Workers’ Testimony Brings
Closure to Victims of Tire Failures
A night of celebration turned to tragedy for two Arkansas families in May of 1998. While driving on Interstate 40 on their way to graduation ceremonies, a a tire failed when its tread separated from the belt. The vehicle careened across the median and into an oncoming vehicle. The crash claimed the lives of four and left two others paralyzed. Two families suffered an unspeakable loss.
In the Fall of that year, I joined in litigation against Cooper Tire & Rubber Company, the manufacturer of the failed tire. After a year of attempting to get discovery information through formal requests in Court, the families of the victims were unable to get any significant information from the company. One trial date had already been delayed due to incomplete discovery and another trial date looked as if it, too, would be delayed.
That’s when, together with another attorney, Jerry Kelly, I began commuting to Tupelo, Mississippi, where the failed tire had been manufactured. We started talking to anyone in town who had formerly worked at the Cooper Tire plant.
One night, while sitting at an ex-tire worker’s kitchen table, we learned about the practice of “awling” tires. The former tire worker described a condition on the new tires called a “liner blister,” which was an air bubble on the underside of the tire that could be seen protruding at the innerliner. In order to hide this defect, a leather awl (which looks like a short ice-pick) would be used to press through the body of the tire through the tread, the two steel belts, the polyester plies and down to the innerliner. The worker would push on the air bubble while retracting the awl. This would allow the air bubble to escape through the hole made by the awl and the bubble would no longer be visible.
Our visit around this ex-worker’s kitchen table revealed a significant danger to consumers who would ride on potentially unsafe tires. In fact, that kitchen table conversation generated so much interest that it was reported in The Wall Street Journal and on Dateline.
Our research also revealed other dangerous practices in the tire manufacturing process, including the use of solvents, old age stock, and contamination. After four and a half years of litigation that case was settled, but only after Cooper Tire was sanctioned for destroying documents. Thanks to the testimony of honest, hard-working people the truth was made known and injured victims received relief.