MEMPHIS, TN (WMC-TV) - Two lawsuits filed in Shelby County Circuit Court reveal a secret about the sale of new tires in the Mid-South.
The secret: some new tires aren't new at all.
Both lawsuits center on a single-car accident Aug. 2007 in Crittenden County, AR. According to the complaints, Teresa Taylor was driving her 1997 Mercury Mountaineer westbound on Interstate 40 just west of West Memphis, AR.
Taylor's attorneys allege the tread on her rear driver's side tire - bought NEW from a Whitehaven Sears Auto Center just a year before - simply peeled off. Taylor lost control. Her SUV skidded across the median, flipped and rolled over.
The accident killed her 15-year-old cousin Tevin Pettis, one of her passengers.
"I didn't run over anything," says Taylor. "I didn't hit anybody, but I just did not know what caused the accident."
Investigating the accident, attorneys discovered a U.S. Department of Transportation code on the tire with these four digits: 2102.
The attorneys say those numbers indicate the tire was manufactured in 2002. That means it sat on a shelf for FOUR YEARS before it was sold AS NEW to Taylor in 2006.
"A tire should not sit on the shelf two or three years before it is put into service or sold to someone," says Julian Bolton, a Memphis attorney who represents Pettis' mother. "They should not be on sale as 'new' tires."
Michael Dorr, manager of Cordova's Gateway Tire & Service Center, taught the Action News 5 Investigators how to decipher the DOT code etched on every tire. He says the first two digits are the WEEK it was made. The last two digits are the YEAR.
That means the tire that may have caused Taylor's accident ("2102") was manufactured in the 21st week of 2002.
Dorr says tires with 3-digit DOT codes were made before the year 2000. So a tire coded "189" would have been manufactured the 18th week of 1999.
"Once you know what you're looking for, it's something simple," says Dorr. "I don't see anything misleading there."
The problem is most tire manufacturers etch the code on the INSIDE WALL of the tire. If the tire is already on a vehicle, someone has to get under the car to inspect the code.
"It is a hidden disclosure, if you will," says Memphis attorney Jeff Rosenblum, an expert in wrongful death cases who has assisted counsel in aging tire litigation. "And that's what's deceptive. That's what's confusing to the consumer."
Rosenblum says the chemical process of constructing a passenger tire, called vulcanization, actually cooks the rubber and steel together, giving it elasticity and strength. After a while, he says, that process starts to decompose, even if the tire has never hit the road.
"It may look brand, spanking new, and the consumer has no way of knowing that particular tire could be deadly," he says.
Bolton says the tire that failed in Taylor's accident was inspected twice: once by the Sears in Whitehaven a year before the accident and again 11 days before the accident by a Firestone service center in Raleigh.
"This car was serviced and tires rotated, and no one noticed that the tires were aging," Bolton says.
Larry Costello, communications director for Sears Holding Corporation, says the company would not comment on pending litigation.
Dan MacDonald, executive director of communications for Firestone's parent company Bridgestone Americas, says Bridgestone-Firestone's guideline is to inspect all tires by five years of age and replace all tires 10 years old or older.
"We believe strongly that Firestone acted totally appropriately in (Taylor's) case, and we believe that this case is without merit," says MacDonald.
As early as 1990, Volkswagen added a warning to its vehicles' owners manuals. It acknowledged that tires do deteriorate with age, and since then, it has recommended replacing them after SIX years. Ford and Chrysler followed suit, also advocating a 6-year shelf life for passenger tires.
But the Rubber Manufacturers Association has fought all efforts to mandate a shelf-life.
"RMA is not aware of scientific or technical data that establishes or identifies a specific minimum or maximum service life for passenger and light truck tires," says spokesperson Dan Zielinski.
In June, Safety Research & Strategies, Inc. of Rehoboth, MA, submitted the results of its study of aging tires to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The results document 159 accidents involving tire tread or belt separation since 1992 -- 128 fatalities, 168 injuries.
Every one of them involved a tire that was six years old or older.
According to the study, four of the tires were sold AS NEW, although their DOT codes indicated they were four, seven, even 11 years old at the time of their sale.
"NHTSA recognize(s) that tire age degradation presents a hazard...The public is still at risk because it has little or no information about this mostly invisible hazard...However, the outreach to consumers has been virtually nil," SRS says in the study.
"We do not have jurisdiction over retail sales. Congress has only given us the authority over the manufacturers," says Rae Tyson, a NHTSA spokesperson. "We recommend that people follow the (tire) manufacturer's guidelines."
"They have not required the auto manufacturers or, perhaps more importantly the tire manufacturers, to warn the consumers," argues Rosenblum.
NHTSA has passed an administrative rule that requires all tire manufacturers to etch the DOT code on the OUTSIDE WALL of every tire after September 2009.
Armed with how to decipher the code, the Action News 5 Investigators inspected the tire inventories of eight Mid-South tire retailers.
At both Costco locations (Wolfchase area and Winchester) and at the Firestone at Eastgate Shopping Center in East Memphis, we found tires for sale AS NEW that had codes indicating they were made in 2006.
At two Wal-Mart locations (Cordova and Southaven, MS), each passenger tire was coded as 2008. But at the Southaven store, we found a trailer tire for sale on the retail rack that was coded for the year 2000.
At Elite Tire on Range Line Road in Frayser, the new tires we inspected all coded for 2008. But we found a tire in Nikita Martin's $10-15 used inventory that was coded for 2002.
The same year as the tire that failed in Taylor's deadly accident.
"It's out of date," admitted Martin. He immediately took the tire out of circulation and put it next to a dumpster.
We also inspected Dorr's inventory at his Cordova Gateway store. Every tire we inspected was coded as a 2008 tire. The remaining store, 61 Tire Company on Lamar Ave. in Southeast Memphis, also had every new tire coded for 2008.