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Auto accidents allegedly caused by tire-tread separations are sparking lawsuits across the country, with plaintiffs charging that tire manufacturers are selling tires without warning consumers of the potential risk when the tires get older. A handful of cases have settled, and about 25 lawsuits are currently pending in several states, including California, Florida, North Carolina and Texas, according to attorneys involved in tire litigation. The lawsuits allege that tires older than 6 years — even if never used — could cause fatal accidents due to the degradation of the chemical adhesive that bonds tire treads to tires. Attorneys for the tire industry counter that many factors could cause tires to deteriorate, and that tire-aging claims are merely a creative way for plaintiffs to present products liability cases. And not all tire-aging cases are plaintiffs’ victories or settlements. One case in federal district court in Georgia resulted in a defense verdict in 2003. Miller-Bristow v. Pirelli Tire Corp., No. 1:01-cv-0176-cap (N.D. Ga.). Much like the actions against the tobacco industry, the heart of the litigation against tire makers is the manufacturers’ knowledge of the alleged risk of old tires, said Michael Danko of O’Reilly Collins & Danko in San Mateo, Calif. Danko is the plaintiff’s counsel in two pending tire-aging cases, including Crane v. Ford Motor Co., No. CIV 433309 (San Mateo Co., Calif., Super. Ct.), which is scheduled to go to trial in January. “It’s a well-settled legal precedent that a manufacturer has to warn consumers of a risk that makes its product dangerous,” he asserted. THE SIX-YEAR MARK Manufacturers are aware of the potential dangers of old tires, alleged Danko, citing European tire manufacturers’ recommendation that tires older than 6 years be replaced, regardless of the condition of the tire treads. In a recent petition to the federal government, Safety Research Strategies, a private Massachusetts-based research and consulting firm specializing in motor vehicle safety, urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to issue consumer advisories warning the public of dangers involving old tires. In the petition, Sean Kane, president of Safety Research, asserted that “tires with acceptable tread and no significant visible signs of defect or degradation are likely to find their way into service or continue to remain in service regardless of their age.” In a separate interview, Kane asserted that “[t]here’s no doubt there are more incidents that are not accounted for.” But Dan Zielinski, a spokesman for the Rubber Manufacturers Association, whose membership includes Bridgestone-Firestone, Michelin North America Inc. and Uniroyal, asserted, “Our members have told us there’s no scientific data to establish uniform tire performance limit based on age.” Roy Littlefield, executive vice president of the Tire Industry Association, said tire aging as the cause of accidents is rare. “I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but I’ve been in the industry since 1979, I’ve never heard of hard facts [that support tire aging],” he said. ‘NOT MUCH VALIDITY’ Attorney Jim Yukevich of Los Angeles’ Yukevich & Sonnett, defense counsel for Michelin in a pending Utah case involving allegations of detreading tires, Keddington v. Michelin North America Inc., No. 030402995 (Utah Co., Utah, 4th Jud. Dist. Ct.), offered a defense counsel’s perspective. “Manufacturers do what they can during the design process to take into consideration the issue of tire aging,” he asserted. Tire aging is a “relatively new” issue, he added, and “there’s not much validity.” “It’s common sense that if a tire is old or if it looks old, you need to get it looked at by a qualified tire professional,” Yukevich said. But William S. Frates II, a solo practitioner in Vero Beach, Fla., who specializes in tire litigation, alleges that tire manufacturers know about the effects of tire aging, but have been withholding test data that should have been given to the public. He notes that some companies limit their warranty to six years. “But that’s not saying the tires are defective,” he said. “There’s a difference between saying we don’t cover the warranty and saying we recommend you take the tire off because it might be dangerous.” Frates is currently litigating two tire-aging cases in Utah: Keddington and Weist v. Bridgestone-Firestone North America Tire, No. 020905770 (Salt Lake Co., Utah, 3d Jud. Dist. Ct.). 2A spokesperson for the Rubber Manufacturers Association said, “It’s difficult to isolate age as a sole factor in tire performance because so many other issues are affecting tires. There are much more important factors to consider, like mileage, driving condition and maintenance.” TOUGH DISCOVERY PROCESS? But to prove that manufacturers have knowledge of such risk is not easy. The discovery process in tire-aging cases is time-consuming and costly, attorneys assert. Roger Braugh of Sico, White & Braugh in Corpus Christi, Texas, has settled five cases alleging tire aging in the last two years. Discovery has been “an all-out war in every case,” he said. Zielinski, the rubber manufacturers’ spokesman, denied allegations that discovery is burdensome because manufacturers are allegedly hiding test data. “They’re looking for the one document saying ‘this is how we screwed up.’ Until they get that, they’re going to say ‘we’re not getting what we want,’” Zielinski asserted.

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