LaBarron Boone and Greg Allen, lawyers in our Personal Injury/Product Liability Section, recently settled a case involving two defective products about which we have previously warned. That case arose out of a motor vehicle crash that occurred on July 2, 2011, on I-85, just over the Georgia line. Derrick Sagers and LaTonyia Sallee were traveling in a 1995 Ford Explorer in the northbound right lane on I-85 when the rear left tire experienced a detread and completely aired out. When the left rear tire began to detread, the Explorer started to “vibrate” and “sway back and forth” in the right hand lane of travel. The detread caused the Explorer to pull to the left. In an effort to correct the leftward pull, the driver steered to the right, then to the left, and then back to the right. A final small corrective steer to the right resulted in a rollover, which caused the crash and the deaths of both occupants.
Just a few days prior to the accident, Mr. Sagers took the Explorer to a repair shop to have the left rear tire changed because it was low on air. The technician who changed the tire replaced the rear left tire with the spare tire from under the Explorer. The spare tire had never touched the ground and looked brand new. But the spare tire was not brand new. Instead, it was the spare that came as original equipment on the 1995 Ford Explorer and was 16 years old at the time the technician put it on the Explorer and at the time of the crash.
Suit was filed against Ford for negligently or wantonly manufacturing a defective vehicle that could not be controlled during a tire detread and failing to warn consumers of the 1995 Explorer’s high propensity to roll over. In addition, our firm also sued Bridgestone for negligently or wantonly failing to warn consumers not to use a tire older than six years.
The 1995 Ford Explorer at issue was manufactured by Ford on June 6, 1995. Mr. Sagers purchased the 1995 Ford Explorer on Feb. 18, 2011, from Mr. John Fitzgerald at Woodmere Motors in Montgomery, Ala. The Ford Explorer appeared to be in “good” condition at the time Mr. Sagers purchased it and at the time of the accident. However, as it turns out, the Ford Explorer was not in good condition at any point in time. In fact, the 1995 Explorer is one of the most notoriously unsafe SUVs in recent history for several reasons that apply in this case.
Paul Semones, our mechanical engineering expert, presented 50 other similar incidents (OSIs) at his deposition that involve a tire detread that resulted in a rollover related to this generation of Ford Explorers. Of these 50 OSIs, 25 were caused by a well-known phenomenon known as “skate,” which occurs during a tire detread when the tires become imbalanced and begin to bounce, causing the back of the Explorer to become uncontrollable. The average driver attempts to control the vehicle, but because the rear tire is detreading, the vehicle actually goes from an understeer vehicle to an oversteer, resulting in a rollover. When a vehicle loses its understeer and becomes oversteer, it becomes uncontrollable in the same way it does when it hits ice.
Bridgestone had known for years that the 1995 Ford Explorer could not withstand a foreseeable tire detread. In 2001, Congress held a hearing to determine whether this same generation of Ford Explorer was rolling over during tire detreads because of the tire or the Ford Explorer. The President and CEO of the tire manufacturer in this case testified before Congress that the Ford Explorer was rolling over during tire detreads because the Ford Explorer was defective.
The CEO testified that the testing conducted by an independent engineer found that 1994-2000 Ford Explorers were rolling over twice as much as all other SUVs involved in single-vehicle, non-tire-related accidents. The CEO acknowledged that a driver should never lose control of a vehicle due to a tire failure, which is a foreseeable event for any car or tire manufacturer. Despite all of this knowledge that the 1995 Ford Explorer could not be controlled by the average driver during a tire detread, Ford chose not to recall or warn consumers of this hazard.
The left rear tire on the 1995 Ford Explorer was a Fi res tone FR480 P225/70R15 (hereinafter “FR480”) that was designed and manufactured by Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations, LLC. The tire was manufactured in the 21st week of 1995. The tire was an original manufacturer’s equipment (OEM) tire that came equipped on the subject 1995 Explorer as a spare. It had been stored under the vehicle as a spare tire for 16 years before being mounted on the rear driver’s side of the subject Explorer approximately two days before the wreck.
It is well-known throughout the tire and automobile industry that, as tires age, the tire components dry out and can separate, causing the tire to detread. Governmental safety agencies, such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), have recognized for many years before this accident occurred in 2011 that aged tires are dangerous because they result in higher rates of tire blowouts, especially in southern states, like Alabama and Georgia.
What makes tire aging so dangerous is the fact that the average consumer does not know how to read a tire’s Department of Transportation (DOT) code — the only way to tell the true age of the tire. Instead, the average consumer assumes that if the tire looks brand new, then it must be safe. Unfortunately, that is not true, and tire and automotive manufacturers have known this for many years. The evidence in this case showed that some vehicle manufacturers were advising consumers not to use tires older than six years as early as 1990. Despite knowledge that aged tires are more likely to fail than new tires, that such failure can cause serious injury and death, and that the average consumer is not aware that tires can fail due to age, neither Ford nor Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations (BATO) included any warning in the subject Ford Explorer, the Owner’s Manual or on the tire itself regarding the hazards of tire aging.
Due to the good work on the part of LaBarron and Greg, Ford and Bridgestone both settled out of court. This settlement will provide closure to two families. If you need more information on these cases, contact LaBarron Boone at 800-898-2034 or by email at LaBarron.Boone@beasleyallen.com.
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