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Families get access to files of tire firm

Published January 28, 2008 12:36 am

Plaintiffs say faulty product led to the rollover accident and the ensuing 9 deaths
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Product-liability lawyers nationwide will be paying close attention to a lawsuit brought by families of Utah State University students killed and injured in a 2005 van crash.

The families won an order from U.S. Magistrate Paul Warner - and affirmed by U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell - for wide access to documents held by Cooper Tire & Rubber Co.

It was an order that Cooper Tire, in court filings, calls "breathtaking."

Cooper made the tires on the van, which rolled several times after the left rear tire blew as the agriculture students were headed back to campus from a field trip in northern Utah's Box Elder County.

Eight students and the instructor died in the Sept. 26, 2005 crash. Two students survived with severe injuries. The survivors and the families of all but the instructor and another student are plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit, filed a year after the accident.

The families last month settled their claims against the maker of the 15-passenger van, Chrysler, although the settlement has yet to be formalized.

The case against Cooper Tire, however, is only heating up as it inches closer to a July trial.

The families accuse Cooper of producing faulty tires, an allegation the company rejects. While the company has the deepest sympathy for the families, "Cooper was not to blame for the accident," Vice President Patricia Brown said in an e-mail Friday. "When consumers buy a Cooper Tire, they are choosing a safe, reliable and quality-engineered product."

Cooper has asked the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals to throw out Warner's discovery order, claiming it would take a team of a dozen lawyers 10 weeks and $1.4 million to sort through and winnow out the pertinent documents from among perhaps 1.5 million pieces of paper.

"This scope is broader than has ever been applied to Cooper in any product-liability lawsuit," a company lawyer wrote in an affidavit.

A 'broad focus'

"People are watching this case," said Lisa Pasbjerg, a paralegal in Florida who has worked on about 20 cases against Cooper Tire. She is not involved in the Utah case.

"They've [the plaintiffs] gotten some fabulous District Court rulings. It's such a monster case."

Among the families' attorneys is Bruce Kastler, a Florida attorney who The Wall Street Journal described as the tire industry's "public enemy No. 1." He has tangled a number of times with Cooper.

Besides allowing the plaintiffs' attorneys wide latitude in discovery, Warner rejected Cooper's request for a gag order last spring to prevent the plaintiffs' attorneys from talking to news reporters.

In his discovery ruling, Warner said the families' theory in the case - that the tire failed because of systemic design and manufacturing failures - is a wide one.

"Plaintiffs . . . should be permitted to engage in discovery that has a similarly broad focus," Warner wrote.

Whether any of the information will be shared with a jury will be decided later, he said.

Cooper argues that the plaintiffs should only be able to learn information about tires similar to the one that failed and that were manufactured in the same time frame. Otherwise, it could be forced to reveal trade secrets, the company argues.

Cooper's cases

In other cases elsewhere in the country, judges have typically agreed with Cooper to restrict the information available to plaintiffs and to make them promise not to share it.

Safety advocate Sean Kane says that practice is not good for consumers because there are no "checks and balance" on whether the tire maker is providing the same information in different cases.

"Cooper is one of those companies that clearly plays hardball and does everything it can to restrict access to its records," says Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies Inc.

Kane was instrumental in revealing the dangers of the Firestone tires on Ford Explorers, prompting a massive recall, several years ago.

Cooper spokeswoman Brown says the company only seeks to protect bona fide commercial and trade secrets.

The Utah court's rulings have not all been against Cooper.

Last spring, the judge granted a protective order prohibiting plaintiffs' attorneys from making public what they learn about Cooper's business.

And, his order concerning discovery sternly told the plaintiffs to knock off making allegations of misconduct by Cooper in other cases, calling them "wholly inappropriate" and "completely irrelevant."

"Those allegations detract from plaintiffs' arguments about the substantive issues, make plaintiffs' written submissions difficult to read and are a waste of the court's time and resources," Warner wrote.


Eight students and an instructor died Sept. 26, 2005, when the van carrying them back to Logan's Utah State University from a field trip crashed near Tremonton. Two other students were severely injured. Killed were instructor Evan Parker and students Steven Bair, Dusty Fuhriman, Justin Gunnell, Justin Huggins, Jonathan Jorgensen, Curt Madsen, Ryan McEntire and Bradley Wilcox. Severely injured were students Robbie Petersen and Jared Nelson.




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