Steven Morris and his wife, Patricia, were headed to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to celebrate their 26th wedding anniversary when the back tire on their Harley-Davidson motorcycle failed.
Patricia, seated at the rear, was thrown from the bike and later died.
“All of a sudden, the tire just let go; there was no warning, no nothing,” said Steven Morris, 59, an experienced motorcycle rider who co-owns a car and motorcycle repair shop in Cape Coral, Florida. “It all happened so fast. It took my life away from me. She was my life.”
The 2008 blowout, which involved a Dunlop D402 tire made by Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., prompted Steven, who was driving, to lose control of the motorcycle, Georgia police reported.
Besides Patricia Morris, at least four other people have died and 22 have been injured since 2006 after D402 motorcycle tires on Harleys failed in 11 states, according to a review by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting of state and federal court filings and police reports.
Nearly all these cases have sparked lawsuits against Goodyear. The company prevailed in two cases and reached settlements in eight others. Three more lawsuits are pending.
The nation’s top auto safety regulator should act, experts say.
“Absolutely, five deaths and 22 injuries from the same tire on motorcycles made for Harley-Davidson is a significant number and warrants an immediate investigation by NHTSA,” said Joan Claybrook, a former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal agency that sets safety regulations for motor vehicles and equipment, including tires, and can request that manufacturers recall vehicles and tires with safety defects.
Presented with Reveal’s findings, Goodyear insisted the tires are safe.
“We take all incidents involving our products very seriously,” Laura Duda, a Goodyear spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “Every incident is unique, and each claim is thoroughly examined and analyzed.
“In the case of Dunlop D402 motorcycle tires, there are no defects related to motor vehicle safety,” she added. “In fact, most motorcycle tire issues are the result of underinflation, overloading or damage from road hazards.”
Duda said Goodyear reports all death and injury claims to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. There is no set number of complaints the agency must receive before opening an investigation or asking a manufacturer to issue a recall.
No recall for D402 tires has been ordered by federal safety regulators.
An investigation by Reveal published in December found that Goodyear’s lax approach to safety contributed to the deaths of motorists on the road and workers in its plants. The tire giant ranked among the top five manufacturers in the United States for worker deaths since 2009, according to Reveal’s analysis.
In addition, at least four motorists over the last seven years have died in vehicle accidents after tires made at Goodyear plants failed. Those tires were manufactured in plants where intense production demands and leaks in the roof have endangered both workers and consumers.
The story detailed how some protections for factory workers are being dismantled. The Trump administration has rolled back and postponed Obama-era protections in keeping with goals laid out by the National Association of Manufacturers. Richard Kramer, Goodyear’s chairman, chief executive officer and president, serves on the association’s board.
Reveal’s investigation prompted an immediate response from Goodyear in which a company spokeswoman called the company’s safety record “unacceptable.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s top post has been vacant since President Donald Trump took office, leaving its enforcement policy hanging in the balance. The Trump administration included $914.7 million for the agency in its proposed budget for the 2019 fiscal year, up from its current budget of $905.2 million.
The agency’s deputy administrator, Heidi King, was appointed last fall and Trump recently announced plans to nominate her to fill the top job, subject to Senate confirmation. She previously trained as an economist and research scientist and served as a regulatory policy analyst in the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. An agency spokesman declined to make King available for an interview.
Appearing before a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in February, King told lawmakers that “NHTSA is acting on its mission of saving lives. … Safety is, safety remains the department’s top priority.”
But Claybrook said the agency “is grossly underfunded.”
“It does not have the resources to do its job nationwide,” she said. “Therefore, it’s very cautious about whether it opens an investigation, and therefore, it tries not to.”
Sean Kane, founder and president of Safety Research & Strategies, a research organization based in Massachusetts, said the federal agency’s lack of leadership has created a void.
“If you don’t have clear policy direction from the top, you will have constant swings,” he said. “Those swings can affect how things are dealt with from a safety and public health perspective.”
An expert witness for motorists who have sued Goodyear has blamed manufacturing defects, which he says have caused tires to leak pressure or come off their rims, prompting drivers to veer and lose control.
“They negligently let defective tires go out the door,” said William Woehrle, a tire expert in Michigan who has been paid as an expert witness in about a dozen cases involving D402 tires that failed. “They have had a systemic problem with manufacturing Dunlop D402 motorcycle tires.”
Between mid-2003 and early 2015, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the plant where the tires were made more than $20,000 for seven safety violations – all but one of them serious.
Motorcycle riders are especially vulnerable to injuries in the event of a tire blowout. Unlike companies that produce passenger cars, motorcycle manufacturers are not required to install tire pressure monitoring systems to warn drivers when tires are underinflated, which can lead to tire failures. The monitors became standard in cars and SUVs manufactured since 2007. And unlike rules for vehicle tires, federal rules do not require the rim on motorcycle tires to contain the tire when it develops a flat.
In 2008, when the tire blew out on Steven Morris’ motorcycle, the bike zigzagged between lanes and careened off the highway into the scrub grass. As the bike skidded onto its side, Patricia Morris fell off, smashing her head on the pavement in the breakdown lane. She was flown to a hospital in Atlanta, where she died several hours later. She was 50 years old.
Steven Morris broke his ankle, three ribs and scapula. He also suffered a concussion, leaving him with permanent short-term memory loss. Both Patricia and Steven were wearing helmets.
The Dunlop D402 tire that blew out had just 700 miles on it. It had been “defectively manufactured” less than a year before the wreck, according to Gary Derian, a mechanical engineer hired to testify in a lawsuit Morris brought against Goodyear Dunlop Tires North America Ltd. and Harley-Davidson Motor Co., the Milwaukee-based motorcycle manufacturer. The tire was made at what was then the Goodyear Dunlop plant in Tonawanda, New York, near Buffalo.
Sumitomo Rubber Industries Ltd. acquired Goodyear’s 75 percent interest in Goodyear Dunlop, including ownership of the Tonawanda plant, in 2015. (Prior to that, Sumitomo had a 25 percent interest in Goodyear Dunlop.) All the tires involved in the accidents examined by Reveal were made at the plant before 2015.
“Inspection of the tire reveals an adhesion defect in the tire cords that led to its failure,” Derian wrote in a report submitted as part of court documents in Morris’ lawsuit.
Goodyear Dunlop argued that the tire was underinflated and overloaded. Morris later settled in 2010 with Goodyear Dunlop and Harley-Davidson for undisclosed amounts.
Failures of D402 tires stretch back at least a dozen years, records show.
In one of the earliest cases identified by Reveal, Stephen Gageby, who was 50, was killed in 2007 after the back tire on his motorcycle failed on a highway just east of Missoula, Montana. Gageby’s wife, Karla, 57, was thrown from the bike. She spent the next two months in the hospital, where she was treated for a ruptured spleen, broken scapula and traumatic brain injury.
She later brought a lawsuit in Montana against Goodyear, Goodyear Dunlop Tires North America and Harley-Davidson, alleging that a defective tire caused the crash. The lawsuit claimed that the edge of the tire that connects to the rim, called the bead, leaked, causing the blowout.
Karla Gageby’s expert witness in the case was Woehrle, who blamed a manufacturing defect. The tire deflated because of “leaks between the tire bead and the rim flange,” he wrote in a report submitted as part of the case.
Goodyear argued that the motorcycle was overloaded. The case was settled in 2010 for an undisclosed amount.
“I lost my husband,” Gageby said in a phone interview. “Obviously, that had the biggest impact. It totally messed my life up. I believe the tire was defective.”
She still struggles with memory problems, confusion, anxiety and fine motor problems. Doctors initially told her that she wouldn’t be able to function as she did before the crash, but she was able to return to her job as a case manager for the state’s Office of Public Assistance. Ultimately, the lasting effects of her injuries forced her to retire in 2015.
She and her husband were longtime members of a local Harley-Davidson group. Stephen Gageby was known as an outspoken advocate for safety, pulling new riders aside to give them pointers and imploring others to wear protective gear.
“My husband was also a truck driver, so he was always checking the pressure on the tires,” Karla Gageby said.
However, on the day of the accident, he was not wearing his helmet, which Gageby – who was wearing hers – says was out of character.
In the most recent fatal accident, in April 2016, Brett and Angela Nielson were returning from a vacation in Nevada to their home in Utah when the back tire on their Harley blew out, records show. The bike wobbled before veering off the highway and rolling over, catapulting the couple into the air.
Brett, 50, a longtime sheriff’s sergeant for the Millard County Sheriff’s Office, hit a post and died. Angela, then 48, landed in sagebrush. She was flown to a Utah hospital, where she was treated for breaks in her pelvis, neck vertebrae, both legs and ribs and other injuries.
Authorities appeared to blame the tire failure for contributing to the wreck.
“Inspection of the motorcycle and tire marks on scene suggest that the rear tire of the motorcycle failed causing the driver to lose control,” according to a Utah Highway Patrol report.
When the officer inspected the back tire, he found the sidewall on its right side was blown out and “the tread appeared to have numerous cracks and signs of separation.”
This story was edited by Ziva Branstetter and copy edited by Nadia Wynter and Nikki Frick.
Jennifer Gollan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @jennifergollan.