While the spate of lawsuits involving the Firestone recall of August 2000 has abated, litigation was still a household word in the tire industry in 2005.
One change from past years, however, is that tire companies were plaintiffs almost as often as they were defendants.
In the ``strange bedfellows'' story of the year, the Tire Industry Association and four tire makers-Goodyear, Bridgestone/Firestone, Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. and Pirelli Tire L.L.C.-joined consumer group Public Citizen in June to sue the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) over its final rule on tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS).
All of the plaintiffs, for various reasons, are unhappy with the TPMS regulation. They disagree with the 25-percent differential between the vehicle manufacturer's recommended tire pressure and activation of the warning light; the 20-minute allowable time lapse between the first recording of severe underinflation and the warning light's illumination; and the lack of any provision mandating that monitoring devices be compatible with replacement tires. The case is still pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
Michelin North America Inc. did not join the TPMS lawsuit, but it did sue a Canadian company distributing tires in the U.S., Dynamic Tire Corp., alleging it infringed on a Michelin truck tire design patent. The case is before an Alabama federal district court. Dynamic Tire has denied the allegations, is defending the suit and has sued Michelin for defamation in Canada.
Michelin and its Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. (UGTC) subsidiary also won vindication in two separate lawsuits. In February, after 12 years of litigation, a New York appeals court overturned a $4 million judgment against UGTC, ruling there was insufficient evidence that a tire on Dalila Abulhassan's car caused her fatal accident in July 1990.
In May, a Riverside County, Calif., circuit court jury found that impact damage to a Michelin LTX light truck tire-not a defect in the tire-caused it to blow out in a church van rollover accident in Riverside County.
Citizens' lawsuits, meanwhile, forced Heartland Energy & Recycling Inc. in March to give up on the tire-derived-fuel-powered electric plant it planned to build in Preston, Minn. A group called Southern Minnesotans for Environmental Protection persuaded the Olmsted County (Minn.) Circuit Court to order the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to reconsider the environmental impact statement it performed on the project, while another lawsuit sought to overturn the air permit the agency gave Heartland in January 2004.
In January, a jury in Montana decided that Les Schwab Tire Centers Inc. was primarily responsible for a blown retread on a cement truck that caused an accident in 1999 in which two women were killed. The jury ordered the company to pay the majority of an $8.2 million judgment. Polson Ready Mix and Mission Mountain Tire Inc.-the dealership that mounted the tire-were responsible for 20 percent each, but both had settled out of court before the verdict, attorneys said. Les Schwab is appealing the verdict.
The plaintiff's attorneys argued that the 11-year-old tire should have been rejected. The defense had argued that the truck hit an object, and operators failed to notice a bulge in the tire.
A jury in Ocala, Fla., returned a judgment in September of $3.1 million against Dunlop Tire Corp., now owned by Goodyear, in a case involving a fatal tire-related accident in 1999. The dealership involved in that case-Tee Pee Tire Inc. in Ocala-was exonerated by the jury. The tire maker, which had argued the tire failed as a result of an improper repair, is appealing.