DETROIT – An Alabama company that made a tractor-trailer hitch involved in a deadly Ohio crash last year is bowing to government pressure and will recall 6,800 hitches.
Fontaine Fifth Wheel of Trussville, Alabama, agreed to the recall in August, according to documents posted Thursday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The agency began investigating the hitches in June, 17 months after a 12-ton semi-trailer loaded with groceries came loose from its tractor and plowed into oncoming traffic east of Cincinnati. Two men driving pickup trucks were killed in the Jan. 24, 2014 crash on a twisty, snow-lined hill along U.S. 50.
Fontaine said in documents filed with the agency that the hitch locking mechanisms can be damaged over time by truck operators who don’t follow proper coupling and maintenance procedures. The hitches are designed to lock a pin from the trailer in a hole and hold it while the truck is moving. But the documents say “cumulative damage” can cause the hitch lock to malfunction or even fail.
Fontaine will replace the defective hitches with another model that has a different locking mechanism. It stopped making the suspect hitches in 2013.
In documents, the company, which is part of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., said that the recalled hitches were sold to Daimler, Volvo, Mack, Navistar, Kenworth and Peterbilt.
Fontaine said in a statement that it does not believe the hitches are defective when properly operated or maintained, but after further discussion with NHTSA, the company decided to do a recall “in the interest of bringing a timely and efficient resolution to this issue.”
NHTSA spokesman Gordon Trowbridge wouldn’t say if the recall would cause the agency to halt its investigation.
The nearly 1 1/2 year gap between the crash and investigation brought renewed criticism of NHTSA from critics who say the agency had trouble analyzing its own data to spot problems. The agency’s new director says that reforms are in progress.
The crash also resulted in criminal charges against Michael Simpson, 62, the truck’s driver, after police determined that he didn’t properly inspect the tractor-trailer connection.
The Ohio State Highway Patrol, which investigated the case, found that the hitch didn’t lock due to a combination of the minus 4 degree temperature and a buildup of frozen grease on the pin and receiver.
The crash occurred about 6:30 a.m. on a hill known locally as “Devil’s Backbone,” as Simpson was en route to an IGA store. The trailer came loose from its hitch and tore across the side of Michael Brown’s Chevrolet Silverado, killing the 43-year-old father of three. Then it hit Shawn Wilson’s Dodge Ram head-on, killing the 39-year-old father who had one daughter.
Simpson was convicted earlier this year of vehicular manslaughter, a misdemeanour. His commercial driver’s license was suspended for 90 days and he got a year’s probation. His attorney, Hunter Havens of Cleveland, said he was analyzing the recall documents and would discuss the case with his client before deciding whether to comment.
Simpson and the truck line he was driving for still face civil lawsuits in Clermont County, Ohio. A judge recently set deadlines in 2016 for pretrial filings. An attorney representing insurance companies in the cases didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
A message was also left for the prosecuting attorney in the vehicular manslaughter case.
Dan Sewell contributed to this report from Cincinnati.