WASHINGTON (Sept. 9, 2000) — Late September and early October brought continuing bad news to Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. as the Nashville, Tenn.-based tire maker continued to deal with the aftermath of the voluntary recall of 6.5 million light-truck tires the company announced Aug. 9.
* The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into Firestone Steeltex R4S and A/T light truck radial tires in 15-, 16- and 16.5-inch sizes after receiving 169 complaints, including reports of eight crashes, two fatalities and 12 injuries.
* New reports circulated that Bridgestone/Firestone Chairman and CEO Masatoshi Ono soon would be asked to step down.
* Saudi Arabia announced it had banned imports of all Firestone tires and all vehicles bearing Firestone tires.
* Documents released from court cases across the U.S. revealed evidence against Bridgestone/Firestone, including a deposition from a former company official that BFS executives discussed problems with Firestone ATX tires as early as 1997. Company spokespersons, however, discounted the information as misleading and taken out of context.
Meanwhile, Ford Motor Co. said 3.2 million tires—nearly 50 percent of the total to be recalled—had been replaced by the end of September, and the auto maker said it expected the recall of all 6.5 million tires to be completed by late November.
Announcing the preliminary Steeltex evaluation Sept. 29, NHTSA said that all but two of the complaints against the Steeltex tires came in to the agency in August and September. BFS announced the recall of 6.5 million Firestone ATX and Wilderness AT tires Aug. 9.
The agency said at the time it had yet to determine the number of tires or the model years involved, and had opened the investigation "to evaluate the magnitude of this problem." It did, however, say the complaints involved original equipment tires on Ford F250 and F350 pickup trucks, Ford Excursions and General Motors Suburbans and G-vans.
On Oct. 2, BFS said it had manufactured 27.5 million Steeltex tires between 1991 and 2000 at its plants in Decatur, Ill.; Aiken, S.C.; LaVergne, Tenn.; Wilson, N.C.; and Joliette, Quebec. The company underscored that the investigation was preliminary and shouldn´t be taken as evidence of a defect.
Regarding the status of the BFS chairman, Nikkei Business and the Associated Press both quoted Bridgestone Corp. Chairman Yoichiro Kaizaki Oct. 2 saying Mr. Ono would be asked to step down, although he might stay with the company in another capacity.
Mr. Ono succeeded Mr. Kaizaki as CEO of Bridgestone´s U.S. subsidiary in 1993, and became chairman of BFS in 1996.
As of Oct. 3, Mr. Ono still was in charge and no move had been made to replace him, according to a spokesman at BFS headquarters in Nashville, Tenn. "I just spoke to Tokyo, and there is no news from there," the spokesman said. "The situation hasn´t been changed."
BFS also discovered in the last week of September that the Saudi Arabian Standards Association issued a notice to vehicle exporters the week of Sept. 18, saying that the import into Saudi Arabia of all new or used vehicles bearing Firestone tires was banned.
The Saudi move apparently was motivated not only by the reports of 101 deaths and more than 400 injuries involving Firestone ATX and Wilderness tires in the U.S., but also by the 1999 program by Ford Motor Co. to replace Firestone tires with Goodyear tires on 6,800 Ford Explorers and Mercury Mountaineers in Saudi Arabia.
In a Sept. 29 statement, BFS said it had contacted NHTSA and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative "to express our concerns...that such a broad ban could not possibly be justified under the rules of the World Trade Organization, which Saudi Arabia is negotiating to join."
A NHTSA spokeswoman confirmed BFS had notified the agency about the Saudi ban, but said there was little the agency could do in this case. A spokeswoman for USTR said agency officials had spoken to BFS officials, but added it was still unclear what the agency could do. "The ball is in Firestone´s court to provide us with further information," she said, adding she was "not at liberty to discuss" what further information USTR might need.
There was plenty of information about BFS, meanwhile, making its way from court and federal dockets onto the front pages of newspapers.
A federal judge in Georgia released documents that included a deposition from a former tire builder at the Wilson, N.C., plant who condemned manufacturing and quality control practices at the facility.
Also included were BFS adjustment data compiled by plaintiffs´ expert witness Dennis Carlson. The data, Mr. Carlson said, showed that between 1990 and 1995 tread separation was cited in 66.4 percent of tires returned for adjustments at Wilson and 59.6 percent of Firestone tires overall.
BFS dismissed the tire builder´s testimony as the revenge of a disgruntled ex-employee and Mr. Carlson´s data as misleading. For example, only 0.13 percent of all tires made at Wilson between 1991 and 1995 had tread separation adjustments, they said.
Following closely on these documents were articles from USA Today and the Associated Press about the deposition given by former BFS executive Robert Martin in a Florida case, stating that BFS executives discussed customer complaints about tire safety as early as 1997.
Mr. Ono, Executive Vice President John Lampe and other BFS executives have told Congress that they ordered the ATX and Wilderness recall as soon as they realized there may have been problems with the tires.
According to the news reports, Mr. Martin — vice president of quality assurance until he retired last April — said he discussed consumer complaints about tires in informal quarterly sales meetings attended by Mr. Ono and various executives from senior management and the financial, planning, quality and marketing departments.
Mr. Martin could not be reached for comment, although he told USA Today they had quoted him out of context and that he was "not prepared" to say there had been tread separations. Bridgestone/Firestone at presstime was still working on an official response, but a spokeswoman told the AP that Mr. Martin´s deposition didn´t contradict Mr. Ono, Mr. Lampe and the others.
The company followed the general industry procedure of comparing customer claims with field surveys and testing, and those never indicated a problem with the tires, she said.
Further revelations loomed, meanwhile, as judges in Florida and Texas also ordered the unsealing of BFS documents. Further court actions also loomed, as Miami attorney Victor Diaz was poised to file 35 civil suits in a federal district court in Florida on behalf of Explorer/Firestone accident victims in Venezuela.
BFS officials in Venezuela also failed to attend an Oct. 4 meeting in Caracas with crash victims, Ford executives and officials of INDECU, the Venezuelan consumer protection agency, to establish civil damage payments for the victims.
Reuters quoted Hector Rodriguez, Ford Venezuela manager of purchasing, as saying BFS was trying to dodge its responsibility in the matter. BFS spokespersons said they were drafting responses to the events in Venezuela.
In other news, Rep. Ed Bryant, R-Tenn., introduced a bill Sept. 28 to create a criminal penalty of up to 10 years in prison for people who knowingly sell tires that are subject to recall.
Bridgestone/Firestone, which recently introduced a "bounty" program that pays used tire dealers $10 for every recalled tire they ship back to BFS, is backing the Bryant bill. At presstime, Mr. Bryant´s staffers expected the bill to be added to the House bill to strengthen NHTSA´s ability to respond to product defects.