Our firm recently settled a case involving a Firestone Wilderness AT tire and GMC Sonoma pickup truck. On April 27, 2005, Jimmy Ray Townsel and his brother-in-law, Thomas Foster, were traveling north on Interstate 65 when the left rear Firestone Wilderness AT tire on the truck suffered a tread belt separation. This caused the vehicle to lose control and overturn in the roadway, rolling several times. Mr. Foster was ejected and died at the scene. Mr. Townsel, who was properly belted, suffered severe cervical fractures when the roof of the vehicle crushed down on him. As a result of the cervical factures, Mr. Townsel was rendered a complete quadriplegic. Although initially discharged after several months’ hospitalization, Mr. Townsel was readmitted to the hospital in October of 2005 and remains hospitalized for his condition.
You may remember that the Firestone Wilderness AT tire, in the P23575R15 size, was recalled by Firestone back in 2000. But, the recall was limited to Wilderness AT tires manufactured at the Decatur, Illinois plant before May of 1998. The tire involved in this case was manufactured at Firestone’s Aiken, South Carolina plant in 1999.
Ford disagreed with Firestone’s decision to limit the recall to Wilderness AT tires made at the Decatur, Illinois plant before May of 1998. Based on the data Firestone provided to Ford, Ford believed that Wilderness AT tires manufactured after May of 1998 and manufactured at plants other than Decatur, still posed significant risks of failure, and as a result, still posed a significant safety risk to its customers. As a result, Ford, at its own expense, attempted to recall Wilderness AT tires made after May 1998 at plants other than Decatur. You will find a letter to John Lampe, Chairman and CEO of Bridgestone/Firestone from Ford Motor Company President and CEO Jacques Nasser to be quite interesting and revealing. The following is the text of the Nasser letter:
As you know, Ford has for many months been engaged in an intensive effort to determine the root cause of the tire failures that led to last summer’s Firestone tire recall, and to prevent such failures in the future. Throughout this process, Ford has shared its findings and worked closely and cooperatively with NHTSA and with Firestone’s technical team.
Based on our work to date, we are concerned that the performance of certain Wilderness AT tires not included in last summer’s recall is not at a level consistent with the performance of similar usage tires from competitive manufacturers. This concern rests significantly on data supplied by Firestone and NHTSA, which shows that failure rates for many of the Wilderness AT tires are already worse than competitive standards and may deteriorate further in the future. Our own laboratory and vehicle tests confirm these results. Although we have discussed our concerns with Firestone technical and management personnel, nothing we have learned has changed our view that the tires may present a risk to our customers’ safety.
Accordingly, we intend to announce an owner notification program to replace all Wilderness AT tires for our customers at no cost to them. This action is preventative in nature since we believe the significant risks are largely in the future. However, the data leave us convinced that this action is necessary to assure the safety of our customers, an objective that I know you fully share.
As the replacement effort goes forward, let us work cooperatively to serve our customers and, most importantly, keep their safety as our highest priority. I hope this is a goal on which you can agree.
Ford tried to recall the tire made the basis of this accident. The problem with Ford trying to recall Firestone tires is that Ford only has the ability to track Ford’s vehicles and notify the owners of the recall. Unfortunately, tires which still exhibit good tread wear are swapped on and off vehicles in the used car business. That is apparently how this Wilderness AT tire ended up on Mr. Townsel’s GMC pickup truck. Mr. Townsel had just acquired the GMC pickup several weeks before this accident occurred.
Although the detread of the tire set this accident in motion, the roof crush was the actual mechanism that caused Mr. Townsel’s injuries. The roof on this vehicle crushed approximately 10 inches. Our biomechanical expert, who is also an M.D., testified that had the roof crush been limited to just a few inches, Mr. Townsel would not have suffered a paralyzing injury.
Unfortunately, the GMC Sonoma is not the only vehicle on the road with a weak roof. Historically, roofs have become weaker rather than stronger. Vehicles built in the 1930s and continuing into the early 1960s had stronger roofs than those built today. Current Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) allow for weaker roofs. The current version of FMVSS 216 only requires one portion of a vehicle roof to withstand 1.5 times the weight of the vehicle or 5,000 lbs., whichever is less. The current 216 test is administered by a press-like fixture called a platen. The platen slowly applies pressure to only one side of the vehicle. This test allows the forces to be distributed across some of the stronger roof support structures of the vehicle. Also, this test allows the windshield to provide additional roof support and strength. In short, the current version of this test is inadequate and does not represent real world crash conditions.
In August, 2005, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed a revision to FMVSS 216. This revision, according to the agency’s own estimates, would only prevent about 44 of the 10,000 fatalities occurring in rollover accidents each year. The new proposed change would require a vehicle roof to withstand 2.5 times the unloaded weight of the vehicle. The GMC Sonoma in this case had a strength to weight ratio of 2.27. It is easy to see that even the new proposed standard is inadequate. Volvo’s internal standard requires a roof to withstand 3.5 times the vehicle weight. However, the biggest flaw in the newly proposed standard is that it does not require a dynamic rollover test, does not include occupant injury evaluation, and provides immunity to a vehicle manufacturer that meets this inadequate standard. The Government and the auto manufacturers can and should do better. Certainly, Jimmy Ray Townsel deserved better. Graham Esdale represented Mr. Townsel and did an outstanding job for him. Our client’s needs will be taken care of as a result of Graham’s hard work.
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