tire inflated until it struck some unknown object on the road.
But the plug's air retention was not the central issue in the case, Mr. Cabaniss pointed out. Expert witnesses testified the tire's failure resulted from air seeping into its carcass, weakening the reinforcing plies which separated after it struck something on the road.
A suitable patch applied to the innerliner would have prevented this from occurring-which is why it's universally recommended throughout the tire manufacturing industry, he pointed out.
Mr. Cabaniss said that while he has a ``lot of sympathy for tire dealers,'' he can't accept the explanation that those who perform outside-in repairs are forced to do so by customer pressure.
``People aren't told it's dangerous,'' he said. They're only told the proper way to repair a nail hole puncture is from the inside out using a patch.
Tire manufacturers never really lay out for the benefit of dealers and tire users as to why outside-in repairs are dangerous. But that needs to be done if people are to understand and comply with such warnings, Mr. Cabaniss said.
Nor does he buy the contention that customers won't pay for a proper tire repair. ``How many people (actually) shop for tire repairs?'' he asks.
``Suppose I were running a dealership and you bring in a tire for repair and asked the cost. I tell you 15 bucks and you reply that you can get it fixed down the street for $7. I'd say: `Look. That's a plug repair-it's dangerous. You want a dangerous repair? Then go down the street. But just be advised that it's dangerous-that the tire manufacturers don't recommend it and it may void the warranty on your tire.'
``I'd have no problem with you going down the street for the repair. I'll put my guy to work changing a water pump or something like that,'' he said.