Fatal Crash Prompts Distributor to Press for Chinese Tire Recall


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PHILADELPHIA, June 25, 2007; A death and injury lawsuit has prompted a U.S. tire importer and distributor to ask the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for help in recalling nearly half a million Chinese-made light truck tires.

In June, Foreign Tire Sales appealed to NHTSA for aid in recalling an estimated 450,000 light truck tires sold under the names Westlake, Telluride, Compass and YKS after the company allegedly learned that the manufacturer, the Hangzhou Zhongce Rubber Company, had left a critical component out of the tire. But the number of defective tires could be much higher, FTS told NHTSA, because Hangzhou has refused to specifically identify by Tire Identification Number, which tires are missing or were built with an insufficient gum strip - - a feature that helps to keep the tire belts from separating.

The Hangzhou tires join tainted pet food, lead-coated children's toys and toxic toothpaste as some of the latest Chinese imports deemed hazardous to American consumers. According to the New York Times, Chinese products now account for 60 percent of all product recalls today.

"This is a prime example of a private lawsuit with a substantial public benefit," said Jeffrey B. Killino, an attorney with Woloshin & Killino, which represents the families of the deceased and injured. "There are nearly half a million of these substandard tires out there, unbeknownst to consumers. The Hangzhou Rubber Company deliberately and secretly removed a safety feature from these tires and two young men died as a direct result. This was a tragedy that didn't have to happen, but hopefully we can prevent future fatal crashes."

According to a report FTS filed with NHTSA, the company suspected that something was wrong with the tires in October 2005, when it noticed a sharp increase in the number of warranty adjustments on the tires, but Hangzhou officials assured them that the tires were sound. The company confirmed its suspicions in May 2006, after an ambulance crash in New Mexico prompted FTS to examine the blown tire that caused the rollover. The company found that the Chinese manufacturer had failed to include the 0.6 mm gum strip between the belts to keep them from separating. FTS stopped buying tires from Hangzhou in June 2006, the report said.

On August 12, 2006, Rafael B. Melo, Claudeir Jose Figueiredo and Carlos Souza, were passengers in a 2000 Chevrolet Express 2500 Cargo Van, bearing a Compass Telluride steel belted radial made in China in 2004. The van was traveling south on Pennsylvania Route 476, when the tire experienced a tread / belt separation causing the van driver to lose control. The vehicle rolled over and the three passengers were ejected. Melo and Figueiredo died in the crash. Souza suffered a permanent brain injury. The driver, who remained in the vehicle, suffered less severe injuries.

The families of three passengers sued FTS on May 4. The van driver also filed suit. The Melo, Figueiredo, and Souza lawsuit filed by Killino prompted FTS to file an $80 million lawsuit against the Hangzhou Rubber Company and notify NHTSA of the defect.

According to Foreign Tire Sales report to NHTSA, it contracted the Hangzhou Rubber Company in 2000 to design and manufacture light truck tires that FTS, of Union, N.J., would import and sell. Hangzhou worked with FTS engineers to ensure that the tires could meet all federal safety standards. At a May 2002 meeting, FTS stressed the importance of tire safety, informing the Chinese manufacturer that light truck tires had been the focus of many recalls and were under government scrutiny. FTS urged Hangzhou to produce tires with nylon cap plies to increase their endurance.

Initially, the tires passed endurance tests, the report said. But once the warranty claims rose in 2005, FTS began conducting its own tests. A visual analysis revealed that some tires seemed to have an insufficient or missing gum strip -- a key safety feature to preserve the integrity of the belts. After the May crash, FTS said it removed tires from other ambulances and found insufficient or missing gum strips on tires manufactured in 2004 and 2005. In September 2006, Hangzhou finally admitted to FTS that it had reduced or omitted the gum strip from an unspecified number of tires FTS alleges. But Hangzhou officials told FTS that in January 2006, it began to reintroduce some amount of the gum strip back into the tires. In March 2007, FTS did further testing and analysis on Hangzhou tires and found that they experienced tread / belt separations at 25,000 miles.

"These tires could pose an immediate danger to consumers and should be removed," said Sean E. Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies, a safety advocacy and consulting firm that has been pushing for tougher tire safety standards. "Unfortunately, we saw during the Ford Explorer-Firestone tire scandal how deadly a defective tire can be -- especially if it is paired with a light truck. It is important that consumers are notified immediately, retailers and wholesalers stop selling them, and they are removed from vehicles until we get some answers."

This is not a definitive list, but consumers should be on the lookout for steel-belted radial light truck tires sold under the names Westlake, Telluride, Compass and YKS in the following sizes:

  -- LT235/75R-15
  -- LT225/75R-16
  -- LT235/85R-16
  -- LT245/75R-16
  -- LT265/75R-16
  -- LT3X10.5-15

  These tires were sold by the following distributors:

  -- Tireco, Compton, California
  -- Strategic Import Supply, Wayzata, Minnesota
  -- Omni United USA, Inc., Jacksonville, Florida
  -- Orteck International, Inc. of Gaithersburg, Maryland
  -- K&D Tire Wholesalers LLC, Carlsbad, California
  -- Robinson Tire in Laurel, Mississippi.
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