Posing new questions about tire safety, a lawsuit accuses a tire maker of withholding damaging documents about its tires after the federal government requested such information in a safety investigation.
Lawyers suing Continental General Tire Inc. on behalf of crash victims link at least 18 deaths to the investigated tires, including several that have occurred since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded the tires were safe in 1993.
The lawyers want the government to determine if the NHTSA was told all it should have been.
They allege Continental General never gave federal investigators damaging documents dealing with the safety of the tires under investigation.
Federal investigators had asked for copies of all complaints, reports and studies the company had on the tires.
But NHTSA never received word, passed to Continental General by a major tire distributor, of complaints about the tires coming apart at the tread from 1990 to 1993.
‘Would Have Been a Different Story’
A former NHTSA investigator who is now an auto safety consultant says the documents should have been provided to the government.
“It would have been a different story,” says the former investigator, Mike Brownlee. “The investigations would have continued and they point strongly to a safety-related defect.”
The NHTSA opened its investigation into the tires in March 1993. At that time, the agency had received reports of nine deaths linked to three Continental General tire models — GT52S, Ameri-Way and Ameri-Tech.
The GT52S came installed on 42,000 Ford Broncos. It is unclear how many of the three types of tires are still on the road.
The federal safety agency closed its investigation into the Continental General tires in July 1993, after deciding the failure rate on the tires was not out of line with expectations.
Dealer Passed Along Complaints
However, Big O Tires, a major distributor based in Colorado, had passed along complaints to General Tire, according to documents filed in a Georgia lawsuit. Federal investigators were unaware of the complaints.
The Big O documents relate to problems the distributor was seeing — tread separation problems at “higher than desired levels” and customer return rates “approaching 20 percent,” according to court records.
In 1991, the head of Big O wrote General Tire, “We were assured repeatedly that General Tire was a quality conscious manufacturer. … In too many cases, … just the opposite has been true.”
Continental General says it “cooperated fully” with NHTSA, and that both agreed there was “no defect.”
And Big O Tires, which was not part of the NHTSA investigation, insisted today the problem with the tires was “ride quality,” not “safety issues.”
Complaints of tire tread separation led Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. in August to recall 6.5 million tires that had been linked to more than 150 fatal crashes worldwide.
ABCNEWS’ Lisa Stark and Dennis Powell and The Associated Press, contributed to this report.