WASHINGTON—The recall of 6.5 million Firestone ATX and Wilderness AT tires has placed all tire makers in an unaccustomed, hostile spotlight, and with such scrutiny comes an intensified risk of litigation.
Tire manufacturers and plaintiffs' attorneys know precisely whom to blame for this: each other.
"Litigation is a bigger problem than it's ever been," said Thomas J. Dattilo, chairman, CEO and president of Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. "For whatever reason, our society is more litigious than ever. Also, plaintiffs' attorneys are becoming increasingly rich by filing lawsuit after lawsuit.
"We've allowed them to have this image of being the protector of the little guy, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor," Mr. Dattilo said. "But what they're doing is taking money from the shareholders of corporations—many of whom are little guys—to enrich themselves."
But plaintiffs' attorneys themselves insist the blame lies with greedy tire makers that don't care about either making a good product or informing the public of possible dangers connected with that product.
For tire makers to say that plaintiffs' attorneys are interested only in enriching themselves is "an interesting thing for them to say, when they're getting rich making products that kill people," said Bruce Kaster, a plaintiffs' attorney who specializes in tire-related lawsuits.
Mr. Kaster, a partner in the Ocala, Fla., law firm of Green Kaster & Falvey, represents the survivors of the late Scharlotte Hervey in a lawsuit that has gained Cooper unwanted publicity in the pages of the Wall Street Journal and other publications.
Ms. Hervey, her husband, one of their three sons and another driver were killed in May 1998 in an accident involving a Cooper Trendsetter tire. Ms. Hervey's other two sons, who also were in the car, were rendered paraplegic.
Ex-Cooper employees deposed in the Hervey case said Cooper regularly used awls to burst bubbles in tires and solvents to facilitate the use of old rubber in tires.
Cooper officials denied ever using old rubber, said the tire in the Hervey accident had never been awled and also said awling was "a safe and harmless procedure" used at the Cooper plant in Tupelo, Miss., from 1990 until 1995.
Nevertheless, the ex-workers' testimony was enough to launch class-action suits against Cooper in at least 20 states, claiming that awling led to tire damage, which in turn caused fatal accidents.
This proliferation of lawsuits is especially bitter to Mr. Dattilo, who insists that the tires Cooper makes—more than 300 million since 1990—are as safe as any tire manufacturer could possibly make them.
"Tires are a manufactured product, and any manufactured product is going to have a defect from time to time," he said. "When you have a billion of anything out there, you will attract people whose profession it is to sue people.
"On top of that, you have the whole Firestone thing, which creates the public perception that tires in general are unsafe," he added. "The way you hear about it, you'd think that you couldn't get in your car without seeing wrecked cars and bloody corpses everywhere. That doesn't square with daily reality, does it?"
Mr. Datillo said he has no doubt that tire quality is better than it's ever been, and safety has definitely increased. "Yet lawsuits have also significantly increased," he said.
Unfortunately, he added, the public is starting to see defective tires as a daily reality—thanks, he said, to plaintiffs' attorneys publicizing their cases in the media.
"The untold story of this whole thing is the role of plaintiffs' lawyers in using the tabloid newspapers," Mr. Datillo said.
Goodyear also is finding itself embroiled in increasing litigation stemming from adverse publicity about some of its load range E light truck tires, including some Wrangler models.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began an investigation of the tires Nov. 21, after receiving 37 reports of tread separations including 15 deaths and 129 injuries. This, in turn, has motivated new class-action suits.
Although Goodyear officials couldn't be reached, a letter on Goodyear's Web site by John C. Polhemus, president of Goodyear North American Tire, leaves no doubt as to the company's feelings about plaintiffs' attorneys.
"The `news' that you may have heard (about load range E tires) is the direct result of stories promoted by plaintiffs' attorneys to the media," Mr. Polhemus wrote. While Goodyear has found no defects in the tires after an exhaustive search, the media reports prompted NHTSA to open its investigation, he added.
Mr. Polhemus said the company was "being unjustly attacked by lawyers who expect to receive 30 percent or more of every dollar given to a plaintiff in these cases. What better way to assure a favorable jury pool than to work hard to make every American think that tire companies, all tire companies, are evil and hiding the truth from the American public?"
That, however, is exactly what plaintiffs' attorneys claim tire manufacturers are doing.
"They want you to ignore the message: that people do these things out of greed, stupidly, or with negligence for the health and safety of their customers," said Tab Turner, a Little Rock, Ark., plaintiffs' attorney.
"If we didn't represent individual citizens, who do they suggest should—the corporations?" said Mr. Turner, who represents plaintiffs in 35 separate cases involving Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. "If you put corporations in charge of who gets compensated, no one would ever see a dime."