DETROIT – A federal grand jury in Los Angeles is gathering evidence in a criminal investigation of Goodyear recreational vehicle tires that the government blames for crashes that killed eight people and injured dozens of others.
The grand jury has subpoenaed Arizona lawyer David Kurtz seeking all documents and deposition transcripts in a lawsuit he filed against the Akron, Ohio, tire maker.
A letter accompanying the Jan. 4 subpoena says it was issued in an “official criminal investigation being conducted by the Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General.” It also says the Justice Department's Consumer Protection Branch in Washington is involved, as well as the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles.
Documents from Kurtz's lawsuit touched off a 2017 investigation of the tires by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that resulted in a recall last year. The documents also revealed Goodyear knew the G159 RV tire could fail and cause severe crashes, yet it didn’t recall them for as many as 20 years.
The Justice Department and the DOT Inspector General wouldn't comment on the probe.
In a statement, Goodyear didn't address the federal investigation, but maintained there's no safety defect with the tires. The company said it recalled the tires to address risks that happen when they are underinflated or overloaded.
“This tire hasn't been made since 2003," the statement said, adding that “it consistently met Goodyear's demanding safety standards.”
Kurtz confirmed that he received the subpoena and provided copies of it and the accompanying letter. He said Thursday he intends to comply and produce about 200,000 documents he gathered from suing Goodyear.
The DOT Inspector General says on its website its agents have federal law enforcement authority to conduct criminal investigations, including the ability to make arrests, execute search warrants and carry firearms. “Where appropriate, we make referrals for prosecution to the Department of Justice or state and local prosecuting authorities,” the office said in a statement.
It’s not clear exactly what the grand jury is investigating. But in a letter to Goodyear seeking the recall last year, NHTSA said the company should have recalled the tires within five working days of becoming aware of a defect, which it apparently knew of as early as 2002.
“The safety-related defect is a clear, identified failure that leads to a loss of vehicle control, causing crashes and potentially catastrophic consequences such as death and serious injury,” NHTSA wrote in the letter.
Documents from the safety agency say the tire tread can separate from the body, causing drivers to lose control and increasing the risk of a crash.
Goodyear wouldn’t recall the tires even as late as March of last year, despite investigators finding that their failure caused crashes that killed eight people and injured 69 others from 1998 through 2009.
NHTSA made the allegations against Goodyear in a February 2022 letter sent to the company seeking a recall of 22.5-inch-diameter G159 tires.
Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. responded to the agency in a March 8 letter refusing to do a recall, but later it decided to conduct one, according to NHTSA documents.
NHTSA had threatened a public hearing and court action if the tires weren’t recalled. Goodyear then agreed to recall about 173,000 tires.
In its response letter, Goodyear maintained that the tires were rigorously tested and fully qualified to operate at highway speeds. “No subject tire inspected by Goodyear engineers ever revealed or even suggested a defect of any kind,” the company wrote.
NHTSA presented a detailed timeline of what Goodyear knew when, based on an investigation into the tires that began in 2017. It also said the company routinely settled lawsuits and got judges to seal the information, keeping it from NHTSA and other plaintiffs’ lawyers.
“NHTSA was not alerted to the extraordinary failure rate of the subject tires” until documents were released in an Arizona case in 2017, the letter said.
After the recall was announced, NHTSA, which is part of the Transportation Department, said it was closing its investigation but reserved the right to take further action as warranted.
Goodyear has said few if any of the tires are still in use. As of Jan. 13, the company had replaced only 13 of the tires, according to NHTSA documents.
News of the investigation was reported Wednesday by The Wall Street Journal.
Kurtz said he's happy that the government seems to be moving on the investigation.
“Better late than never,” he said.