JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (July 28, 2000) — Two families from the Jacksonville area are claiming Ford Explorers and Firestone tires can make a deadly combination.
Baptist minister William Touchton, 47, and 10-year-old Athena Lingenfelser were killed in separate accidents months apart when the Explorers they were riding in flipped over as a result of tires blowing out.
In lawsuits filed July 24 in Florida´s Duval County Circuit Court, the survivors of both accuse Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. (BFS) and Ford Motor Co. of negligence.
News accounts said the girl was partially ejected and that neither she nor her mother, who was driving, was wearing seat belts.
Their attorney, Gary Pajcic, alleges that defects in Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires can lead to sudden, catastrophic failures that can upend the Explorer due to that sport-utility vehicle´s high center of gravity.
He is closely monitoring a National Highway Transportation Safety Administration investigation into similar cases.
In May, NHTSA launched a probe of ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires—still used on many Ford light trucks and SUVs—after several reports of rollovers surfaced, particularly from Sun Belt states.
A NHTSA spokesman said the agency has given BFS and Ford an "exhaustive request for information that will take the manufacturers some time to compile."
Of 90 incidents NHTSA is looking into, there were four deaths and 27 injuries.
BFS did not return calls asking for comment.
Ford spokeswoman Susan Krusel pointed out that although 3.5 million Explorers have been sold in the last 10 years, there have been only 25 lawsuits alleging instability and tire failure. Of those cases, she said, the one that went to trial ended in Ford´s favor.
The rest were either dismissed or settled, though Ms. Krusel did not provide a breakdown.
"The safety of our customers is paramount," she stressed.
Getting a handle on how many incidents have occurred nationwide or how litigation is resolved is nearly impossible, said plaintiffs´ representatives.
"I know of at least three cases that have settled," said Dick Baumgardner, a former tire engineer and owner of Tire Consultants Inc. in Alpharetta, Ga. "Virtually all terms in the settlements are protected (from public disclosure) when they give out the money."
Mr. Baumgardner examines about 100 tires a year and is often an expert witness for plaintiffs or defendants.
He said he has inspected 50 ATX and Wilderness tires in recent months. "This is almost a specific tire made for that specific vehicle," he said. "This is a fatigue problem and it appears to require about three or four years to mature to the point where the tire fails.
"The insidious part is that the separation grows between the belts and you can´t see them or feel them," Mr. Baumgardner said. "When the separation gets big enough, the outer belt and tread will break open from centrifugal force."
Strategic Safety, an Arlington, Va.-based company, has been investigating ATX/Wilderness tire failures for several years and is aware of nearly 100 fatal or serious injury incidents and substantially more complaints, said President Sean Kane.
"In many cases, the tires simply `detread´—that is, the outer tread portion of the tire tears away from the tire," Mr. Kane said. "In other incidents, the tire may blow out. Explorer drivers who have experienced a tire failure, particularly on the rear, describe the vehicle as very difficult or impossible to control."
In a report on the problem posted on its Web site (www.strategicsafety.com), Strategic Safety states: "The subject Firestone tires appear to have a long tread life that may exceed its internal design capabilities. As a result, tires that have ample tread depth may have begun to separate internally.
"This problem is not visible externally, nor is it visible from the inside even when the tire is removed from the wheel. High temperatures in Sun Belt states will worsen the problem as heat affects tire bonding.
"The problem may be exacerbated by the low recommended inflation pressure specified by Ford for the Explorer and Ranger (26 psi)."
Whatever the cause, critics worry about the human costs.
"Almost all these cases happen at highway speeds and result in major, major injuries," said Kevin Burke, an attorney with the Chicago firm of Corboy & Demetrio.
"The separation problem dates back to the ´70s with steel belts and continues forward," he said. "The inability or refusal of the tire industry to make safety changes—such as using nylon caps as the Europeans do—means these cases will go on."
Jeff Yip is a West Coast-based freelance writer.