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The U.S. government has mandated a recall for some Chinese-made tires. They're sold under the brand names Westlake, Telluride, Compass and YKS. However, this recall may be a little bit more complicated than most - it is not yet clear that the tires really are dangerous and if they are, who's liable?

Here's Adam Davidson.

ADAM DAVIDSON: This story starts with a tragedy.

Mr. SEAN KANE (Safety Research & Strategies): The fatal crash occurred in Pennsylvania in August of '06.

DAVIDSON: Sean Kane is a safety researcher hired by the lawyer for the two men who died that day. They were carpenters on their way home from work. They were in a cargo van when a rear tire's tread separated.

Mr. KANE: The tread will tear off of the tire, almost like when you're peeling a banana, you're basically peeling a layer off of it.

DAVIDSON: The tires still had air but suddenly a large flap of rubber was flailing around wildly. Treads separate thousands of times a year. Usually nobody is hurt, but tread separations can be horrible, like in some of those Bridgestone-Firestone incidents back in 2000. And in this one.

Mr. KANE: The tread actually wrapped around the axle, which would essentially create a lock-up of one of the rear wheels.

DAVIDSON: With the suddenly locked rear wheel, the van flipped over. The two men were killed; another passenger suffered a brain injury. The victims' families hired a lawyer, who in turn hired Sean Kane to find out who they could sue. They learned that those tires were made in China by Hangzhou Zhongce Rubber Company and imported into the U.S. by Foreign Tire Sales.

Larry Levine is their lawyer.

Mr. LARRY LEVINE (Lawyer): Foreign Tire Sales is a small family-owned importer of tires.

DAVIDSON: Someone told me it's in a basement, is that correct?

Mr. LEVINE: Yeah. It's a little bit of an exaggeration. The offices are in a basement of an office building in Union, New Jersey. But it's an outfitted office.

DAVIDSON: The manufacturer, Hangzhou Rubber, doesn't have an office in the U.S. So according to U.S. law the importer is officially responsible for anything that happens here. That means that tiny little basement-based Foreign Tire Sales is supposed to handle a recall of the tires it imports. Larry Levine...

Mr. LEVINE: We're thinking that the recall will cost in excess of $200 per tire. So you're looking at $60 million.

DAVIDSON: Foreign Tire would have to pay for advertising that the recall exists, then it has to pay for hundreds of thousands of replacement tires, and the environmentally safe recycling of the recalled tires. Levine says the company can't afford it. It would go bankrupt. So it's suing Hangzhou Zhongce Rubber Company saying they should pay for the recall.

A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration spokesperson said that's not U.S. law. The importer is responsible for any recall, which means things are at a standstill. The Chinese manufacturer has told several media outlets that it doesn't believe there is any problem with its tires. The importer says it can't afford a recall. Sean Kane says no one should wait.

Mr. KANE: If you have some of these tires on your vehicle, you're probably want to remove them. I mean, they could pose a serious danger.

DAVIDSON: It's worth noting that NPR consulted many tire safety experts. All agreed that overall Chinese-made tires are perfectly safe. Sean Kane...

Mr. KANE: Defective tires can come from many country, frankly, and we've seen that. All we have to do is look at the Firestone matter.

DAVIDSON: In fact, nobody can say definitively that these tires are dangerous. They passed several U.S. safety tests. It's possible, experts told us, that the fatal accident was just bad luck, the result of a nail in the road or under-inflation or something else. Foreign Tire Sales asked the Highway Traffic Safety Administration to help pay for a recall; they refused. That means for now anyone wanting to get rid of these tires will have to pay for a replacement themselves.

Adam Davidson, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And by the way, today the Chinese tire company issued a statement defending the quality of its products.

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