Interview with A Tire Defect Attorney
The following is a transcript of an interview with Rick Morrison, an attorney with Beasley Allen in Montgomery, Alabama who has been helping plaintiffs with issues of both tire defects and SUV (sport utility vehicle) rollovers. The firm has been representing injured victims in insurance cases. Attorney Morrison’s primary background is with product liability defects, such as automotive defects which would also include SUV rollover issues and tire issues.
FreeAdvice: Would you provide us with an overview of tire defects and how the law impacts that type of a defect.
Rick Morrison: When you look at the law, each one of our states has its own different laws which govern its product liability claims. They’re all pretty similar. Essentially, you have to prove that a product is defective or unreasonably dangerous, whether it is a tire, an SUV, etc. You have to prove that, by design or manufacture, it does not meet the consumer’s expectations or it’s just not safe for its intended use.
FreeAdvice: Are there any warnings that a tire may be defective?
Rick Morrison: No. None whatsoever. A lot of the bad tires, or a lot of the tires that have experienced problems that my firm has litigated and have actually had problems with for quite some time, really didn’t exhibit any problems.
Probably the most famous tire litigation that most people know about deal with Firestone – specifically the Ford Firestone, the Firestone ATX and the Wilderness AT. There’s absolutely no warning whatsoever that you might have a problem.
There are several ways that a tire can fail because of a defect. However, probably the most dangerous and most prevalent, and probably the one that’s going to cause the most harm – that is the ability to control and a loss of control and subsequent injuries – is what’s called a belt tread separation.
That’s when the belt tread actually just comes apart and that causes the tire to basically come apart and then makes a lot of vehicles like SUVs and recreation vehicles very hard to control. In fact, it becomes almost impossible to control and may result in injury, property damage, severe injuries and even death.
FreeAdvice: How would someone know if a tire defect caused their accident?
Rick Morrison: Well, the lay person probably wouldn’t know. Let’s go back to the RV tire. That’s what I’m presently litigating – specifically, the RV tire named the Goodyear 275/70. You are basically going to be riding on the road and you’re going have what most people would call a blowout.
Essentially what happens is the tread comes apart and you’ll hear the slapping of the tread on the wheelbase so to speak, so that’s the only way you can really tell it’s a defective tire. You should also see if there’s a problem by consulting with an engineer or an attorney who does that type of work.
FreeAdvice: In an accident report, would the police include a suspected cause like a tire defect?
Rick Morrison: I’ve seen in actual reports that there is a tire failure. But, will the police officer get specific and say this is a de-tread, this is a side tire blowout? No. Sometimes you do see accident reports that do note that there was a tire failure. In fact, in the case I’ve got right now, the accident report did note that there was a tire failure. They won’t go any further. They’ll be very general, but there will be a note that there is a tire failure.
FreeAdvice: You mentioned an engineer or an attorney. What exactly should someone do if they do think that their accident was caused by a defective tire?
Rick Morrison: Well, if someone thinks that they’ve had an accident that was caused by a defective tire, and they have lost a loved one, have suffered serious injuries or have a loved one or family member suffered serious injuries – they’ll want to say, ‘hey, what happened?’
I would make sure that you preserve the tire. Make sure you not only get all of what you have left, but also the pieces of rubber that will be all over the highway. You’ll want to preserve the tire and then also seek out consultants, like attorneys, who specialize and talk with them to see if you can’t determine whether your accident was caused by a defect with the tire.
FreeAdvice: How is the tire defect case different from an auto accident case?
Rick Morrison: Well, this is how they’ll be different. An auto accident case is usually just a strict where you have someone not operating their car appropriately, where they’re speeding, where they fail to yield the right of way, etc. They run into you and cause the accident. Here, you’re operating a vehicle, oftentimes at highway speeds, 70, 75, 80 in Texas and your tire fails and you have a de-tread that can cause you to lose control. In most of your auto accident cases, you have another party who’s responsible for causing the accident. Here, you have a product that’s defective and causes the accident.
FreeAdvice: Are tire defect cases tried in a federal court or a state court?
Rick Morrison: Both. It would depend on where the parties are aligned. Say my clients were residents of Alabama. They actually bought the recreational vehicle that had the defective tire on it here in Alabama. Therefore, when they brought claims against the dealership, Goodyear and the makers of their recreational vehicle, they could bring the claim here in state court because there was one Alabama resident bringing a claim against another Alabama resident.
If an Alabama resident sues anybody who is not also a citizen of the state, it would have to be brought in federal court.
FreeAdvice: Could you represent someone from a state other than Alabama?
Rick Morrison: Oh, yes. In fact, currently I have cases pending in eight different states. I would say our firm, just the product liability section, probably has cases throughout the country. Product liability, and particularly defective tires and defective vehicles, is somewhat specialized. You need lawyers who have had some experience with this type of work. Not only because they’re going to know how to prosecute the companies, but also they’re going to have the contacts with the engineers and know through experience how to prosecute these cases.
FreeAdvice: So, a consumer in another state really needs to look for the best attorney in the field and it does not have to be someone in their own state?
Rick Morrison: There’s no question about that. Let me give you an example. When I bring a case against General Motors, for example, I’m here in Alabama. Whether that case is in Mississippi, whether it’s in Alabama or whether it’s Florida, they typically hire one firm out of Atlanta.
It even gets more specialized. If I have a case and it deals with a particular component part, a seatbelt, they’re going to have a law firm from Texas that only defends that one seatbelt and that one particular vehicle, so it’s an area of the law where the defendants have very specialized representatives. Therefore, as a consumer and a victim, you need to have the same experience.
Sometimes even more so. Goodyear has their own corporate counsel who operate across the entire country.
So what you want to do is find a law firm and a lawyer who has experience in handling those types of cases, whether it’s next door or across the country.
FreeAdvice: How long a victim has to contact your firm, or any firm, in this type of product liability after their accident happens? At what point should they contact an attorney?
Rick Morrison: Well, if you think that there is a potential defect, whether it be a tire, a seatbelt or an SUV, and you’re interested in trying to determine whether there is a problem, whether you do have rights, I always advise consumers to contact someone immediately because every day the evidence that you need becomes less fresh, so to speak.
So if you suspect there’s a problem and you want representation, I think you need to contact someone immediately so they can go to work and get the answers for you as soon as possible.
Now, saying how long also implies a couple of other things. Each state has a different time period in which you can bring a claim. In Alabama, it’s two years from the date of accident. In Tennessee, it’s one year. In Mississippi, it’s three years. In Texas, it’s two years.
So, all the states have different time periods. You need to find out as quickly as possible whether you have a claim because, for lack of a better way of saying it, the clock’s running.
FreeAdvice: And that clock run’s determined by the state in which you live?
Rick Morrison: Yes. Each state has different time periods. There’s another issue called a statute of repose that says that if a product is so old that you can’t bring a claim after that time. North Carolina has that law, but Alabama does not.
For example, if the product was sold June 19, 2001 and you’re hurt today, you can’t sue in the State of North Carolina because of the statute of repose there – six years. Tennessee has a ten-year statute of repose. Various states have statutes of reposes that all vary. Mississippi does not. It varies state by state.
That’s even a better reason to say, "Hey, if I’ve got a problem here and I want to find out whether I lost my loved one because of a defect and may be interested in getting representation." Therefore, it’s important to contact an experienced lawyer right away so they can find out what laws will apply. People are always amazed when they hear about the statutes of repose.
FreeAdvice: What types of damages have you seen awarded in these type of actions and how are the attorneys compensated?
Rick Morrison: The damages are going to vary from state to state and that’s why it’s always important to get someone who is experienced and knows that you’re going to have different damages based on the different state laws.
For example, I handle cases in Louisiana which doesn’t have punitive damages – the damages to punish and deter other wrongful conduct. So, in Louisiana you can’t get punitive damages.
Damages will be based on your medical bills and what you’ve lost, including lost wages if you have not been able to work. They will also be based on future medical care when you’ve been injured and will need future care.
A lot of times, we represent victims who have been catastrophically injured where they will need what we call a ‘life care plan’ because they are paralyzed and will need specialized care. In those situations, we have to get experts who have been involved with this work and sit down with the injured person and their family and determine how much it will cost to take care of the victim. Sometimes the life care plans can be anywhere from five to ten to $15 million, which can be part of your recovery.
So, the damages are likely to vary based on your injuries, the severity of the accident and the conduct of the company.
FreeAdvice: Are the lawyers compensated out of those damages?
Rick Morrison: Generally speaking, firms will work on what’s called a contingency fee. We will charge a percentage of what we recover and we charge no percentage if there’s no recovery.
In addition, we’re going to pay all the expenses of the lawsuit. If we take the case to trial and there’s no recovery for one reason or another, those expenses are borne by our firm. So, unless there’s a recovery, you’re not responsible for expenses or the law firm fee. That is standard practice for our office.
FreeAdvice: Would you talk about the Goodyear tires and let us know what’s going on with those right now?
Rick Morrison: I represent a family. I’m not going to get too much into the specifics of the case, but in 1995/1996, Goodyear started marketing a tire model G159 275/70 and it was being sold to be put on these larger, Class A recreational vehicles.
Shortly thereafter, they started having problems with the tire. They had problems of de-treads like we talked about earlier where the tire was failing. It was de-treading and once the tread failure occurred you were driving a vehicle that weighs 33,000 pounds at highway speeds. Sometimes, you don’t have the stability problems like an SUV, but once you have a de-tread, it’s going to become very difficult to control and often this has led to loss of control and unfortunately, a lot of serious injuries and death in too many instances.
FreeAdvice: Are there signs that the tires may be defective?
Rick Morrison: No. There are no signs. In fact, some of the problems with the 275/70 is that the failures were occurring within 2,000 miles of use. They were occurring almost immediately. You’re talking about a tire that’s designed for 200,000 miles of use, so there are no signs whatsoever.
You need to always make sure your tires are inflated properly. You need to always make sure you check your tires. You need to make sure you balance your tires. But there is no way a consumer could ever tell that this tire is defective.
I’m an attorney who does a lot of this work and I need to consult with an engineer to get their help in identifying the specific defect as well so there’s no way you can tell.
FreeAdvice: When do the defects in this particular model – the G159 275/70 start to surface?
Rick Morrison: Almost immediately. Goodyear started marketing and selling this particular tire as an RV tire in ‘95 or ‘96. About a year or two later, they started having failures with several different RV manufacturers and on several different Class A motor homes.
FreeAdvice: What has Goodyear done about this?
Rick Morrison: Well, so far they’ve done very little. With some of the Fleetwood models, they have done a limited recall. They took the 275/70 and replaced it with another Goodyear model called the 295/90. Now those are just numbers, but they’ve just replaced the tire with another tire that’s more appropriate for RVs.
They also did a technical service bulletin (TSB) in 2002 with the Monaco Windsor models and they did the same replacement program. They replaced the 275/70 with the 295/80.
So, they’ve done limited recalls and limited replacement, but they need to do a whole lot more because I know of accidents that are occurring daily with this tire which have led to injuries and death within the last few months.
FreeAdvice: What type of RVs use the tires? Could you go over some of the names with which you’re familiar at this point?
Rick Morrison: Well, the best way to just refer to it is the large RVs. They’re called the Class A RVs – the Monacos and the Fleetwoods. The Monacos have seven or eight different models. Fleetwood also has seven or eight different models such as the Holiday Rambler. However, generally speaking, we’re talking about the large Class A motor homes – the ones that weigh 33,000 pounds that you see at a football game all the time.
FreeAdvice: They might be on a vehicle the family rents for the summer for instance?
Rick Morrison: No question about it. In fact, that’s unfortunately when you’re seeing most of the failures – during the summer and there’s a reason for that with this particular tire.
Goodyear and the engineers will acknowledge that a tire’s two worst enemies are heat and speed. This particular tire’s problem is that it was never designed, nor should have been placed on these large RVs that were going to be used at highway speeds and particularly during the summertime.
So, most definitely you could rent one of these RVs. It could have one of these tires on it and you would think it was ok. In fact, if you go to the owner’s manual, this tire would be recommended for these large RVs. When in fact, Goodyear no longer markets or sells this particular tire for the RVs. It’s got another tire called the 670 that they started marketing in 2000 that was specifically designed for RVs.
FreeAdvice: What should a consumer do if they have this tire?
Rick Morrison: I would have them replaced. These RVs are expensive. I have clients who paid nearly $200,000.00 for theirs. If I had this particular tire on an RV, I’d take it right back to the dealership. I’d demand that it be replaced with another tire that’s more suitable. The Goodyear 670 for example or Michelin has some other models. They can even have it replaced with one that Goodyear has replaced.
I’d also ask the dealership if there have been any problems. If the dealership denies it, I’d contact an attorney who deals with these tires and see if you can’t get their help in getting the tire replaced, but I would definitely make sure I went to the dealership or through any and all channels to get the tire replaced.
FreeAdvice: There has not been an official recall by Goodyear. Is that true?
Rick Morrison: There’s been a limited one with some of the Fleetwood models but no, that is true. There has not been a recall, and in fact Lawyers USA Weekly did a feature of my case and they even talked to Goodyear about it. Goodyear denied that there’s any problem with the tire at all and as of now, has no plans or intentions to do a recall.
They have insisted that consumers were abusing the tires by running them in an under inflated condition and so there has not been a recall.
FreeAdvice: If a consumer has become a victim of an accident with this particular tire, what should and shouldn’t they do?
Rick Morrison: If they’re interested in pursuing a claim, they need to talk to a lawyer who deals with these type of cases immediately because the clock is ticking.
FreeAdvice: Is there anything someone shouldn’t do?
Rick Morrison: Number one - they shouldn’t get rid of the tire. Keep the tire. Keep the RV. Number two, be careful. I say that because I have seen horror stories dealing with SUVs and with vehicles where they actually contact some of the large auto manufacturers who have sent their investigators out and they’ve either tampered with the evidence or the vehicles have been destroyed.
So, if there’s a problem, you can notify the company. That’s one way. But if you’ve got a situation where you think you’re going to need an attorney, I would get an attorney right away to represent your rights immediately because the big corporations will already have that.
You can also make a claim through NHTSA (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) or contact several consumer groups.
FreeAdvice: Is there any certification for an attorney to handle this type of case?
Rick Morrison: There isn’t. However, there are certain trial certifications and those are good. The best thing a consumer can do is research. Go on the Internet. Like my firm, Beasley Allen, we have a web site. You can go to the web site. You can learn about our lawyers, what we do, how long we’ve been doing it. One of the most important things you need to find out is how much experience the attorney has because these are difficult cases to pursue. You need an attorney who has handled the cases in the past because the companies will definitely have that type of representation.