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Tire Maker Vigorously Fighting Crash Lawsuits

Courts: Continental General insists products aren't defective. Firm says driver is to blame in a Los Angeles case.

November 20, 2000|MYRON LEVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Freda Kay Hall died in the crash of a Ford Bronco II that flipped over after the tread peeled off one of its General GT52S tires. A 48-year-old Missouri schoolteacher, Hall was visiting Atlanta for the Olympic Games at the time of her death in August 1996.

Her family is now pressing a lawsuit in Georgia against Ford Motor Co. and Continental General Tire Inc., alleging among other things that the tires used as original equipment on the sport utility vehicle should have been recalled years before.

Hall died in one of at least 34 reported cases of Bronco IIs rolling over after the failure of GT52S tires. Eighteen deaths and 58 injuries were reported in those crashes, which remain a small subset of rollovers involving the Bronco II.

Ford and Continental General maintain that they are not liable for Hall's death. The case could go to trial early next year.

A similar crash in Texas killed two people and severely injured three others in July 1998. Esteban Martinez, 11, and Maria Leija, 20, died when the Bronco II in which they were riding flipped over, allegedly after the tread or belts of one of its GT52S tires suddenly peeled away. Ford, without admitting liability, recently agreed to a confidential settlement. Claims against the tire maker are pending.

A bitterly fought case in Los Angeles involves another 15-inch tire model from General and a different vehicle, a '93 Ford Taurus. Defense lawyers contend that the crash victim, Cynthia Lampe, who was left a quadriplegic, was to blame for allowing the car to leave the road after the tread peeled from one of its tires.

Lampe was en route to Las Vegas in June 1996 when the tread suddenly separated from her left rear tire, a General AmeriTech steel-belted radial. The car went out of control, veered off northbound Interstate 15, rolled up an embankment and flipped over on its roof. Lampe, then 28, suffered a broken neck. Her mother, Sylvia Cortez, also was injured.

Lampe, her mother and her father, Joe Cortez, a prominent boxing referee, have settled their lawsuit against three defendants: Ford; a Sears Roebuck & Co. service center that inspected the Taurus shortly before the ill-fated trip; and a dealership that sold the used Taurus. Without admitting liability, the defendants agreed to settlements totaling $4.09 million, court records show.

Trial of the claims against Continental General is scheduled to begin in January.

Lampe and her parents contend that the tire failed because of poor adhesion between the belts and the tread, due to design and manufacturing defects. They have introduced statements from former employees of the Mt. Vernon, Ill., plant where the tire was produced in late 1992, alleging problems with quality control and manufacturing practices.

They further allege that the tire might have been recalled had Continental General cooperated with a 1993 probe by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of its 15-inch tires that was conducted shortly after the tire was built.

But defense lawyers in court papers have denounced those arguments as a "smear campaign" meant to divert attention from the real issues in the case.

According to the tire maker, there was nothing wrong with the design or manufacture of the tire on Lampe's car, which had logged more than 49,000 miles at the time of the crash. It blamed the failure on prior impact damage.

Defense lawyers also have shifted blame to Lampe herself, saying that she should have been able to bring the car under control. Although she held a valid driver's license, they pointed out that she had not taken a driver's education course and said she was not experienced in driving the Taurus.

According to court papers, "Evidence at trial will prove that when the tread separation occurred on the Lampe vehicle, it was Ms. Lampe's action that unfortunately caused the vehicle to veer off the road, not the tire."

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