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AUTOS

Recall of imported tires is sought

As many as 450,000 units produced in China are suspected of defects after a fatal accident.

June 26, 2007|Martin Zimmerman | Times Staff Writer

In the latest controversy involving Chinese products, federal regulators are asking a New Jersey company to recall as many as 450,000 imported tires because the product was blamed for an accident that killed two people last year.

Foreign Tire Sales "needs to come up with some sort of remedy -- a recall notice and proper compensation to the consumer," Heather Hopkins, a spokeswoman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said late Monday.

Foreign Tire conceded that the tires were prone to tread separation and should be pulled off the road. But a formal recall could force the tiny company to give consumers replacement tires or refunds. The cost could easily reach $50 million and drive Foreign Tire into bankruptcy, said Lawrence Lavigne, the firm's attorney.

The Union, N.J.-based company asked the highway safety agency for help but said it was rebuffed.

"They look at it as an issue between Foreign Tire Sales and the Chinese manufacturer," Lavigne said.

The tires, intended for use on pickups, sport utility vehicles and other light trucks, were sold in the U.S. as far back as 2001 under the brand names Westlake, Telluride, Compass and YKS. They were made by Hangzhou Zhongce Rubber Co. of Hangzhou, China.

Although motorists may not be able to get refunds for replacing the potentially defective tires, one safety expert said they shouldn't take a chance.

"I'd recommend taking them off," said Sean Kane of Safety Research & Strategies Inc. "It's a big inconvenience, but the chances of a tread separation and a loss-of-control crash are a much bigger consideration."

Lavigne said the Chinese manufacturer hadn't provided information on which tires might be defective, which would help them identify customers who might be at risk.

"We seriously doubt that all of them [have problems], but right now we simply have no way of knowing," he said.

The number of potentially defective tires eventually could rise significantly because other U.S. wholesalers imported tires from the same manufacturer, Foreign Tire told NHTSA.

Foreign Tire alerted NHTSA in a June 11 filing that the tires might be prone to tread separation, although the filing indicated that the company first suspected problems more than 1 1/2 years earlier.

"If they knew this was going on and it took this long to alert us, we're not very happy with that," Hopkins said.

Foreign Tire, a closely held company with fewer than 10 employees, told NHTSA that it began importing tires from Hangzhou Zhongce in 2001, relying on the Chinese company to ensure that the tires met U.S. safety standards. Foreign Tire said it began to suspect problems in October 2005 when warranty claims on the tires jumped.

After a May 2006 accident in New Mexico involving an ambulance equipped with Hangzhou Zhongce-produced tires, Foreign Tire said that tests were conducted on other tires made by the Chinese company and that tread separations were found.

In September, Foreign Tire said, Hangzhou Zhongce "finally admitted that it had unilaterally decided" to leave out a component known as a gum strip that helps bond the tread to the tire, making it more likely that the tread would separate.

In August, two people were killed and a third seriously injured when a van rolled over on a road outside Philadelphia. A wrongful-death lawsuit filed against Foreign Tire alleged that the tread on a Telluride-brand tire separated, causing the crash.

Tests conducted on Hangzhou Zhongce-produced tires in March confirmed the separation problem, Foreign Tire said. The U.S. firm filed suit against the Chinese manufacturer in May and notified NHTSA this month.

"Given the nature of the suspected defect, [Foreign Tire] recognizes that a complete product recall may be in order," the company said in its NHTSA filing.

Asked why it took so long to take action, Lavigne said initial concerns were "merely a suspicion. You're not going to recall potentially 450,000 tires until you investigate."

Executives at Hangzhou Zhongce couldn't be reached for comment.

It's not clear how many of the tires were sold in California. Foreign Tire's filing with NHTSA lists two California companies that it says imported or sold Hangzhou Zhongce tires "of similar construction": Tireco Inc. of Compton and K&D Tire Wholesalers of Carlsbad.

K&D Chief Executive Dan Marsh said Monday that his company had never sold tires made by Hangzhou Zhongce. Executives at Tireco didn't return telephone calls seeking comment.

Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., the No. 2 U.S. tire maker, told Bloomberg News on Monday that it had imported tires manufactured by Hangzhou Zhongce, but stopped in November.

About 10% of the tires sold in the U.S. are made in China.

The tire defect is the latest in a string of embarrassments involving goods manufactured in China. Imports of contaminated pet food led to several animal deaths and a massive recall of pet food this year. And in recent weeks several countries, including the United States, have warned about contaminated toothpaste from China.

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