WASHINGTON—In an Arkansas product liability case, Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. finds itself accused of the same quality control errors for which Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. is currently under fire—by attorneys who also are deeply involved in litigation against BFS.
Cooper denies all wrongdoing in the lawsuits brought by the survivors of a car crash that killed Scharlotte Hervey, one of her sons, and Lane Whitaker. On May 15, 1998, Ms. Hervey, her husband Edward and their three sons were traveling east on Interstate 40 between Little Rock, Ark., and Memphis, Tenn., when the right rear tire—a Cooper Trendsetter II, size P185/75R14—on Ms. Hervey's Volvo suffered a tread separation and blew out.
The car went out of control, crossed the median strip and crashed into Mr. Whitaker's westbound vehicle. Scharlotte and Edward Hervey, one of their sons, and Mr. Whitaker were killed; the other two Hervey sons were rendered paraplegic.
The Hervey case, seeking unspecified damages, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas. An Aug. 24 Chicago Sun-Times article reported the depositions in the Hervey case by former workers at Cooper's Tupelo, Miss., facility, where the blown Trendsetter radial was made.
According to their testimony, Cooper workers used awls to burst air bubbles in uncured tires and solvents to permit use of older rubber stock—charges similar to those in tread separation lawsuits filed against BFS in cases involving Firestone Radial ATX, Radial ATX II and Wilderness AT tires.
Cooper's alleged shoddy quality control is "well-established by sworn testimony," said Bruce Kaster, an attorney with the Ocala, Fla., firm of Green Kaster & Falvey that represents the Herveys and also plaintiffs in several of the BFS lawsuits.
"It's just a question of the extent of the problem," Mr. Kaster told Tire Business.
A Cooper spokeswoman, however, contradicted the Sun-Times article in a letter to the editor and in answers to questions from USA Today.
The tire in the Hervey case, she said, was never awled or made with old rubber, but damaged by a road hazard. There have been 14 lawsuits involving tread separation of tires manufactured at the Tupelo plant, she added, as opposed to total production of 70 million tires there since 1994.
"There is no pattern of any kind to the tires at issue in cases pending against Cooper," she said.
Awling was "a safe and harmless procedure" performed at Tupelo by skilled technicians between 1990 and 1995, the spokeswoman said. When in February 1995 the company discovered that the inner liner of one tire had been damaged by an awl, it stopped using awls immediately.
The spokeswoman also told Tire Business that the Sun-Times was incorrect in stating there were more than 50 product liability cases filed against Cooper. "I don't have the exact number, but there are significantly less than 50," she said.
Mr. Kaster said he had counted "about 50" lawsuits against Cooper—either pending, settled or adjudicated—of which 22 involved tread separations. "Some involved bead failure as well," he said.
No court date has been set in the Hervey case, according to Paul Byrd, a Little Rock, Ark., attorney also representing the Herveys.