How to Protect Your Business

April 15, 2024

Everyone should have a hobby and most of mine are quite typical for a man in his late 50s. Relaxing by the pool is a summer favorite and I’ve promised myself and my son that we are going to play more golf this year. Another hobby is expert legal testimony in civil litigation.

Basically, when an accident happens that can even remotely be associated with a tire service provider or manufacturer, that business can expect to be named in the lawsuit. I have done some plaintiff work, but the majority of my expert witness side hustle has been on the defense side for tire manufacturers and dealers.

For the benefit of you, the high performance (HP)/ultra-high performance (UHP) tire dealer and/or installer, I’m going to outline an accident and subsequent lawsuit using a combination of real experiences and fictional details based on several of my past cases.

If this was a movie, the first message would be something like “loosely based on true stories” because I’m going to take some fictional liberties to make my point. No one can predict how something like this will work out, but I can assure you that what I am about to describe is both possible and probable — and could happen to you and your business if you’re not careful.

I’ve been through enough of these to know how the movie ends just by watching the trailer. The following is not legal analysis. It’s a fictional attempt to describe how two tire dealers have completely different cases for providing the same service.

The fitment

Customer A has been saving for months to purchase a set of custom tires and wheels. She bought a Jeep and it’s been her dream to trick it out. The original 255/70R18 tires were not the right look, but she’s done her research and will keep them for winter tires, so the road salt doesn’t destroy her custom wheels.

Rather than rely on the internet, she goes local for her new tires and wheels because fellow Jeep enthusiasts have recommended two tire dealers in town that specialize in Jeeps.

ABC Tire has been in business for more than 20 years. They’ve had a couple of different owners, but the new one has embraced both technology and the custom tire and wheel business. They take a picture of the vehicle and then use software to visualize the actual tires and wheels for the customer. It isn’t cheap, but people want to know what the vehicle is going to look like after tire and wheel installation and they can give you a picture. It’s a great sales tool.

The sales people at ABC Tire are also custom tire and wheel enthusiasts. They go to trade shows to keep up on the latest trends and styles, so they know what’s hot. ABC Tire also has access to a lot of wheel suppliers, so they can get practically anything. If you see it in a magazine or on the street and can get them a picture, they can probably find it and install it.

One wall of their showroom is covered with pictures of happy customers standing next to their tricked-out cars and trucks with new tires and wheels from ABC Tire. They have to rotate the new ones in and the old ones out because they have new installations almost daily and they ran out of room.

The other dealership, XYZ Tire, is a family business that has been in operation for decades, with the third generation currently in command. They are much more conservative in their approach and focus on original equipment replacement, but they do a fair amount of custom tire and wheel packages.

XYZ Tire only works with a couple of well-known major wheel suppliers and they utilize the expertise of those suppliers for all of their fitment recommendations. They double-check the recommendation to make sure it stays within industry guidelines, which is usually the case.

ABC Tire recommends the 315/60R20 116S on a 20x10-inch wheel with a negative offset to satisfy the customer. This will visibly raise the Jeep without a lift kit and the tires will stick out past the end of the wheel well, giving it that tricked-out look the customer wants.

XYZ Tire recommends the 295/55R20 116T on a 20x9-inch wheel with a positive offset to match the OE fitment. This combination of tire and wheel is closest to the OE assembly and stays within the industry guidelines for plus-sizing. It won’t look raised and it doesn’t stick out past the end of the wheel well. XYZ Tire also recommended a tire that is noticeably smaller than the tire recommended by its competitor, ABC Tire.

The accident

Customer A is driving home from a concert with three friends in her Jeep. There’s lots of singing and dancing, reliving the concert, when brake lights suddenly appear in the lane in front of them. She swerves to the left to avoid the stopped car in her lane. The left front tire and wheel is separated from the axle causing the Jeep to roll over several times in the grassy median. The passengers in the back seat were not wearing seat belts so they were ejected.

Customer A and the individual in the passenger front seat were wearing seat belts and remained in the vehicle during the accident. One of the passengers in the back seat was fatally injured and the other was paralyzed from the waist down because of a spinal cord injury. The passenger in the front seat suffered permanent brain damage, while Customer A had broken bones in her legs, arm and back.

The lawsuit

The estate of the deceased and the families of the passengers and Customer A file a lawsuit against Jeep, the tire manufacturer, the wheel manufacturer, the distributor who sold the wheels to the dealer, the distributor who sold the tires to the dealer and the tire dealer who sold and installed the tires and wheels.

The families agree to use the same attorneys in a well-known firm with a history of winning major jury awards for their clients, but each case will be tried individually since two of the three survivors will require medical care for the rest of their lives and one is deceased.

Plaintiffs are seeking millions for the three survivors and the one deceased passenger. Jeep and the tire manufacturer settle out of court right away. With that money in hand, the plaintiffs then turn their attention to the wheel manufacturer, the distributors and the installer.

The wheel manufacturer for ABC Tire is a little-known company with U.S. distribution and minimal insurance, so the plaintiff will probably take whatever they can get. The wheel manufacturer for XYZ Tire is an established company with the engineering and legal expertise to defend their products, so it won’t be an easy settlement for the plaintiff.

Both distributors have a good defense because they only sell products and it’s up to the installer to follow any guidelines for installation and fitment, so they settle, as well. In the end, the tire dealer/service provider is typically the last one standing with enough insurance and the most liability exposure for a favorable verdict at trial.


In addition to all of the records related to the sale of the tires and wheels to Customer A, ABC Tire and XYZ Tire must also produce their standard operating procedures (SOP) for determining tire and wheel fitments, as well as company policies for installing custom tires and wheels, including their wheel torque program, since this was a wheel-off accident.

In addition, they must produce training records for the employees who make fitment recommendations, including the one who assisted Customer A at the time of installation, as well as the technicians who mounted and installed the tires.

ABC Tire’s response

ABC Tire is able to produce the invoice for the sale of the tires to Customer A, showing exactly what it sold and installed. Their SOP for fitment is to more or less give the customer whatever they want and charge accordingly. Employees work with the different wheel suppliers to make sure the bolt circle is a match for the year, make and model. From there, it’s all about what the customer wants. If the tires can fit in the wheel well and not interfere with the suspension or steering components, ABC Tire believes they are safe to install. The sales personnel making fitment decisions do not have any formal training, but they have years of experience and learn a lot from manufacturer websites and watching videos online. Technicians are trained in-house, using materials from their various equipment, tool and repair material providers. For their wheel torque program, ABC Tire uses a combination of impact wrenches, torque sticks and a torque wrench to tighten lug nuts, depending on the vehicle.

XYZ Tire’s response

XYZ Tire produces a copy of the invoice that was provided to Customer A with the tires and wheels that were installed, in addition to new tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) sensors. XYZ Tire also provides an advisory to all of their customers who purchase aftermarket tires and wheels that differ from the OE fitment. It explains that the operation of the vehicle may be affected by the modifications chosen by the customer and advises the customer to return to XYZ Tire after the first 5 to 50 miles of operation following installation so the wheel torque can be checked. It’s part of the vehicle release process, so Customer A signed the document acknowledging it was explained and received a copy.

All of XYZ Tire’s sales personnel have completed an industry-recognized training program, so they are aware of the recommended procedures and guidelines for selecting aftermarket fitments. XYZ Tire pays strict adherence to the 3% rule, so the diameter of the aftermarket size stays within plus or minus 3% of the tire diameter for the OE fitment. XYZ Tire also makes sure the load index and speed rating is equal to or greater than the OE tire and the rim width is acceptable for the new size.

Wheel fitment decisions are made by XYZ Tire’s suppliers. A salesperson from XYZ Tire contacts the supplier with the year, make and model and they are given recommendations that will fit the vehicle. Their suppliers are also conservative and they try to replicate the OE fitment as closely as possible when determining offset. Choices are more limited, but XYZ Tire is confident that their suppliers will follow their own best practices for making fitment recommendations.

XYZ Tire’s technicians must complete the same industry-recognized program, in addition to a documented demonstration of the necessary skills for installing tires and wheels. XYZ Tire uses that program as the basis for their SOP, in addition to their own company policies and guidelines specific to the tools and equipment used in the shop. All lug nuts are torqued by hand using calibrated torque wrenches that are individually identified and recalibrated.

The facts of the case

The OE tire on Customer A’s Jeep was a 255/70R18 113T with an outside diameter of 32.09 inches. In a plus-size fitment, the 3% limit would be 33.05 inches, so the replacement size must be between 32.09 inches and 33.05 inches to preserve the handling and proper operation of the safety systems on the vehicle. Likewise, the replacement size must have a load index of 113 or greater and a T speed rating or higher.

ABC Tire installed the 315/60R20 tire, which has an outside diameter of 34.88 inches and is larger than 3% of the original equipment diameter. It’s less than a one-inch increase in ride height, but it’s still clearly outside the limit. The load index of 116 is acceptable, but the S speed rating is lower than the OE tire. The standard of care for selecting replacement tires with sizes other than the OE fitment is to keep the outside diameter within 3% of the original diameter with a speed rating that is equal to or greater than the OE tire. ABC Tire failed to follow that standard in both instances.

XYZ Tire opted for the 295/55R20 116T with an outside diameter of 32.76 inches. Its recommendation followed the industry guidelines for changing diameter because it is within 3%, as well as changing the load index and speed rating because both are equal to or greater than the OE tire specifications. XYZ Tire delivered a “by the book” plus-size tire fitment.

The ABC Tire wheel torque program is a mixture of impact wrenches, torque sticks and a torque wrench. Basically, the proper color torque stick is used to tighten the lug nuts and then the torque wrench is used to verify that none of the lug nuts are below the torque specification for the vehicle. Since the torque wrench is only used to verify the proper torque has been reached, it has not been calibrated or recalibrated. This was the first wheel-off accident for ABC Tire in over five years, so it believes its wheel torque program is effective and adequate.

XYZ Tire takes a different approach with wheel torque and has a detailed wheel retention program. They follow the RIST (remove, inspect, snug, torque) procedure on every wheel installation and use a calibrated torque wrench to apply the final torque on each lug nut. After the lug nuts have been torqued, a second technician must verify that all of the lug nuts are tightened to specification. Torque wrenches are calibrated approximately every 18 months, based on the recommendation of the manufacturer, and each wrench is individually numbered so it can be matched to the most recent certificate of calibration. Customers are reminded to have the torque checked after five to 50 miles to ensure the wheels have the correct clamping force after installation. XYZ Tire has never had a wheel-off accident, but has identified loose lug nuts during torque checks, which revealed other mechanical issues that required a separate repair.

The depositions

All of the sales personnel for ABC Tire are deposed, including the one who made the fitment recommendation for Customer A. Despite the lack of formal training, they have sold hundreds of custom tire and wheel combinations without any problems. They were unaware of the 3% rule, but try to keep the load index and speed rating as close as possible to the OE tire. Because they operate in a state with no laws regarding vehicle customization, ABC Tire believes that customers have the right to customize their vehicles and if they want a smaller or larger tire, it’s their duty to make sure it fits. After the tires and wheels are installed, they are checked for steering and suspension clearance to make sure the fitment does not interfere with the operation of the vehicle. Once it passes that inspection, the vehicle is released without a reminder to have the lug nuts checked after five to 50 miles.

Technician depositions for ABC Tire did not go much better. They were unaware that the wheels required hub-centric rings. It was a small difference, but they were installed without those critical components. Cleaning the mating surfaces prior to installation was not a standard practice unless there was major corrosion on the surfaces of the hub or drum. ABC Tire’s technicians were also unaware that the new assemblies required TPMS sensors so they were installed with standard valve stems, making the TPMS inoperable, which is violation of federal law.

Depositions for XYZ Tire were completely different. The salespeople were well-versed in the industry guidelines for plus-sizing and they followed it at all times. If a tire is 0.10 inches over 3%, then a different size must be selected. The same can be said for load index and speed rating. Equal to or greater than is mandatory for all custom tire and wheel fitments. These points were echoed by all of the sales personnel who were deposed. They were also aware of why the five- to 50-mile torque check is necessary and each of them made a point to say they make sure their customers understand the importance of checking the lug nuts after installation.

Technician depositions are always rough. The XYZ Tire techs were not as knowledgeable about fitment guidelines, but they were very consistent with the standards and practices for installing wheels using the RIST procedure. Every mating surface had to be clean so it could be inspected. The lugs were snugged in a star pattern, starting at 12 o’clock and then torqued to specification using the same procedure. XYZ Tire’s techs also understood that the new assemblies required TPMS sensors, so they were installed on the wheels before the tires were mounted.

Plaintiff’s report: ABC Tire

The expert for the plaintiff has a field day with ABC Tire, which failed to follow the standard care by installing a tire that was too large on a wheel with a negative offset, which changed the handling of the vehicle. The negative offset contributed to the wheel-off because it put additional stress on the wheel and the hub. The lower speed rating also had a negative effect on how the vehicle handled, which contributed to the accident.

ABC Tire’s training program for its sales personnel does not address industry guidelines and none of the content or competency is documented for each employee. This lack of training reflects the general lack of expertise that led to the incorrect fitment recommendations that caused the accident. Neither the technician training program nor ABC Tire’s SOP include any quality control measures to ensure that there is sufficient clamping force to keep the wheels on the vehicle after installation.

The lack of a wheel torque program is a primary target for the plaintiff because the wheel-off is ultimately what led to the loss of vehicle control. It was obvious that the hub on the left front was not cleaned prior to installation and there was some visible damage on the wheel that was recovered. After checking all of the remaining lug nuts on the vehicle after the crash, it was discovered that torque values were all over the board — with some under specification and some close. All of the remaining hub surfaces showed evidence of foreign materials. There was damage to the studs and bolt holes that can be attributed to uneven clamping forces and the additional stress created by the negative offset on the wheel.

Plaintiff’s report: XYZ Tire

The plaintiff’s expert has a more difficult time finding fault with XYZ Tire. After reviewing hundreds of custom tire and wheel fitments, it was discovered that XYZ Tire did not exceed the 3% threshold for aftermarket tires and wheels, always followed industry recommendations for load index and speed rating and always followed the recommendations of their suppliers when selecting wheels and offsets. It’s pointed out that a different tire size and wheel combination would have been closer to the OE tire diameter and wheel offset. Had XYZ Tire chosen that custom tire and wheel fitment, this accident could have been avoided.

The same obstacles existed with installation because all of the hubs were cleaned, including the left front, where the separation occurred. After checking the remaining lug nuts on the vehicle, they were all shown to be around the installation torque level. Based on the condition of the vehicle, XYZ Tire followed its wheel installation procedures and torque program to the letter. Plaintiff’s expert pointed to the lack of quality control regarding torque wrench calibration because months would pass before they would be aware of a problem. Aftermarket torque check equipment is available and if XYZ Tire had performed regular checks, the torque on the left front would have been correct.

Defense report: ABC Tire

Defense experts for ABC Tire point to the driver as the primary factor in causing the accident. Data retrieved from the vehicle showed it was traveling above the speed limit on a busy highway at night. The toxicology report on the driver showed evidence of alcohol, but it was within the legal limit at the time of the accident. The sudden drop in speed was reflective of a panic stop and the evasive maneuver by the driver caused the wheel-off. Corrosion on the hub did not contribute to the loose wheel because the wheel was clean and the lug nuts were tightened at installation. The remaining three wheels on the vehicle were in the same condition and while the lug nut torque values were inconsistent, the majority of them were not loose and none of them failed.

The ABC Tire experts also point to the dealership’s years of success installing custom tire and wheel fitments. Their training methods are unconventional, but the results of their work would indicate they are experts in the field. As far as plus-sizing is concerned, it was stated that the 3% guideline is not widely recognized or published in the industry. There are no government regulations that prohibit plus-sizing, so consumers have the freedom to customize their vehicles any way they see fit. Customer A asked for larger tires that would stick out past the body of the Jeep. ABC Tire delivered on that request with the tire and wheel combination that allowed for normal operation of the vehicle and compliance with state law. They fulfilled their duty, according to the defense team.

Defense report: XYZ Tire

XYZ Tire’s experts take the same approach regarding the driver given the vehicle speed data. At the speeds being traveled on a busy highway at night, the Jeep was being operated in an aggressive and reckless manner. While the impairment was within the legal limits, the driver was still impaired, which affected the reaction time when traffic was stopped.

Experts for XYZ Tire could not identify an exact reason for the wheel-off. The wheel and hub on the left front were clean and the other three wheel positions on the vehicle had the proper lug nut torque, as well as clean mating surfaces. Another factor in XYZ Tire’s favor is the fact that Customer A did not return for the torque check after the wheels were installed. XYZ Tire encourages customers to return for the torque check after installation so they can identify any conditions that identified with a visual inspection. Since over 1,000 miles had passed since installation, defense experts for XYZ Tire determined that a previous impact to the left front tire led to the damage that caused the wheel-off.

The jury

By far, the most unpredictable factor in civil litigation is the jury. Some states are known for very liberal juries with massive awards for the plaintiff, while others are a little more conservative in their approach when rendering a verdict. In many cases, it’s the injured party that plays the biggest factor. In this instance, there is a fatality, two people who will need medical care for the rest of their lives and over a million dollars in medical bills for the driver. Juries are sympathetic and given the condition of the plaintiffs, someone has to pay.

It’s difficult to imagine a jury in any state rendering a verdict in favor of the defendants because companies have money and the victims are going to need it in order to survive.

The insurance company for the driver is going to take a major hit, but the other parties have to make a decision. Is it worth the risk to put the case in the hands of a jury or should they just settle? Going to trial is risky for the plaintiff, as well, but in this case, the fatality and nature of the injuries gives them an advantage. Trials are incredibly expensive for both the plaintiff and the defendant. That’s why most cases settle before they are heard in a courtroom. Each defendant has to determine how much it will cost to go to trial, how much they could potentially lose and what it takes to settle the lawsuit and move on. It’s all about selecting the best bad option.

ABC Tire’s response

ABC Tire does not want to go to trial. The lack of formal training and failure to follow the industry recommended practices for plus-sizing and custom wheel fitments are not going to look good in front of a jury. Quality control is definitely lacking in ABC Tire’s wheel torque program and the inconsistency in lug nut torque values on the remaining three wheel positions does not work in their favor. Likewise, failing to clean the face of the hubs represents another contributing cause to the wheel-off and accident. Failing to follow federal law by knowingly making the TPMS inoperative and installing custom tires and wheels without TPMS sensors is another major strike against ABC Tire. Without a good defense, they need to settle and settle fast.

XYZ Tire’s response

XYZ Tire does not want to go trial. While the insurance company is confident in the defense, you still have one grieving family, two families with loved ones who require lifetime care and a driver with millions in medical bills. In a case like this, the focus is on the best bad option. The difference is that the settlements will be lower because there is less fault on the part of XYZ Tire. They did everything they were required to do, but the left front wheel did separate from the vehicle, causing the accident and XYZ Tire installed that assembly just a few months prior to the accident. At trial, there’s a slight chance that XYZ Tire could come out on top, but the risk in this case is too great. XYZ Tire will settle, but it won’t be crippling to them or their insurance company.


Civil litigation is focused on assessing fault in the event of an accident. Unlike criminal law, where the defendant is considered innocent until proven guilty, civil law is more like the defendants are guilty so they must prove their innocence. Accidents just don’t happen in legal circles. Something or someone has to cause them and the offending parties must be held accountable. When the defendants have a weak defense, then the settlements go up because the plaintiff knows they have a strong case for the jury. On the other hand, a strong defense is always in the back of the mind of a plaintiff’s attorney because losing at trial is very costly, especially when they turned down a pretrial settlement offer.

Regardless of the circumstances or the facts, an accident that results in a lawsuit is going to expose everything about the company. All of the faults and flaws will be on full display in front of a jury that will ultimately determine if the defendant caused the accident. Companies like ABC Tire are hoping they never encounter a situation like this, while companies like XYZ Tire prepare for it daily by following industry guidelines when installing tires on every vehicle.

The standard of care for tire replacement is well-known in the legal community. Plaintiffs will use every document they can find from organizations like the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association (USTMA) and the Tire Industry Association (TIA) to establish that standard. Falling short of the published guidelines makes a good defense bad and a bad defense worse.

There are rules for tire replacement and when they are not followed, the costs go up in civil cases because the defendant has a weak defense for whatever the plaintiff claims they did or did not do to cause the accident. However, when guidelines for tire replacement from the USTMA, TIA and the tire/wheel manufacturers are followed, the costs can be controlled because the dealer has a much stronger defense against whatever claims are being made.

About the Author

Kevin Rohlwing

Kevin Rohlwing is chief technical officer of the Tire Industry Association. He can be reached at [email protected].