HILTON HEAD, S.C.—The seminar topic was provocative: "How the automotive service industry can stay out of the courtroom." The answer was one likely to send shivers down the spines of tire and automotive service shop owners.
"You can't," said speaker Charles G. Gold at the recent Clemson Tire Conference in Hilton Head.
As a result, "you have to do everything in your power before you get there to present a good defense," he advised.
An independent tire consultant who spent 26 years at the former Armstrong Rubber Co. in the technical area, Mr. Gold said he has noticed an increase in the number of tire-related lawsuits involving entities other than tire manufacturers.
With the quality of today's tires so high, tire makers themselves are not getting sued as much, he said.
Plaintiffs attorneys "have found somebody else they can sue, somebody who's not as adept at defending themselves," he said. "Those are the people who sell, service and sometimes merely touch a tire."
The theory, he said, "is usually that they should have detected a tire problem at the time of their service, even if they didn't touch the tires."
While he stopped short of dispensing legal advice, noting he's not an attorney, Mr. Gold, of Dallas, reviewed some of the issues he's seen that have gotten dealers and other sellers and servicers of tires in trouble.
One issue involves installing new tires when fewer than four have been purchased. Should you put them on the front axles, like many shops do? Or do you put them on the rear?
The rear axle is "where you probably should" install them, he noted.
Many shops offer safety checks to attract customers, but he encouraged them to stop using the word "safety" to promote the service.
"If that tire blows up within the next year after that safety check, you're in big trouble," he said.
When examining tires, all you can do is mention you inspected them, corrected the inflation pressure, ensured proper tread depth and looked for any obvious injuries.
And, he added, "you should mention there are a whole bunch of things you can't see inside the tire that can cause it to fail."
Mr. Gold cautioned about working on the exhaust systems of sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks. If you disturb the exhaust system and move it too close to the spare tire mounted underneath the vehicle, it can cause the spare to overheat and fail.
To avoid this, make sure the tail pipe and heat shield do not get too close to the spare tire.
Shops also should never use plugs when repairing punctured tires, he said. Even if a plug stops the air from leaking out of the tire, it probably won't prevent it from leaking internally between the steel belts.
This can lead to a tread separation and, in some instances, result in the tire's failure.
"I've had several occasions—and this is really sad—where a guy noticed he had a flat tire, put a plug in, went to a gas station, bent over to reinflate it and the sidewall of the tire blew out in his face, much like the zipper break in a large truck tire," he said.
The only type of repair recognized as correct, he said, involves removing the tire from the rim, inspecting the tire, patching the puncture hole and filling it with filler to prevent damage to the steel cables in the belt system.
He urged shops to take care to install the proper size tires, with the correct load carrying capacity, and be wary of installing lower speed-rated tires on a vehicle.
Consider the case of a person who buys a car that has speed-rated tires on it, then eventually has them replaced at a dealership or service shop. If the customer has an accident later and can show that the wrong speed-rated tires were installed, that shop likely is "going to get sued," Mr. Gold warned.
However, mounting tires with different tread designs is probably not a problem. "I don't think there's any case where all four (tires) have to be the same," he said. Some SUV owners' manuals, however, restrict the type of tread design that should be used, such as all-season or all-terrain, he noted.
Shops also should insist that employees completely fill out service forms before working on a customer's tires. In one case, Mr. Gold said, the plaintiff's attorneys went over the sales slips for the few months preceding an accident and showed that it was the shop's "custom and practice" to accept improperly completed sales slips on a regular basis.
A good way to be certain the forms are filled out is to have a supervisor review them on a daily basis, he said.
Vehicles dropped off at shops also can create problems, Mr. Gold said. Make sure everything is covered in writing and that the invoice is signed, even if there is no charge for the service.
When working on truck wheels, be sure the lug nuts are rechecked for tightness 25 to 50 miles after being serviced, Mr. Gold said. The industry has learned over the years that lug nuts can't always be tightened perfectly the first time. Use of a torque wrench will ensure that the correct force is used at all times, he added.
Mr. Gold said he recently was involved in a case where a lug nut came off the rear dual wheel of a truck traveling on the New Jersey Turnpike. The tire rolled off and injured someone working in the highway median.
"They went after the guy who mounted the tires 68 miles previously," he said, and the people who serviced the tires "claimed that they had never heard of the fact that you're supposed to keep tightening lug nuts."
Back in the late 1960s, when Mr. Gold first got involved with this problem, some service facilities tied red tags on steering wheels to remind drivers to check lug nut tightness after 50 miles of service. That's a practice shops should once again adopt, he suggested.
Shops also should be careful about rotating an unused spare into service on an old vehicle, Mr. Gold said. Although he knows of no strong recommendations regarding the age of tires, he believes that if a 10-year-old spare is put into service and it fails, the installer could very well be blamed.
Technicians who service tires also need to be trained to inflate them to the pressures indicated on the vehicle's tire placard located on the inside of the driver's side door, not the maximum inflation pressure molded on the tire's sidewall. The two aren't even close in some cases, he said.
He suggested starting an education program to train workers to follow the inflation pressures shown on the placard.
"It doesn't take any longer to open up the door and read the placard than it does to read the maximum inflation pressure on the sidewall," he said.