WASHINGTON—In the midst of all their legal problems regarding the 6.5-million-tire recall, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Ford Motor Co. face yet another: a lawsuit from the Center for Auto Safety.
The CAS, a longtime consumer advocacy group, filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Aug. 21, seeking an injunction to force Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford to recall all Radial ATX, Radial ATX II and Wilderness AT tires, regardless of size or place of manufacture.
Bridgestone/Firestone (BFS) and Ford "marketed and advertised the ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires as superior, or at least comparable, to all other tires, yet the defendants knew or should have known that ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires would fail as designed and installed," the CAS stated in its suit.
The center's action is "parallel" to, but not associated with, the campaign announced Aug. 14 by Public Citizen and Safetyforum.com to get Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone to broaden the recall, said CAS Director Clarence M. Ditlow III.
Both companies have given "conflicting stories" about the performance of the tires, and some of the 62 deaths recorded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration involved ATX, ATX II or Wilderness tires not specified in the recall, Mr. Ditlow said.
"When you take all these facts together, we need a trial just to get these questions answered," he said. Among other things, he added, CAS hopes its lawsuit will facilitate release of documents that were sealed in settlements of previous product liability cases relating to the performance of ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires on Ford vehicles.
This marks the first time the CAS has sued corporations to force action on a safety issue, Mr. Ditlow said. All its previous litigation has been directed at NHTSA, either to get it to take action or rescind an action.
Its most famous tire-related suit was filed jointly with Public Citizen in 1983, to nullify the decision of then-NHTSA Administrator Raymond A. Peck to suspend the treadwear portion of the Uniform Tire Quality Grading System. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 1984, agreeing that Mr. Peck's action was "arbitrary and capricious."
In the current case, the center objects that BFS and Ford have limited the recall to 15-inch ATX and ATX II tires and 15-inch Wilderness AT tires made in Decatur, Ill.
"The announced recall is wholly inadequate to remedy the problem," the center stated in its petition. Limiting the recall "leav(es) defective 16-inch tires and other defective models on the road. In fact, drivers who bring in their 15-inch tires for replacement have received defective 15-inch Wilderness tires made in plants other than the Decatur plant."
Like Public Citizen and Safetyforum.com, the center insists that saying only the 15-inch Wilderness AT tires from Decatur have tread separation problems makes no sense. Either all the different tire models and sizes from Decatur must have problems, or the Wilderness tire must have a defective design, it claims. Also, it points to Ford's replacement of 16-inch tires in Saudi Arabia and other countries as a sign that the problem isn't limited to 15-inch tires.
The center's suit comes in the wake of several filings around the U.S. for certification of class action suits against Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford on behalf of all owners of ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires.
"One of our objects is to get the district court here to give us authority (on the Firestone issue), since our goal is safety, not money," Mr. Ditlow said.
Interestingly, the Washington law firm of Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll—one of the firms that filed for certification of a class action—also represents the CAS on the Firestone issue. While Mr. Ditlow said he doubted whether Cohen Milstein would drop its class action proceeding, he also said the firm had taken the center's case pro bono.
When asked how quickly he expected the district court to act on the center's recall petition, Mr. Ditlow said, "Faster than NHTSA, I hope!"
A BFS spokesman said it is company policy never to comment on pending litigation. Asked about the CAS suit during an Aug. 21 media conference call, a Ford spokesman said merely, "We won't let anything distract us from finding solutions for our customers."