Washington — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is investigating reports that a potentially defective type of Goodyear commercial tire used on recreational vehicles may have caused 95 injuries or deaths dating back to the 1990s.
Specifically, the agency is looking into Goodyear's G159 model of commercial tire, produced from 1996 through 2003, and has requested field performance, safety and design data from the Akron-based tire manufacturer.
Some 40,000 tires are part of the investigation, which began only recently when previously sealed documents were unsealed by a court. The automotive website Jalopnik has been examining the issue from available court documents and plaintiff interviews for months.
Jalopnik's investigation of the court filings covering the past two decades revealed allegations that the tire's failure rate was 10 to 27 times worse than that of Firestone 500 tires determined to be defective by NHTSA decades prior.
Statements in depositions made by Goodyear's own employees show they cannot identify any other Goodyear tires with the same failure rate as the G159. In several cases, the company cited tire underinflation, driver error, overloaded motor homes, extreme temperatures and road debris as the causes of tire blowouts that led to crashes that resulted in injuries.
What is unusual about this case, according to Jalopnik, is that information about the full scope of the issue stayed out of the public light for well over a decade, given the number of injuries and deaths linked to claims made by plaintiffs against Goodyear. The site contends that Goodyear's legal tactics and the achievement of confidential settlements have contributed to relatively little information about this issue gaining widespread publicity.
The issue first gained wide publicity relatively recently even though reports of G159 tire failure date back to the 1990s; many documents pertaining to claims made by those injured in crashes had been sealed as part of settlement efforts by Goodyear.
Jalopnik contends that for years the tire maker had succeeded in keeping documents relating to tire failures out of the public light by having the documents designated as "confidential" through protective orders issued by courts as part of the company's effort to settle cases with plaintiffs. This had the effect of preventing victims from disclosing information to regulators, namely NHTSA, or to other victims also seeking redress from the company through litigation.
In a Jan. 1, 2018, filing announcing a "preliminary evaluation" into the G159 tire, NHTSA itself pointed out that the evaluation is only commencing now because until 2018 court documents relating to many of the claims made by victims had been sealed under protective orders.
"As the result of a court order authorising the release of Goodyear records to NHTSA, the agency obtained claim and complaint data alleging that Goodyear G159 tires installed on Class A motor homes failed in service, causing deaths or personal injuries," NHTSA said.
"The number of these claims suggests that the failures may stem from a safety-related defect. Many of these claims were not required to be reported under 49 CFR Part 579 and the data produced in litigation was sealed under protective orders and confidential settlement agreements, precluding claimants from submitting it to NHTSA."
Goodyear has asserted in several filings and public statements that the tire in question was "designed for pickup-and-delivery trucks in commercial service," as Jalopnik points out. But the tire also fit RVs and motor homes, and shortly after manufacturers like REV Group Inc. (Fleetwood and Monaco brands) started using it on motor homes, the company started receiving reports of tread separation.
"The Office of Defects investigation has also received 10 consumer complaints alleging failures of Goodyear G159 tires on motor homes," NHTSA added in its January 2018 filing. "Two of these complaints allege a crash occurred as a result of the tire failures. Goodyear separately reported nine claims under 49 CFR Part 579 alleging one death and 13 injuries."
"Among many concerns, claimants contend the Goodyear G159 tires were allegedly not designed for extended use at highway speeds as would be experienced during motor home operation."
This week Goodyear issued a statement addressing the NHTSA inquiry:
"We take these concerns seriously and we are fully cooperating with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Nothing is more important to Goodyear than the safety and quality of our products and the people who use them.
"We continue to believe that there is no safety defect with the G159 size 275/70R22.5 tire. We have strong quality controls in place, we follow industry standards when developing and manufacturing all our products and we monitor their performance in the field.
"We produced these tires in the US between 1996-2003, some of which were used on class A motorhomes. We believe this tire is essentially gone from the market."
The company added that anyone who might have a motorhome with G159 tires and has questions should visit or contact an authorised Goodyear retailer or Goodyear Commercial Tire & Service Center for a free inspection.