WASHINGTON—Two expert witnesses representing opposite sides in tire product liability cases are at loggerheads over whether Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Ford Motor Co. put unsafe original equipment tires on Ford sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks. Dick Baumgardner, a plaintiffs' expert witness and former Firestone employee, said he had studied more than 40 blown Firestone ATX tires in his Atlanta-based expert witness practice and found that the vast majority of those tires "were OE tires on the (Ford) Explorer, made to Ford's specifications."
Auto makers commonly ask for changes in specifications to meet various requirements, he said. For example, an OE customer may request a lighter weight tire to help meet fuel economy standards. "I think they stripped this (tire) down too far," he said.
But Charles Gold, a Texas-based expert who testifies in court cases in defense of tire and auto companies, said the Firestone ATX and Wilderness tires he's examined in those suits "had given over 60,000 miles of good service" and had suffered "cuts, punctures or major injuries" that caused the tread separations.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation May 2 into possible tread separation problems in the Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires that are OE fitments on Ford Explorers and many Ford Rangers and F150 pickups.
A series of articles published in the Chicago Sun-Times just before the investigation was announced reported fatal accidents across the U.S. caused by tread separations. Although the articles did not identify the tires involved, Mr. Baumgardner—who was quoted in at least one of the stories—said the accidents "almost entirely" involved the Firestones NHTSA is investigating.
Mr. Baumgardner noted the tires' replacement versions seem to be OK. "The tires not made to Ford's specifications, we don't have any problem with," he said.
Mr. Gold said he has never seen any evidence to make him think the Firestone tires are in any way defective. "In one case I participated in, we found the adjustment rate on the ATX was unbelievably low—less than one-quarter of 1 percent," he said.
"In most cases, I'm hired by the auto or tire companies," he added. "If they have a bad tire, they're not going to hire me. But they don't have many bad tires."
Part of the current problem deals with the nature of SUVs, like the Explorer, Mr. Gold said.
If the driver mismanages his vehicle, it can roll over, he said. "Pulling over to change a tire can turn into a rollover incident.... The only reason there's a problem is that people don't know how to drive a utility vehicle."
Meanwhile, both BFS and Ford staunchly insist the tires are safe. "We have sold about 17 million Explorers, Rangers and F-Series pickups over the last 10 years, many of which had these tires as original equipment," Ford said in a prepared statement. "Ford is extremely satisfied with the safety record of these vehicles."
Mr. Baumgardner has not worked for Firestone since 1982, and never was involved in its steel-belted radial manufacturing operations, a BFS spokeswoman said.
She also stressed the need for proper tire maintenance. "One thing we would urge people to understand is that tires operate in an external environment," she said. "They're designed to take abuse and wear, but that doesn't mean you can ignore them.
"You would never consider not changing your oil. The same thing applies to your tires."