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Tire Defects - An Overview

Each year, about 23,000 crashes are caused by tire blowouts.

Since 1973, the attorneys of Sanders & Parks in Phoenix, Arizona have represented people locally and nationwide in cases involving injuries caused by automobile defects. Many of these cases involve defective tires. If you or a loved one has been hurt in a car accident caused by tread separation or any other form of tire defect, our lawyers can help you.

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Tire Defects - An Overview

Most people are familiar with the Ford/Firestone tire debacle, one of the largest tire recalls in history. By 2000, Ford Motor Company had installed more than 14.4 million Bridgestone/Firestone ATX, ATX II, and Wilderness AT tires on the Ford Explorer and other vehicles. Reports of crashes and fatalities prompted an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTS), which uncovered a defect in the Firestone tires. At the time, more than 300 crashes and collisions were attributed to Firestone tires. The defect in the tires caused tread separation that, in turn, caused many rollover accidents involving Ford Explorers. Ford announced a recall of all 14.4 million tires.

The litigation following the recalls received widespread publicity for many reasons. Beyond the huge scope of the recall, the media found many issues newsworthy, including the money involved, the many ensuing class action suits, and the end of a decades-old relationship between Ford and Firestone due to each party blaming the other for the tire failures.

What most people don't realize is that tire defects cause thousands of injuries and deaths each year. The NHTSA reports that tire failures trigger more than 8,000 traffic accidents each year resulting in death or serious injuries. Many tire failures directly result from a manufacturing defect or design defect. Companies manufacturing the defective tires include Firestone as well as Continental, Cooper, Goodyear and many others.

Tires improperly manufactured before being put on a vehicle or those with a design defect meet the definition of a defective tire. Tread and belt separation, which occurs when the plies of a tire separate from one another, is the most common type of tire defect. Usually, separation occurs when the tread separates from the carcass or inner plies, exposing the inner tire, belts, and cords. This separation makes tire blow out and increases the likelihood an accident will occur.

There are numerous issues specific to the typical tire-defect case. These cases usually require experts in accident reconstruction, vehicle dynamics, biochemical engineering, metallurgy and others. The potential high stakes, both in injuries suffered and costs of litigation, require careful case screening and meticulous case preparation. If a tire defect caused an accident resulting in death or serious injury, a product liability case may be the plaintiff's best, and perhaps only, chance for a full and fair recovery.

Before discussing the most common types of tire defects, it is important to understand the basics about a design defect product liability claim.

Product Liability - Design Defect

Generally, to hold someone legally responsible (liable) for your injuries, you must show that they were careless or negligent and that their carelessness led to the accident or injury. Unlike typical personal injury claims, a product liability claim is based on a legal theory called "strict liability." Strict liability allows a person injured by a defective or unexpectedly dangerous product to recover compensation from the maker or seller of the product without showing that the manufacturer or seller acted negligently.

Claims involving a motor vehicle defect follow the same principles as those in assessing liability in general product liability cases. In the motor vehicle context, there are three types of defects that can cause injury and result in liability of the manufacturer or vehicle seller:

  • Manufacturing defects - A defect results from a flaw in the manufacturing process, such as a manufacturer's failure to include a safety device, although the design of the vehicle calls for such a device.
  • Design defects - The defect results from an element in the design that makes the vehicle somehow unsafe in the first place, such as the placement of a fuel tank in a location that may result in explosion during a collision.
  • Failure to warn - The manufacturer is aware of a dangerous aspect of a vehicle but fails to warn or provide adequate warning to consumers.

One of the important concepts in vehicle defect liability cases is the idea of "crashworthiness." When something in a vehicle causes or worsens injuries suffered in an accident, the crashworthiness doctrine imposes liability on the defendant for injuries sustained even if the defect was not necessarily the cause of the accident. In order to succeed in a crashworthiness case, you will most likely need to prove that a design feature that was reasonably avoidable either caused or increased an injury.

In the tire context, most claims are based on general design defect product liability, but many include crashworthiness concepts. Some of the more common and widespread tire defects include tread and belt separation, and tire inflation explosion.

Tread and Belt Separation

All steel-belted radial tires have a potential for tread separation due to the difficulty in obtaining adhesion of steel to rubber. This is true especially at high speeds in hot weather. Industry records verify that tread belt separations are the most common mode of failure of steel belted radial tires. They result from both design and manufacturing defects.

Most tire manufacturers have known about a design modification called "safety belts" that overcome the most common design defect in tires, which is lack of adhesion between the metal and rubber. Safety belts are widely used in tires manufactured for the European market as well as many top line American tires. However, most American manufacturers do not use safety belts because of the marginal increase in cost. The result is that many tires on the road suffer tread and belt separation.

A variety of factors contribute to manufacturing defects that result in tread and belt separation. Plant practices which contribute to tread belt separation include the use of over aged "dry" stock, use of petroleum solvent on tire components prior to vulcanization, moisture or foreign matter cured into the tire, improper repairs, inadequate final inspection and an emphasis on production or quantity over quality and safety. Appropriate adhesion, proper manufacturing practices, and adequate quality control measures substantially reduce the most common manufacturing defects.

The effects of these defects are devastating. Generally, when the tread on a radial tear wears down, the top steel belt is exposed and the driver often loses control of the vehicle due to a blowout of the tire or rapid pressure decrease in the remaining core of the tire. If this happens on a rear tire at highway speeds, the vehicle will swing around to become perpendicular to the direction of travel (yawing), often causing a rollover or other serious accident. Too often, serious injury or death results.

Tire Inflation Explosion

Tire explosions during inflation are usually serious and often fatal. The most common causes of explosions during tire mounting are:

  • Bead Failures
  • Multi-Piece Rim Failure
  • Sidewall Failures

Bead Failures

The weakest part of a tire is the bead wire. Although tires seldom explode while being filled, if the bead wire is weak, and the tire is over filled, an explosion may occur. Manufacturer safety margins for filling generally apply only to new tires in perfect condition. Tires that have been in service and subject to normal wear and tear are often overfilled even when following safety margins.

Multi-Piece Rim Failure

When a multi-piece wheel is used another type of tire failure may occur. Multi-piece wheels/rims have caused countless serious injuries and deaths to tire mounters since their introduction. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration failed at its attempts to ban multi-piece rims, but was successful in establishing guidelines that require use of a safety cage during tire mounting operations. Once the wheel is removed from the safety cage accidents often still happen.

Sidewall Failures

Sidewall failures, or zipper failures, typically occur during the tire inflation process. The sidewall of a tire catastrophically fails, often injuring the person inflating the tire and/or bystanders. There is almost no way to determine whether a tire is subject to zipper failure. These failures are referred to as "zipper failures" because of the appearance of the sidewall after the explosion. Despite widespread documentation of the problem and numerous accidents and injuries, the only action taken by the tire industry to date has been to issue vague warnings of the hazard.


Any vehicular accident caused by a tire failure that involves death or serious injury should be evaluated for a potential tire-defect claim. While many tire failures are not traceable to a design or manufacturing defect in the tire, tires can and do fail because they are defective. Identifying those cases may make the difference between a full recovery and a partial recovery, particularly where insurance coverage is inadequate. Contacting an attorney with experience in tire-defect litigation may be the plaintiff's best chance for full and fair compensation.

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