Cooper Tires Under Fire

Beverly Hilton Hotel executive chef Suki Sugiura talks with reporters on Jan. 11, 2007, during a preview of the menu for the Golden Globe Awards.
Tire safety concerns are spreading. Since the Firestone recall, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is reporting an increase in safety complaints against several companies, including the Ohio-based Cooper Tire and Rubber Company.

But while spokesman Tim Hurd said Friday the agency had not decided whether additional investigations are needed, CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports there are similarities between Cooper and Firestone.

Like Firestone, Cooper Tire has been sued time and time again for fatal tire failures. A CBS Evening News/60 Minutes II investigation has found at least 29 lawsuits involving 34 deaths.

For example, the investigation uncovered a case of tire tread separation on a Ford Bronco in 1995 that caused the vehicle to flip over, killing Laura Tuckier.

And similar to a recent CBS News report in which ex-Firestone workers spoke of a lack of quality control, former Cooper tire workers Richard Angel and Jimmy Oats also had horror stories to report.

They said Cooper managers often told them to use bad or old materials in making tires.

"There is times as a tire builder that I'd have to use materials that I question the quality of that material but if management said use it, use it," said Angel.

Oats said they had no choice. "You either use what you got to use and hope everything comes out alright or you don't have a job."

And their stories aren't unique. A one-time foreman from Cooper's Tupelo, Miss. plant testified at a deposition about rushed inspections and contaminants in the tires.

"I've seen everything from a watch cured into a tire to a timecard to a soda pop can to -- you name it. Aluminum foil -- I've seen chicken bones,"

"I'm ashamed as a foreman to say that it was not unusual to find a scrap tire…in the warehouse ready to be shipped [to the consumer]."

Any problem with Cooper tires is nowhere near the magnitude of the Firestone epidemic. But it shows that quality concerns aren't isolated to one company.

In fact, according to world renowned tire expert Rex Grogan, American tires do not enjoy such a good reputation overseas.

"American tires are not famed for their durability in Europe," said Grogan, "and anybody who buys an American car in Europe, the first thing they do is throw the tires over the hedge and go buy something decent."

Tire companies point out that most tires—millions upon millions—never fail. And Cooper says it has never lost a lawsuit. It has settled almost every case before trial.

Except, that is, for the case of Laura Tuckier.

Richard Angel and Billy Oats testified at trial, and her family recently won a $3 million verdict.

The Mississippi jury found that the Cooper tire on Tuckier's Bronco was defective—it had been made from old rubber.

Patricia J. Brown, spokeswoman for Findlay, Ohio-based Cooper, said in a written statemet that the highway safety agency had not contacted the company and that there is no reason for a recall of Cooper products.

"Cooper continually monitors product information from the field," Brown said. "We have re-examined our data from 1994 to the present and have determined that there is no common factor in claims such as tire type, brand, size, date or location of production, or any other indicator that would suggest we have safety issues with our tires."

She said Cooper is willing to turn over its data to the NHTSA when asked to do so.

Hugh Smith, a Tampa, Fla. attorney who has a lawsuit pending against Cooper Tire in El Paso, Texas, said he has seen both design and manufacturing problems contribute to fatal accidents. The El Paso suit resulted from an accident that killed four and injured three others riding in a Mazda minivan whose tire tread separated.

He said he plans to file another suit next month in Florida in the death of a 19-year-old Florida man killed while driving an older model Ford pickup with Cooper tires.

"You're always talking a relatively low percentage of total production that have problems," Smith said Friday. "I can document probably 60 other suits against Cooper."

Most of those involve tread separation problems similar to those with the recalled Firestone tires, Smith said. They usually occur in vehicles being driven at high speeds in warmer, southern states.

Bridgestone/Firestone last month recalled 6.5 million tires, most of which were original equipment on Ford Explorers.

NHTSA began an investigation in May and so far has linked the Firestone tires to more than 100 U.S. traffic deaths.