On Tuesday, Goodyear recalled more than 170,000 tires made for trucks and RVs during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Federal investigators say the company knew about the problem as early as 2002.
On June 7, the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) announced Goodyear recalled “more than 170,000” tires it made between 1996 and 2003. The agency found that the tires produced for trucks and RVs failed more often than similar tires installed on RVs, and caused multiple deaths and injuries.
The recall comes after a prolonged investigative process that revealed Goodyear has allegedly known about the issue since 2002. The Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) found that defective G159 275/70R22.5 tires caused crashes that killed eight people and injured 69 others from 1998 through 2009.
In a scathing email to Goodyear earlier this year, ODI director Stephen Ridella pointed to a “penchant for secrecy” at the brand that exacerbated the consequences of the tires’ “extraordinary failure rate.”
“The safety-related defect is clear, identified failure that leads to a loss of vehicle control, causing crashes and potentially catastrophic consequences such as death and serious injury.”
In it, the agency requested Goodyear to recall the defective tires, based on a 5-year investigation that uncovered the damage the tires caused and Goodyear’s repeated court actions to conceal records and information related to them.
Goodyear soon refused.
NHTSA Issues Evidence, Requests Recall
The ODI began its investigation in 2017. It found the G159 275/70R22.5 tires failed at a “significantly” higher rate than peer tires at highway speeds. The ODI did conclude that the multiple fatalities and injuries mainly resulted from underinflation and overloading by RV owners.
But it also said that those conditions “are common among RV owners/operators and are foreseeable conditions by RV and tire manufacturers and thus are not a defense for Goodyear’s failure to conduct a recall.”
The tires’ performance also suffered from outdated regulations and possible mispurposing as marketed. According to the ODI, Goodyear initially marketed the tire for “start-and-stop metro-style delivery vehicles” rather than highway use. But the tires eventually became original equipment on large motorhomes.
Per regulations at the time, Goodyear rated the tire for 65 mph, which was the threshold for freeways in 1996. By 1998, though, some states started raising speed limits to 75 mph.
The NHTSA asserted that tires reach higher temperatures at higher speeds and over long hauls. And Goodyear’s research showed that the affected G159 tires could hit 200 degrees Fahrenheit at 75 mph, which “could lead to performance issues, including tread separation.” According to the letter, Goodyear found that the tires heated to “well in excess” of 200 degrees at 50 mph during tests in August 1996.
NHTSA wrote that Goodyear knew of chronic underinflation and overloading problems as early as February 1998, when it started receiving injury claims. By 2002, when it received its first death claim related to the tire, it “had reached the conclusion that the G159 was not, according to its own specifications, suitable for use in Class A (large) motorhomes.”
The letter said the company, on the other hand, did not “believe” a safety defect existed in the tires. Instead, it countered the claims by asserting that the failures resulted from “owner abuse” and maintained that “campaigns and recalls by now-defunct RV manufacturers” had already mitigated the issue.
‘Penchant for Secrecy’
The G159 275/70R22.5 tires, which the NHTSA said are “commonly found on RVs,” have been out of production since 2003. The NHTSA said the company should have recalled the tires within 5 working days of becoming aware of the defect, per federal regulations.
It presented a detailed timeline of incidents, and when Goodyear became aware of them throughout the 20+ years, the tires remained on the road. It also said the company routinely settled lawsuits and got judges to seal related information, keeping it from NHTSA and other plaintiffs’ lawyers.
“Goodyear’s penchant for secrecy undoubtedly provided an ancillary benefit in preventing injured litigants and their counsel from providing information about G159-related crashes,” the letter said. “NHTSA was not alerted to the extraordinary failure rate of the subject tires” until it did obtain documents from an Arizona case in 2017, the letter said.
The letter did say that the ODI’s findings did “not constitute a formal conclusion by NHTSA with respect to the evidence in its investigative file.”
Therefore, it did not offer a final decision that Goodyear went so far as to violate the law.
Goodyear received the ODI’s letter in February, but it did not immediately recall the tires. Instead, it responded to the agency with a letter on March 8 that called the ODI’s characterization of the brand “inaccurate and unfair.” It also refuted many of the ODI’s findings.
“No Subject Tire inspected by Goodyear engineers ever revealed or even suggested a defect of any kind,” the letter said.
Supporting its conclusion, Goodyear said the materials it used to build the G159 275/70R22.5 “had performed well in the field for many years prior to the introduction of the Subject Tire [which was] fully qualified for operation at highway speeds.”
“Goodyear has concluded that the Subject Tire does not contain a defect and respectfully declines your request,” the brand said, responding to the ODI’s request for recall. Goodyear also pointed out that recalls related to owner underinflation and overloading “have always been” RV manufacturers’ responsibility.
And the brand threw out the NHTSA’s discussion of tire temperatures, claiming its engineers found the tires would fail at 250 degrees, not 200. Goodyear maintained the NHTSA knew precedent was “well-established that confidentiality provisions, protective orders, and the sealing of cases are appropriate litigation tools in some circumstances.”
Finally, it disagreed with the possibility that performing a safety recall could have “any practical impact in replacing these tires in the market.”
Pending a final decision by the NHTSA, it concluded that it would not act on a recall.
NHTSA Threatens Legal Action
The NHTSA then threatened a public hearing and court action if Goodyear continued not to act on a recall, according to the Associated Press (AP).
Goodyear posted documents Tuesday showing the company had recalled 173,237 of the tires.
The NHTSA encourages drivers with impacted tires to get a free replacement from a Goodyear Commercial Tire and Service Network location or an authorized Goodyear commercial truck tire dealer immediately.
In a statement, Goodyear said Tuesday that it’s performing the recall to address risks when the tires are underinflated or overloaded on motorhomes, per the AP. It also asserted that RV manufacturers were responsible for transmitting appropriate load limits to customers.
Still, the company will replace the tires installed on recreational vehicles free of charge. It will also provide owners a $60 voucher for the cost of professionally weighing an RV and offer a $500 refund for affected tires not installed on a vehicle.
The NHTSA added that online shoppers might be at risk of acquiring the tires. You can reach Goodyear customer service at 1-800-592-3267.
Ongoing Litigation Could Cost Goodyear
Michael Brooks, acting executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, told the AP that Goodyear’s behavior should result in a fine from the NHTSA and criminal charges from the Department of Justice. The organization sued to get records released in the 2017 Arizona case.
“Sealing off the documentation that there is a distinct threat to public safety should be against the law,” said Brooks, adding that several states have such laws.
If organizations like the Center for Auto Safety pursue any ongoing legal action against Goodyear, the consequences could prove expensive for the company.
In 2015, General Motors agreed to pay over $900 million to evade criminal prosecution in a similar incident. Investigators found that ignition switches in its vehicles could slip out of the “run” position and cut the engine. The defect led to at least 124 deaths and 275 injuries.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) may be initiating a criminal investigation into the Goodyear case. David Kurtz is the attorney in the Arizona case who notified NHTSA of the tire failures in 2017.
He told the AP that in 2018, a DOJ criminal fraud lawyer traveled to his Arizona office to consult with him about the case “for an entire day.”
The DOJ typically does not comment on ongoing investigations.