California Law Today

Taking Tire Re-sellers to Court

David Lira sits at his desk, shaking his head at another police report.

“You know, I’ve been practicing law for 27 years and I just never get used to reading about horrific deaths and injuries that could have been prevented,” he says.

He has become a top plaintiff lawyer through his unrelenting determination to help consumers. Along the way, he’s won more than $350 million in verdicts and settlements in cases involving defective seatbelts, tourist vans, contamination of water wells and dangerous amusement park rides.

The file he’s looking at today has shaken him. Salvador Ramirez, 41, was driving his car home from a family trip accompanied by his father, wife and three daughters. He had recently purchased used tires from a distributor, who sold him 16-year old tires.

The right rear tire suffered massive failure, causing the car to careen up an embankment before dropping back to the street below. Ramirez, his wife Veronica, his father Rafael and his 12-year old daughter Jacklyn were all killed. The failed tire made orphans of his other daughters, 15-year old Leslie and 7-year old Jocelyn.

“Used tires are a ticking time bomb,” says, Lira, who’s also represented David Porter, who suffered a severe brain injury as a result of a failed 8-year old tire.

Approximately 30 million used tires are sold in the U.S. each year, most of them unwittingly turned over by purchasers of new tires. And 15 million used tires are being retreaded, with no forensic inspection of the integrity of the tire itself. With hard times and the cost of new tires – which can be five times that of used tires – used tires are very attractive.

“If you go down Alameda Street in downtown Los Angeles, you have all these lots selling used tires to unsuspecting consumers. A new tire is $150 to $200. That’s a lot of money. I’m going to go to Alameda, put a penny in the tread and buy a used tire for $28.”

And while most consumers think their old, used tires are shipped to the junkyard, that’s not what happens.

“I’m one of those guys,” says Lira. “I thought they’d take my old tires, drill a hole in them and dispose of them. But that’s not what happens. Lots of places just turn around and sell them to someone else without any check of the tire at all.”

Lira hopes his work on behalf of the Ramirez girls and David Porter will help educate consumers as to the dangers of used tires.

“When someone pulls into a service station and says ‘I need tires’ you can be sold a tire without knowing its history, how many miles have been put on it, the damage that’s been inflicted on it, whether it’s been used in a heated environment,” Lira explains. “Those factors can make a tremendous difference in the integrity of a tire.”

David Porter was a passenger in a car driven by a co-worker, traveling home to Frazier Park on the 405 Freeway. Just north of the Mulholland exit, a used tire blew out and the car was rear-ended as they attempted to pull to the side of the road. The driver’s arm flew into David Porter’s head, inflicting a severe brain injury.

 “The driver had purchased that tire just two months earlier from a mom and pop store, and preexisting damage to the tire caused the failure which led to David Porter becoming incapacitated,” he says.

Auto manufacturers have taken some steps on used tires. In 2005, Ford became the first U.S. auto manufacturer to include a warning in its owner’s manuals, cautioning that tires older than 6 years – such as a spare – should only be used in emergency situations. European auto manufacturers had provided such warnings years earlier.

While the U.S. government acknowledges used tires are an ‘issue’, it has not issued any warnings. The National Highway Transportation Safety Agency estimates that 50 percent of light trucks will have tires in service over 14 years of age – and 25 percent of trucks will have tires exceeding 20 years.

Another proposed safety enhancement would be consumer friendly ‘born on’ dates stamped onto tires, much like beer. Currently, tires are stamped with codes that only elite tire experts can decipher.

“Because there’s no discussion of tire aging and failure, you can be driving next to a big truck going 70 MPH on the freeway and there’s a great chance they have tires that are unsafe and a hazard to everyone on the road,” says Lira.

Lira, for one, does not want to read more police files while lobbyists and regulators in Washington, D.C., debate what seems perfectly clear to him.

“We need a prohibition that no tire older than six years should be sold. Period.”

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