Meet The Tire Industry's "Public Enemy Number One"
Extensive litigation experience against major tire manufacturers and vehicle manufacturers, including Bridgestone, Firestone, Goodyear, Continental General, Cooper Tire, Ford Motor Company and others.
Ocala lawyer has been fighting tiremakers on safety for years.
He says the solution to tread-belt separation is simple and cheap. Firestone disagrees.
By SCOTT BARANCIK
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 11, 2000
Minutes after Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. said Wednesday it would recall 6.5-million tires, calls began rolling in to the offices of an Ocala law firm that has been a nail in the side of the tire industry for years.
Bruce Kaster, a partner at Green, Kaster & Falvey, was hardly surprised. Few if any lawyers have filed more tire-related lawsuits than the 54-year-old Vietnam veteran and self-described Florida Cracker.
Kaster has six pending claims against Firestone, each on behalf of Floridians injured or killed while driving on the disputed tires: the radial ATX, radial ATX II and the Wilderness AT brands.
The message to his callers was damning. Kaster said the Japanese-owned company and other tire manufacturers have known for decades that their steel-belted tires are prone to breaking apart under extreme conditions and have long known about a simple fix that costs just $1 per tire.
"I've been saying the same thing for 15 years," Kaster said Thursday, minutes before being interviewed on a Texas radio show, then jetting off to Akron, Ohio, for a deposition and chats with some Cincinnati television stations. "The problem of tread-belt separation is endemic, and the solution is nylon safety belts."
Bridgestone/Firestone couldn't agree less.
According to spokesman Matt Wisla, the purpose of the nylon safety belt -- or "cap ply," as the company calls it -- is not to prevent the tire tread from separating from the casing, as sometimes happened with the recalled tires. Rather, it is to maintain the rounded shape and structural integrity of tires when driven at super-high speeds.
That's why Bridgestone/Firestone only includes nylon belts in racing tires sold in the United States and in high-speed tires sold in European countries such as Germany, where cars on the famous Autobahn frequently top 100 mph, Wisla said. They are not on the replacement tires being provided in the recall.
"From a company standpoint, if it was that easy to prevent tread separation, we would do it," he said. The real problem, Wisla said, is that customers aren't keeping their tires properly inflated, or had previously done a poor job of repairing flat tires.
Still, the company initiated its recall and is cooperating with a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation into a possible link between Firestone's tires and 46 traffic deaths. Such debates over tread wear and tire pressure have become a life's work for Kaster since he took on a big tire company in the mid-1980s.
Kaster, the son of an Army artilleryman, filed suit in Marion County against Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. in a case involving a car whose tire tread burst off the casing. Uniroyal argued that the tire had been punctured by a piece of metal; Kaster countered that even if that were true, the tire should have flattened, not exploded. Uniroyal settled for $2-million while the jury was deliberating.
Later, a tire-related suit filed in Connecticut by Kaster led to a jury award of more than $5-million.
Gradually, Kaster began calling, and getting calls from, other lawyers with similar cases. He became something of a clearinghouse for tire-related legal information. Today he is co-chairman of the tire section of the Attorney's Information Exchange Group. His firm's Web site, www.fllegal.com, contains information on the issue of tread separation.
Details on lawsuits against tiremakers are hard to come by. "As soon as you file a lawsuit against Firestone," Kaster said, "they immediately go to the court and demand a protective order" that effectively seals the case from public view -- and corporate embarrassment. The orders usually are issued in the name of protecting trade secrets that may be revealed to competitors.
But in one case, Lynelle and Robert Giles vs. Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., Kaster said, he convinced a judge not to issue a protective order. As a result, he predicted, the company's secrets will soon be made public and shared among plaintiff's attorneys nationwide.
In the Giles case, a couple from Columbia County sued, contending the wife was injured after a tire failed, sending the car out of control and into a concrete culvert.
"I think that every steel-belted radial tire should incorporate nylon safety belts," Kaster said. "They're cost-effective, they're proven on the highway, they've been available for decades, and I see no reason not to do it."
- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report