WASHINGTON—Over and above the cost of the Firestone tire recall announced Aug. 9—at least $350 million, if the charges Bridgestone Corp. is taking against its fiscal year 2000 earnings are accurate—are the legal costs Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. (BFS) faces.
These are likely to be disastrous, if not catastrophic.
Bridgestone/Firestone said Aug. 15 it has no estimates regarding the number of product liability, injury and wrongful death lawsuits that have been filed involving the Firestone Radial ATX, Radial ATX II and Wilderness AT tires. But Sean Kane, a partner in the trial lawyer-funded research group Strategic Safety, estimated in early August that the number had topped 100, and filings have multiplied since the story of the government accident data and subsequent recall broke worldwide.
This doesn't even include the motions—at least six so far—to create national class action suits against Bridgestone/Firestone in various jurisdictions.
Nor does it count the lawsuit filed by South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon, which seeks to force Bridgestone/Firestone to immediately replace every recalled ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tire still in the hands of South Carolina motorists and pay a criminal penalty of up to $5,000 for every one of those tires.
Bridgestone/Firestone's liability may not even be limited to the specific tires in the recall. On Aug. 14, consumer advocacy group Public Citizen and product safety Internet service Safetyforum.com called on the company to expand the recall to include 16-inch tires as well as 15-inch, and also to include all 15-inch Wilderness tires, not just those manufactured at the Bridgestone/Firestone plant in Decatur, Ill.
While BFS has said the incidence of failure has been much higher for Wilderness tires from Decatur, which saw severe labor disputes in the mid-1990s, Ralph Hoar, director of Safetyforum.com, called singling out Decatur "a red herring." He claimed the tread separation problems are inherent in the tire's design.
Tab Turner, who serves as legal counsel to Safetyforum.com, is also a Little Rock, Ark., personal injury lawyer who specializes in cases involving tires and sport/utility vehicles, including a number of current cases involving Firestone tires as original equipment on the Ford Explorer dating back as early as 1992.
At the Safetyforum.com press conference, Mr. Turner said the number of lawsuits and insurance claims made so far on Firestone tires and the Ford Explorer are "a very, very small percentage" of the actual extent of the problem. "If the ocean is the scope of this problem, the personal injury and insurance claims (filed to date) are a cup of water," he said.
Several personal injury and consumer advocacy firms, looking to extract some treasure from that ocean, have filed motions in circuit courts across the U.S. to form national class actions against Bridgestone/Firestone. These actions are parallel to, but not connected with, individual lawsuits involving the Firestone tires, said Alexander Barnett, an attorney with the Washington firm of Cohen Milstein Hausfeld & Toll.
Cohen Milstein, together with the Fort Myers, Fla.-based Viles Law Firm, filed a class action suit Aug. 8 in the Lee County, Fla., circuit court on behalf of all owners of Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires.
Besides replacement of the tires, the suit seeks damages for each of the plaintiffs—potentially millions of them, since Bridgestone/Firestone has manufactured some 48 million of those tires since 1991—in an amount between $15,000 and $74,999.
The $15,000 figure is the minimum required by the circuit court, Mr. Barnett said, and keeping the maximum figure below $75,000 makes it more difficult for Bridgestone/Firestone to argue that the case should be moved to a federal court.
Five other national class action suits have been filed by other law firms in courts in Florida, Texas, New York and Tennessee. J. Douglas Richards, an attorney with the New York firm of Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach, declined to discuss the class action his firm filed in the Chancery Court for Davidson County, Tenn.
The Lee County circuit court scheduled an Aug. 25 hearing on the Cohen Milstein petition. "The court could issue a bench ruling, or rule soon thereafter" on whether to certify the class action, Mr. Barnett said.
It is too soon to know whether the separate class actions will continue or consolidate, or whether one will be given precedence, he said. "We'll just have to wait and see."
In any case, the class actions could face stiff competition for Bridgestone/Firestone's money from state attorneys-general.
Besides filing suit against the company Aug. 14 in the Richland County, S.C., Court of Common Pleas, Mr. Condon called on other state attorneys-general to join him in demanding immediate satisfaction for Firestone tire owners.
Mr. Condon was incensed by Bridgestone/Firestone's originally announced plan for a phased recall. It was to begin immediately with California, Arizona, Texas and Florida, and expand to other states only after motorists in those four—which together accounted for 80 percent of Firestone-related accident reports—were provided with replacement tires.
He alleged that Firestone knew the recalled tires could fail in normal use, particularly in warm-climate areas such as South Carolina. "Firestone has turned a deaf ear to our requests and pleadings for fair treatment of South Carolina," he said in a press release. "The life and safety of South Carolina citizens are just as precious as everyone else's. We cannot ration human life."
Mr. Condon's office estimates that the lawsuit, if successful, could cost BFS "tens of millions of dollars in damages."
The attorneys-general of North Carolina, New York, Georgia and Nevada have indicated they also are considering their options, and the National Association of Attorneys-General has discussed in a conference call whether their states should join in a lawsuit against the tire maker.
Meanwhile, BFS authorized all its company stores and participating dealerships to handle tire replacements immediately, and published a full-page ad in 41 newspapers across the U.S. instructing ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tire owners how to take advantage of the recall.
But South Carolina isn't satisfied, because Bridgestone/Firestone still is prioritizing the four states in the first tier of the recall, a spokesman from Mr. Condon's office said.
"Our only problem is with the tiered recall," the spokesman said. "The reimbursement system Bridgestone/Firestone is offering looked promising, but we found there was no `there' there. Our people are on waiting lists at dealerships here. We realize there will be shortages at the beginning of a recall, but we want a fair, across-the-board approach.
"We want the market to dictate where the tires go, not some arbitrary quota system."