WASHINGTON — Litigation was either a major headache or a major benefit for tire companies in 2017, depending on the case.
In some cases, tire firms found themselves facing massive liability or even bankruptcy because of lawsuits. In others, they won victories in cases involving patent infringement and other issues.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) played prominent roles in several legal actions during the year.
In October, both Bridgestone Corp. and Toyo Tire & Rubber Co. Ltd. made multi-million dollar settlements in DOJ lawsuits alleging that they had fixed prices and rigged bids on automotive anti-vibration parts in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Bridgestone agreed to pay nearly $39 million in two separate lawsuits, while Toyo paid $36.1 million in a separate suit. A federal judge in Michigan gave tentative approval in mid-November to a $9.36 million settlement between Bridgestone and a putative class of auto dealers.
Meanwhile, in November the United Steelworkers (USW) union requested the U.S. Department of Labor intervene in its dispute with Kumho Tire U.S.A. over a failed organizing election at Kumho's plant in Macon, Ga.
The union accused the tire maker of unfair labor practices and filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, then asked the Labor Department to convene the Labor Council under the U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement.
Environmental issues were at the center of a lawsuit filed in April by Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance Co. against Goodyear in Cleveland federal court, seeking a declaration from the court that the insurer had no obligation to pay asbestos-related claims filed against Goodyear.
Ford, VW face class-action suits
Both Volkswagen Group of America Inc. and Ford Motor Co. found themselves facing class-action suits involving wheels.
The case against Ford alleged defective lug nuts on several Ford models, including the Fusion, Fiesta, Escape, Flex, Focus, F-150 and F-350, while the ones vs. VW — in Florida and New Jersey — alleged faulty wheel alignments because of defective suspensions, shock absorbers and struts on the Volkswagen CC model.
In October, a judge in San Francisco federal court denied a motion by Robert Bosch G.m.b.H. and Robert Bosch L.L.C. to dismiss Bosch from the Volkswagen "Dieselgate" class action brought by VW franchise dealerships.
The multi-district litigation alleges that Bosch conspired with VW in 2005 to install "defeat devices" in Volkswagen TDI vehicles that caused falsely low readings of diesel emissions levels.
Michelin fights patent infringement
Michelin North America Inc. continued its aggressive pursuit of alleged design patent infringement in 2017.
In August, Michelin settled a design patent infringement suit against Atturo Tire Corp. and Svizz-One Corp. for allegedly infringing on Michelin's D483,322 design patent, which Michelin uses for its Latitude Tour tread design.
One month later, Michelin settled an infringement case against Tire Recappers of Nashville Inc. Michelin accused Tire Recappers of offering tires for sale that infringed on Michelin's D'266 and D'235 tire tread design patents.
Also in September, Michelin filed suit in St. Louis federal district court against Tire Mart, which does business as Braven Off-Road. Michelin accused Tire Mart of infringing Michelin's D'266 patent, which was one of the patents involved in the case against Tire Recappers.
U.S. Court awards Goodyear victory
Goodyear won a victory in June, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit remanded a $2.7 million damage award to the Arizona federal district court. The Arizona court levied the damage award against the tire maker and two attorneys who represented the company in a product liability lawsuit.
The appeals court acted on orders from the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in April that the Arizona court used faulty legal reasoning to grant the award.