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Published: Wednesday, 7/26/2006

Tires made by Cooper targeted in safety probe

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

A federal agency is investigating whether a line of tires produced by Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., Findlay, are prone to excessive failure rates.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened the probe this month into the firm's Dominator Sport A-T tires, which have been the subject of a number of lawsuits around the country alleging that the tires have separated at high speeds.

"We have been in business more than 92 years," company spokesman Patricia Brown said in a statement. "The only way to remain in business for that long is to provide tires that meet and exceed dealer and consumer expectations." Cooper Tire, northwest Ohio's fifth largest firm, is the nation's fourth-largest tire maker. It primarily makes replacement tires.

Federal complaint logs show 115 complaints against two to three dozen Cooper tire lines. The investigation, however, was prompted not by lawsuits but by data concerning the performance of the tires submitted in routine reports by Cooper Tire, said Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the federal regulator.

"We have seen some data supplied by the company that has raised some questions with us about this particular model," he said.

The company's spokesman stressed that the tires involved - 102,000 produced between 2003 and 2005 - represent a small amount of the 40 million tires manufactured by the Findlay firm each year.

However, the federal agency disagreed with the Cooper Tire official's characterization of the probe, opened July 13, as a "preliminary evaluation."

"This is a full-blown defect investigation," Mr. Tyson said. "There is nothing halfway about it."

The agency will first seek detailed data from the company about the tire's failure rate. That is likely will take about three months, after which the regulators will decide whether to close the probe or begin an engineering analysis.

If that happens, the next steps could involve inspections of failed tires, factory visits, and independent testing and research, he added. Typically, that would take 12 to 18 months.

The federal agency then would decide whether to "make a finding of defect" and order a recall.

The northwest Ohio firm has been targeted in at least 21 lawsuits involving 12 deaths in Florida since 2000. The court actions are among dozens nationwide contending that Cooper Tire's products separated at high speeds.

In one incident, a St. Petersburg, Fla., mother was on her way back from a wedding in Atlanta. In another, a Miami driveway installer and father of three was on his way to work. The families of the crash accident victims have accused Cooper Tire of manufacturing defective tires.

The Florida suits involve models other than the Dominator Sport A-T under investigation by the regulators.

Cooper Tire's tactics to win lawsuits have drawn the attention of critics: hiring private investigators to pick up tire tread evidence at accident scenes; aggressively pursuing gag orders and sanctions against attorneys; and sealing documents on the grounds that they contain trade secrets.

A South Carolina judge wrote in one case that the firm had engaged in "misrepresentations, concealment, and disobedience" in the discovery process.

Ocala, Fla., lawyer Bruce Kaster, whom the Wall Street Journal dubbed the tire industry's "public enemy No. 1," has battled Cooper Tire on a dozen cases. He calls the company the "Attila the Hun" of tire manufacturers.

Cooper Tire is typically one of many defendants in automobile accident cases, often because lawyers point to tire tread separation as starting the accident.

One attorney suing the firm said Cooper tires lack critical components: a strip called a belt edge wedge to prevent tread separation; a nylon overlay as an extra safety measure; and a good combination of chemicals and thick inner liner to prevent aging.

Cooper Tire officials said not all tires need a belt edge wedge or a nylon overlay and that the company's tires' inner liners perform so well that Consumer Reports listed four of Cooper's tires among the top 10 tires for the ability to retain air.

Some tire experts said any problems with Cooper Tire products likely are related to bad maintenance, such as underinflation.

The federal agency looking into the local firm's products checked into Firestone tire problems in 2000 and got that firm to voluntarily recall 14.4 million tires.

The St. Petersburg Times contributed to this story.

Contact Gary Pakulski at:

gpakulski@theblade.com

or 419-724-6082.



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