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.
August 10, 2000Lawyer Famed as a Tire-Defects Expert Enters Spotlight With Firestone Recall
By RICHARD B. SCHMITT
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
For the tire industry, Bruce Kaster may be public enemy No. 1.
The Ocala, Fla., lawyer is arguably the nation's foremost authority on tires -- and their defects. For more than a decade, he has been filing suits against tire companies on behalf of accident victims, and doing little else. Along the way, he has accumulated a trove of information about industry practices, which he makes freely available to other attorneys.
Today, he and his three-person firm act as a kind of Deep Throat for lawyers suing tire companies, supplying everything from potentially damaging industry documents to primers on the basic care and design of tires of various brands. Meanwhile, he sits at the hub of a network of attorneys around the country who regularly swap data and intelligence about tire suits.
"If there were someone who might be No. 1 on the hit list of [tire] manufacturers, it might be Bruce," says Michael Goldstein, a San Diego, Calif., attorney, who has won several injury cases linked to tire defects. With Mr. Kaster jump-starting their suits, plaintiffs'lawyers "don't have to reinvent the wheel in every case," says Mr. Goldstein.
Now, Mr. Kaster is in the spotlight, following Wednesday's announcement by Bridgestone Corp. unit Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. that it will recall 6.5 million tires reportedly linked to fatal traffic accidents involving mainly light trucks made by Ford Motor Co.
Already, nearly 100 suits have been filed against the industry with more in the pipeline, Mr. Kaster said. He personally represents clients in five cases, involving catastrophic injuries and deaths. Other lawyers have had bigger verdicts in tire cases, but few have so assiduously or single-mindedly pursued the industry.
"I'm a facilitator," says Mr. Kaster, 54 years old.
His distrust of tire companies dates to the late 1980s, when he filed suit against a major tire company over the very tread-separation issues now at the forefront of the Firestone case. The judge overseeing the case asked the tire company to disclose all other instances in which it was being sued, and the tire company produced one other example.
Suspicious, Mr. Kaster placed ads in national legal publications to search out other lawyers who might have similar cases, and he struck paydirt. Just before his case was to begin trial, he learned of a handful of other suits that the company hadn't disclosed; his own lawsuit subsequently settled. From that point on, "I recognized that small law firms especially were going to have trouble getting information from tire companies unless we combined our efforts," he says.
The defendant in the earlier suit, Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co., said it misunderstood the scope of the judge's request, and said it never intended to mislead anyone.
Today, Mr. Kaster is clearly a tire junkie. He keeps ruptured tires in his office, used in the courtroom to illustrate design defects. Besides suits over the tires themselves, he has pursued cases against manufacturers of tire-mounting equipment, claiming design defects that have been known to send tires hurtling into victims, causing head injuries among mechanics and unsuspecting consumers.
He lectures on tire issues at trial-lawyer meetings, and maintains a Web site, detailing "What You Need to Know About Exploding Tires," replete with the latest on "bead failures" and "multipiece wheel explosions."
"Bruce has a broad range of knowledge and experience," acknowledges a defense lawyer who has opposed Mr. Kaster in court previously. "He has also taken his knowledge and expertise and bootstrapped that into a great marketing tool. "
To allies, Mr. Kaster offers up "manufacturer information, trade association documentation, including documents, depositions and trial testimony," according to his Web site. While he says protective orders issued at the request of defendants prevent him from sharing some of the most sensitive information, he has unearthed some gems for plaintiffs, including purported concessions by company insiders about the likely failure rate of steel-belted radials, and industry patents that describe low-cost methods for dealing with tire-tread separation and failure, which were apparently never implemented.
Fueled by the Firestone case, Mr. Kaster is at it again, fielding calls from consumers and other attorneys, concerned about the risks and what to do. Himself the owner of a 1998 Ford Explorer, he advises people to follow his own lead. "Don't drive it over 60 miles per hour and don't put Firestones on it," he says, adding, "I'm very careful."
Write to Richard B. Schmitt at firstname.lastname@example.org
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