A retired aerospace mechanic, Billy Wayne Woods babied his $200,000 luxury motor home, conscientiously cleaning it, covering its tires with wheel covers and even constructing a special RV-carport.
In October 2003, Woods and his family were returning to Alabama from a vacation at Disney World when the treads came off the left front tire of his 2001 Monaco Diplomat on I-75 in Georgia.
The RV crossed over the median and cut across two lanes of traffic, then slammed into two embankments and hit a sign before finally stopping at a rest area.
Woods was paralyzed. His wife and daughter-in-law both suffered broken backs while his son had a broken hip. His two grandchildren were not injured.
Woods never left the hospital after the accident; he died seven months later of complications from injuries sustained in the crash.
“Their retirement dream vacation turned into a nightmare,” said the family’s attorney, Rick Morrison, of Beasley Allen in Montgomery, Ala.
Woods family is suing Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. and Monaco Coach Corp., alleging that the tires on their RV were defective and unreasonably dangerous.
The case, slated for trial in September, is one of a growing number of lawsuits linking tire failures in large motor homes to serious and fatal accidents. Morrison estimated that about 20 lawsuits have been filed nationwide involving tire failures in large RVs.
‘Recipe for disaster’
The cases involve Class A recreational vehicles – large, luxurious motor homes that resemble buses and cost from $150,000 to $500,000.
A large RV typically seats up to six people and has a kitchen, living area, bathroom and bedroom. Many are loaded with pricey extras, such as ceramic floors, granite counter tops and slide-out sections that enlarge the motor home when it is parked at a campground.
These heavy loads, coupled with weight-shifting inside the RV, put too much pressure on tires that are inadequate for the load, resulting in sudden tire failures, according to Sean Kane, head of Safety Research and Strategies, a research and consulting firm in Rehoboth, Mass. that has assisted plaintiffs’ attorneys.
The problem, Kane said, is that RV manufacturers under-rate the axle weight of their vehicles and equip them with tires that can’t bear the load. The tire failures typically occur in the front end of the RV, which has only single tires on each side instead of doubles. This is particularly dangerous because a front-wheel blowout makes it almost impossible to steer.
Robert E. Ammons, head of the Ammons Law Firm in Houston, said the risk is compounded when RV owners load their vehicles with luggage, food, gasoline and passengers. Also, because many RVs are used only a month or two a year, the tires are often old, heightening the risk of tread separation (See “Aging tire lawsuits gain traction,” Lawyers USA, July 3, 2006. Search words for Lawyers USA Archives: aging and tires and Tooher).
“The tire will pass inspection because the tread depth is fine, but it’s being run during the summer during high ambient temperatures. It may be five or six years old, and it’s not really designed for the application for which it’s being used,” Ammons explained.
“Those factors combined are simply a recipe for disaster,” he said.
Ammons is representing the family of a woman who was killed in an RV tire failure accident in 2005 in Louisiana. The woman was the passenger in a large RV that went out of control after the treads separated on the right front tire. When the RV smashed into several trees, an overhead television fell onto the woman’s head, killing her.
Goodyear tire cited
Several lawsuits – including the one filed by the Woods family – cite the Goodyear G159 tire. Morrison said the tire – which was designed for use on commercial pickup and delivery trucks – is inadequate for large RVs.
Hugh N. Smith, a tire litigation specialist with Smith & Fuller in Belleair Bluffs, Fla., said he is aware of eight lawsuits involving G159 failures.
Smith is representing a family involved in a serious accident on Aug. 11, 2004, when a G159 tire on their 2000 Fleetwood American Tradition motor home failed and their vehicle crashed into a tree in Chitley, Fla.
Several RV manufacturers, including Fleetwood and Newmar, have replaced the original tires on their large RVs with larger-sized tires.
Goodyear no longer markets the tire as a RV tire, and in 2000 introduced a tire made specifically for Class A motor homes. But Dave Wilkins, a spokesman for Goodyear, denied that there is a problem with the G159 tire.
“We never really had a problem with that tire,” he said. “Most of the situations that came up were application problems. They were put on RVs, but they [the RVs] were overloaded.
“A lot of time people didn’t maintain them with enough inflation pressure,” he said.
Responding to consumer complaints, however, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating tire failures in Class A motor homes. NHTSA has requested information from Goodyear and other tire makers.
In a Dec. 5, 2006 report, the agency said: “It appears that as manufacturers offer, and purchasers of ‘Class A’ motor home vehicles select … an increasing number of features such as ‘slide-out’ galleys and bedrooms … the weight of the vehicles increases, resulting in higher axle and tire loads.”
The agency recommends that RV makers install larger tires and upgrade other load-carrying components, or increase the specified inflation pressures for tires.
It recently completed an investigation into reports of failures of Toyo tires on Country Coach motor homes. A total of 44 Toyo front tire failures on Country Coach motor homes were reported between October 2001 and June 2006. Several of the tire failures resulted in injuries.
One death has been linked to a Toyo tire failure: On July 3, 2003, a Country Coach RV equipped with Toyo front tires crashed into a tree near Mound, Ill., resulting in a fatality. Post-crash photographic evidence indicated that the left front tire failed and likely caused or contributed to the crash, according to NHTSA.
In response to the NHTSA investigation, Country Coach last June filed a defect report stating that the Toyo tires were defective and “could fail unexpectedly, causing a loss of vehicle control.” In October 2006, Country Coach said it would replace Toyo tires with Michelin tires on its RVs.
Kane said the RV industry needs to increase safety standards and work with tire makers to ensure the tires on their RVs are safe.
The RV industry performs little of the safety testing that is standard in the automobile industry, several attorneys noted.
“When I found out what little engineering these RVs have, it shocked me,” Morrison said. “My clients paid almost $200,000 for theirs. This particular RV company did not have one engineer on staff.”