For nearly two decades, RV owners have been trying to get a clear answer about a tire made by Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. that they say has wrecked countless lives—at least nine deaths, dozens of injuries and serious crashes. In numerous legal battles, Goodyear has been accused of aggressively covering up a defect with the tire, preventing a recall from being ordered. What’s even more shocking, plaintiffs say, is that a crucial piece of testimony by a Goodyear employee that might have served as a smoking gun confirming awareness of the tire defect was also destroyed—at Goodyear’s request.
In 2003, Goodyear was defending itself in one of the 41 lawsuits filed against the company for allegedly selling the G159 tire that, based on Goodyear’s own internal data and experts, wasn’t suitable for motorhomes. As one plaintiff’s attorney who has litigated G159-related cases put it, the G159 is “the worst tire made in history,” even more failure-prone than the legendarily bad Firestone tires sold on various Fords in the 1990s.
The plaintiffs in that case, Harold and George-Anne Phillips, filed their complaint in 2002, after the tread on the left front tire of the couple’s Monaco Windsor motorhome separated as they drove along Interstate 10 in Arizona. The vehicle crashed into an embankment, the suit said, leaving them with injuries and nearly totaling their RV.
“The tire was... defective in design and/or manufacturing and unsafe for its intended purpose in that the tire read separated internally, thereafter causing the tread to catastrophically separate from the tire,” according to the Phillips’ 2002 lawsuit.
As part of the case, in June 2003, the Phillips’ attorney, Guy Ricciardulli, sought the testimony of Goodyear claims administrator Kim Cox.
Cox allegedly then testified that Goodyear was “aware of the fact” that the tire “did not perform properly” when it was placed on motorhomes, according to Ricciardulli’s version of events, and that whenever a RV owner “had a problem” with the G159, it “paid the claim.”
Cox’s alleged statement was a bombshell, if there ever was one.
At the time, Goodyear was facing accusations in at least six other lawsuits that it knowingly sold the tire to RV manufacturers, despite knowing it wasn’t safe for motorhomes. And here was an employee openly admitting the company knew there was a serious issue when the tire was used on RVs.
Shortly after the deposition began, Goodyear stopped Cox from giving further testimony, and agreed to a confidential settlement of claims for the accident involving the Phillips family. That much everyone agrees on.
What’s in dispute is exactly why the deposition was stopped, or that Cox even offered up such a monumental disclosure.
That’s because, once the settlement was reached, Goodyear’s attorney in the case, John McCormick, asked the court reporter retained for Cox’s deposition to forward him all “notes and the transcription” of his remarks “for destruction.” As it stands, no transcription of Cox’s deposition exists, though Ricciardulli still affirms it happened.
Without a transcription, the situation comes across like a stereotypical he said-she said affair—with attorneys lawyering about a situation that’s only recounted by interpretations of people who were in the room the day Cox spoke.
But for one thing, experts and attorneys said having a court reporter send back their notes for destruction is highly unusual.
“I haven’t sat through every deposition in the world,” said David Babbe, lecturer at the UCLA Law School. But, he added, that kind of request isn’t something he’s seen before.
“That is out of the norm,” he said.
The timing of the decision to destroy notes on Cox’s testimony has been questioned by a federal judge, and it has been cited in cases as evidence of Goodyear’s exhaustive legal campaign to keep plaintiffs from knowing the details of just how bad the G159 really was.
The move meant that plaintiffs in other G159 cases were prevented from using Cox’s alleged testimony to challenge the company on whether the tire was indeed defective when used on RVs.
Additionally, the situation could receive renewed focus after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s opted last month to open an investigation into whether the G159 failed because it was put to use on a motorhome, which it was never designed to do.
Reached by phone, McCormick said he has no recollection of the situation. Cox couldn’t be reached for comment through publicly listed phone numbers connected to him, despite repeated efforts.
Ricciardulli, meanwhile, didn’t think much of the request at the time and signed McCormick’s letter to the court reporter. It was a simple property damage claim, after all.
“My charge was to get the case settled with my client,” Ricciardulli told Jalopnik last week. “When [Goodyear] agreed to pay what they needed to pay, as far as I was concerned it was done.”
The case might’ve been settled, but Goodyear has continually denied Ricciardulli’s version of the Cox deposition. And the company was apparently quite bothered by Ricciardulli talking about what went on that day in 2003: at one point, it even asked a federal judge to sanction him for allegedly revealing confidential information. It was an intense legal battle Ricciardulli never would’ve expected to find himself in.
“I’ve never been accused of anything like that,” Ricciardulli said.
(A judge eventually denied the request. Ironically, one of Goodyear’s attorneys involved in the Cox settlement was later sanctioned by a federal judge in a separate G159 case for concealing “relevant documents” and making “misleading and false in-court statements.”)
In cases related to the G159, Cox’s remarks and the destruction of his testimony has come up time and again, a situation that—according to plaintiffs—shows that Goodyear knew the G159 was ultimately problematic when used on RVs.
Goodyear asserted in court papers that Cox was just a low-level employee who wouldn’t be in a position to know the extent of alleged problems related to the G159. (In a statement to Jalopnik, the tiremaker said: “We have addressed this topic previously, and have no further comment.”)
But according to Ricciardulli, it was obvious that Goodyear stopped the deposition because of Cox’s statement.
“I have concluded then, and I believe now, that Goodyear’s newfound interest in mediation was a direct consequence of the damaging nature of Mr. Cox’s admission of liability,” Ricciardulli wrote in a 2007 affidavit.
More than a decade later, his recollection hasn’t changed.
“The guy said the tire is unfit for motorhomes,” Ricciardulli told Jalopnik.
The Phillips family already had experienced an accident involving their Monaco in 2000, just weeks after purchasing the RV. Luckily, they weren’t injured, and Goodyear took care of their property damage claim without having to go to court.
But the second time around, in 2002, Goodyear apparently wasn’t as receptive. In the intervening years, the company had been hit by a barrage of legal claims over the G159. When equipped on motorhomes—commonly used for travel on highways at speeds well above 65 mph—the tires were prone to heat-induced failure, numerous lawsuits allege, and as early as 1999, RV owners across the U.S. reported accidents due to tread separations and blow-outs with G159 tires.
Beyond the Phillips’ case, at least nine deaths and nearly three dozen injuries are linked to accidents involving the G159, according to a Jalopnik investigation. Court records show that number’s almost certainly higher, illustrating the high-stakes of legal cases over the tire: in court, Goodyear admitted it has received at least 98 injury and/or death claims from issues with the G159. No recall has ever been issued.
When Ricciardulli took the Phillips case in 2002, he was aware the tire had some problems, but not to the extent that was later revealed. For him, the lawsuit was straightforward: his clients just wanted to get their RV fixed. “This wasn’t a big case,” he said.
Since Cox handled the Phillips’ property damage claim arising out of the 2000 incident, Goodyear offered him up to testify about the company’s handling of that case. So, in mid-June of 2003, Ricciardulli flew to Goodyear’s headquarters in Ohio to take Cox’s deposition. The interaction was short-lived.
It just so happened, right after the deposition began, Goodyear attorney John McCormick coincidentally received authority from the company to mediate the case, “which I immediately communicated to Mr. Ricciardulli,” according to an affidavit later filed by McCormick.
“At that juncture, Mr. Ricciardulli and I agreed to adjourn the incomplete deposition of Mr. Cox,” McCormick wrote in the 2007 filing.
But it isn’t that simple. That’s because Ricciardulli’s description of events departs drastically from McCormick’s take.
As Ricciardulli described it, the deposition was halted after Cox offered up a stunning admission: when it came to the G159, Cox said the tire didn’t perform “properly” when used on an RV—and Goodyear knew it was problematic.
“I don’t think they ever suspected he was going to say what he ended up saying,” Ricciardulli told Jalopnik.
In his 2007 affidavit, Ricciardulli couldn’t recall the exact phrasing Cox used, but the effect of his statement was obvious.
“I do recall being very pleased with the candor of his testimony—which I construed as a clear admission of liability,” Ricciardulli wrote. “Indeed, Goodyear’s counsel, John McCormick, appeared to me to be taken aback by Mr. Cox’s apparent admission—and, in fact, he asked for a recess in the deposition immediately thereafter.”
Both sides agreed to a settlement, and a protective order was entered that barred any discussion of the case outside of court.
Due to the order, the discrepancy over Cox’s testimony wasn’t known until 2007, when Timothy Casey, an attorney in a separate G159 case, reached out to Ricciardulli to ask about his experience litigating against Goodyear.
At the time they spoke, Ricciardulli told Casey he didn’t remember the name of the witness, but he recalled they had “admitted there was a defect” in the tire, and upon making the statement, Goodyear’s counsel “shut down” the deposition. Ricciardulli declined to provide Casey any documentation from the case, citing the protective order.
As part of the settlement, Casey wrote in an affidavit, Ricciardulli agreed to seal Cox’s deposition and have the notes and recordings taken by the court reporter present “to be sent to Goodyear’s defense counsel.” (Casey didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.)
Following the conversation, Casey set about confirming Ricciardulli’s version of events.
About two weeks after speaking with Ricciardulli, Casey contacted the court reporter’s company, Merritt & Loew Court Reporters, which confirmed Cox’s name and that his deposition was stopped.
Merritt & Loew also said that, a month after Cox’s deposition, Goodyear and Ricciardulli co-signed a letter dated August 19, 2003, directing the court reporter to forward all copies of the deposition transcript “for destruction.”
On Oct. 1, 2003, the court reporter sent a letter back to Goodyear’s attorney with notes and exhibits from the deposition attached.
“The deposition was never transcribed,” the court reporter, Joyce Zingale, wrote.
Reached by phone this month, Zingale confirmed the documents were returned to Goodyear. She said Cox’s deposition was “really short” and that it “abruptly ended after he made some general remark about statistic claims.”
Whatever anyone else who was in the room that day thinks is a mystery. Merritt & Loew Court Reporters couldn’t say whether an archived copy of Cox’s remarks was preserved after it complied with McCormick’s request. (The Ohio Rules of Civil Procedure for court reporters states they “must retain an archive of readily retrievable notes in depositions for five years.”)
Merrit & Loew’s Beth Merritt told Jalopnik the company moved offices in 2010 and purged old files in the process. Upon further questioning, Merritt told Jalopnik to stop calling and hung up.
Thomas Regan, an attorney representing an insurance company that intervened in the case, American and Foreign Insurance Company, also wouldn’t talk.
“I am not in a position to discuss the case with you due to confidentiality,” he said by email. “Good luck.”
When asked if he was aware a judge later ruled that Cox’s deposition wasn’t subject to the protective order, Regan still declined to comment. In a follow-up call to his office, Regan’s secretary told Jalopnik not to contact him again.
As a result of Casey’s effort to find out more about Cox’s deposition, Goodyear launched a legal battle of its own against Ricciardulli. According to Goodyear, Ricciardulli violated the protective order in the Phillips case when he opened up about the Cox deposition.
But Ricciardulli said he was under no impression that was the case. Goodyear’s accusations were maddening, he said.
On one hand, Goodyear thought the alleged remarks shouldn’t be revealed because an actual transcript of the deposition doesn’t exist; on the other hand, Goodyear felt Ricciardulli should be punished for talking about a deposition in which no official transcript exists.
“It sucked,” Ricciardulli told Jalopnik. “I’ve been practicing law since 1984. I have a really good reputation… I do the right things, and I’ve never been accused of anything like that. It really pissed me off, to be honest, it really angered me.”
Before a hearing in court, Ricciardulli said, one of Goodyear’s attorneys, Basil Musnuff, actually apologized to him for the situation. Musnuff didn’t respond to a request for comment.
In the spring of 2008, a federal judge, Rudi Brewster, agreed that Goodyear’s claims were off-base and ruled that Ricciardulli’s version of Cox’s deposition should be unsealed. Ricciardulli’s take on Cox’s deposition is unquestionably relevant to the public interest, the judge said.
“Goodyear has not identified any public policy that supports the perpetuation of secrecy of a Goodyear employee’s testimony concerning a possibly defective tire in certain usages,” Brewster said in the order. “It would be repugnant to the public policy of protecting the health and safety of the public.”
Goodyear disagreed with the decision. A spokesperson told Bloomberg in 2008 that it doesn’t believe “Kim Cox ever said anything about the tire being defective.”
But the timing of the decision to dispose Cox’s deposition notes could’ve been problematic, a federal magistrate judge noted in the Phillips case. The company, for one thing, was facing numerous legal claims at the time over the G159.
“This destruction was particularly risky given the fact that at the time there were other pending lawsuits alleging a defect in the G159 tire,” the magistrate, Nita Stormes, wrote.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s also a dispute over whether Goodyear was in the clear to destroy the documents. In one court hearing, Goodyear attorneys said that, because the deposition was “half-finished,” the company decided to “just pretend the deposition never happened.”
Babbe, lecturer at the UCLA Law School, said it’s not unusual for a company like Goodyear to try to secure protective orders that’d require deposition transcripts to be destroyed at the end of litigation.
“Even though there was an obligation in the protective order to return everything,” Babbe told Jalopnik, “from [Goodyear’s] standpoint, it’s better off to never have it in the hands of the opposing counsel … it’s better if they never get it in their hands in the first instance.”
What is unusual, he said, is that the court reporter was asked to destroy notes from the transcript.
“I can’t tell you that doesn’t happen; I can’t tell you how often it happens the way it specifically played out,” Babbe said. But, he added, “It isn’t something I’ve seen before.”
Cox has since been deposed again over his alleged remarks, but, due to the expansive protective orders Goodyear secured in G159-related cases, his later depositions remain sealed.
What would’ve happened had Cox’s remarks in 2003 been revealed at an earlier time? It’s hard to say.
“We’ll never know the truth, but the destruction of the court reporter’s notes by Goodyear’s attorney is extremely unusual,” said Christopher Roberts, an attorney who represented plaintiffs in the only G159-related case against Goodyear that ever went to trial. “I’ve handled dozens of product defect cases involving confidential manufacturer employee testimony over the years, and I’ve never heard or seen anything like it before or since.”
Cox’s alleged testimony is cited in ongoing G159-related litigation over what a federal judge described as a years-long effort by Goodyear attorneys to hide relevant testing data in some of the cases.
Without the protective orders, which prohibited plaintiffs from sharing information with other victims, it’s possible that Cox’s remarks could’ve influenced other cases. Judge Brewster said as much in the Phillips case.
“The information is highly relevant,” Brewster wrote, adding that Cox’s testimony could’ve possibly been viewed by a jury as an admission of liability by Goodyear, or at least shortened the length of other G159 cases.
Ricciardulli said he hadn’t thought about the case in nearly a decade. But years later, despite Goodyear’s contradictory statements about Cox’s testimony, his story hasn’t changed.
“The case got settled,” he said. “They got the deposition notes, destroyed them, and that was the end of the case.”