WASHINGTON—The federal government now has reports of 119 deaths related to Firestone ATX and Wilderness AT tires, according to the latest figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. said in response that its "deepest sympathies" are with the families and friends of those who died, and that it is still "working around the clock" to uncover the source of the problems with 6.5 million recalled ATX and Wilderness tires.
Nevertheless, the tire maker dismissed as "inaccurate" press releases from the attorneys general of New York and Connecticut, stating BFS had agreed to recall an additional 1.4 million tires identified as defective by NHTSA as part of a multi-state agreement.
In other news, BFS also:
Released the initial status report of Sanjay Govindjee, the independent engineering expert brought in to uncover the root causes of the problems with ATX and Wilderness tires on Ford Explorers; and
Expressed its pleasure at the special hearing held Oct. 17 by the Judicial Panel for Multi-District Litigation (MDL) to consider granting consolidation of the lawsuits filed against BFS to date.
NHTSA's Oct. 17 update on its Firestone-related complaints was its first since Sept. 22, when it reported 101 deaths allegedly due to tread separations of Firestone tires on the Ford Explorer and other SUVs.
The agency increased the number of complaints Oct. 17 to more than 3,500, up from the 2,226 it reported Sept. 22, and raised its injury estimate from more than 400 to more than 500.
"Since the last update, we have removed a number of duplicate reports that were in the database as of Sept. 15," NHTSA said in a report on its Web site. "However, reports entered into our database since that time may be duplicates of earlier reports."
Mr. Govindjee—an associate professor of civil engineering at the University of California at Berkeley—is the man in charge of finding the root cause or causes with the recalled tires. In an Oct. 16 initial report to Georg Rohm, director and vice president of Bridgestone/Firestone Research Inc. in Akron, Mr. Govindjee said the present focus of his research "is on the inter-belt materials and their fatigue properties.
"All evidence to date points to a slowly developing fatigue crack that propagates through the belt wedge material and then subsequently into the belt skim between the steel belts," Mr. Govindjee said. "At some stage the cracks reach a critical size and the tires subsequently fail."
Mr. Govindjee also said the problem is a "quite complex interaction of the effects of tire design (geometric layout and material selection), the manufacturability of the tire (geometric and material variations), and loading conditions (dynamic loads associated with the Explorer, running inflation pressures and temperatures)."
Mr. Govindjee said he expected to complete his preliminary report in late October or early November and complete the project by year-end.
The same day that Mr. Govindjee sent his letter to Mr. Rohm, the attorneys general of New York and Connecticut issued press releases saying BFS had agreed to extend the ATX and Wilderness recall to include the 1.4 million tires identified by NHTSA in a Sept. 1 consumer advisory.
BFS, however, issued its own release saying the New York and Connecticut reports were incorrect. The tire maker said it was continuing the same program it announced after the consumer advisory was issued: to inspect any mounted tires on the NHTSA list, and replace them if defective or at consumers' requests at up to $140 per tire, including mounting, balancing, valve stems, sales tax and disposal fees.
The tire maker attached to its statement the press release from Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm. Ms. Granholm's statement, advising Michigan consumers of the BFS program, is accurate except that "we do not agree with her urging of consumers to replace those tires," and she did not stress that the tires must be mounted, the company said.
Meanwhile, BFS said it was "pleased" that the MDL panel agreed to hear the case for consolidating the ATX and Wilderness lawsuits filed against the company.
"No personal injuries were involved in the vast majority of these claims, and we believe combining them will be in everyone's best interest by centralizing the gathering of information and, ultimately, resolving the cases more quickly," BFS said in a prepared statement.
In general, plaintiffs' attorneys with class-action lawsuits support consolidating the cases in one federal district, whereas most attorneys with individual tire cases want them tried separately.
There is disagreement between BFS and the class-action lawyers, however, concerning the desired venue for consolidation. Bridgestone/ Firestone said in its release that it would like the cases heard in federal district court in Chicago.
"The Bridgestone/Firestone division administering much of the recall is located in suburban Chicago, and the city is a centrally located transportation hub for those traveling from other locations," the company said.
Class-action lawyers, however, are said to prefer the federal court in East St. Louis, Ill., under Judge David Herndon, because Mr. Herndon was formerly a plaintiffs' attorney representing injured railroad workers.
Published estimates of the number of lawsuits brought against BFS so far range from about 80 to more than 200.