When Arizona lawyer David Kurtz signed on to represent accident victims in a lawsuit against Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., he had no idea what he was getting into. Had he known, he said, he would never have taken the plunge.
Thirteen years after that plunge, a seemingly routine lawsuit has morphed into a million-document monster that has called into question the integrity of America’s largest tire maker. It also has illustrated how secret settlements can keep the public in the dark about potentially deadly hazards, and has consumed Kurtz’s career.
Kurtz’s clients were four adult members of the same family who were traveling in a motor home in 2003 when the Goodyear tire on their right front wheel suddenly lost its tread, leading to a high-speed, single-vehicle crash in which they were seriously injured. It turned out that their lawsuit would be one of several dozen to be filed for people injured or killed in wrecks involving a specialty Goodyear tire.
It was a tire designed for stop-and-go urban delivery trucks. But it also fit large motor homes and Goodyear sold between 40,000 and 50,000 of the tires for that purpose.
Goodyear decided motor homes were a suitable market — despite results of its own lab tests showing that the tire could overheat so badly during extended highway travel that it might lose its tread. After Goodyear was sued, its lawyers didn’t share those results with Kurtz, even though court rules and professional ethics required them to.
By concealing the tests, a federal district judge and an appeals panel found, Goodyear cheated Kurtz’s clients out of their opportunity for a fair trial, and the company escaped with a secret low-ball settlement that likely saved Goodyear millions of dollars. A year after that 2010 settlement, Kurtz learned by happenstance the truth of Goodyear’s deception.
Goodyear declined a request to tell its side of the story in depth and would not agree to allow its tire experts or attorneys to be interviewed. But it issued a statement that it still believes the tire, known as the G159, is defect-free and safe for use on motor homes.
“Nothing is more important to Goodyear than the safety and quality of our products and the people who use them,” the statement said.
Kurtz, for his part, has made calling Goodyear to account his personal calling.
He abandoned the rest of his law practice so that he could focus all of his energy on trying to prove that Goodyear harmed his clients and scores of others by irresponsibly allowing a tire it knew could be dangerous to remain on the road.
He returned to the courtroom where his clients had been cheated and persuaded the judge to impose a jaw-dropping, albeit still unpaid, $2.7 million in sanctions on Goodyear and its attorneys. The judge agreed that deliberate corporate decisions were made to violate court rules and legal ethics by hiding evidence.
Kurtz then used those findings to launch a spinoff of his clients’ original lawsuit, this time accusing Goodyear and its lawyers of fraud. That lawsuit was settled last year on secret terms.
Meanwhile, Kurtz won court permission to use sealed documents from 13 of the 41 known lawsuits over injuries and deaths attributed to the tire’s failures on motor homes to spark an ongoing investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates the safety of vehicles and tires.
He is now trying to interest federal prosecutors in pursuing criminal charges against the company and its attorneys. “Goodyear’s misconduct is so egregious in my mind that the need for punishment is obvious,” he said.
In its statement, Goodyear said it has a “robust process for identifying potential safety-related defects… When potential issues or trends are identified, they are raised to the appropriate individuals and action is taken as necessary.”