NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Oct. 27, 2000)—Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. faced more controversy this week, including the advent of new legal battles and a renewed campaign from Ford Motor Co. to prove that BFS alone was responsible for both companies´ current troubles.
BFS was mum about an Oct. 23 report from Ford Motor de Venezuela saying that of 367 Venezuelan-made, recalled Firestone Wilderness AT tires sampled at random, 19 percent were defective.
"Those are Ford´s numbers, and we don´t have access to what they´re looking at, so we don´t have a comment," a Bridgestone/Firestone spokesman said.
As for a safety Web site´s accusations that all Firestone Wilderness AT tires—not just the recalled 15-inch tires from the BFS plant in Decatur, Ill.—are defective, a BFS spokewoman said it is "a plaintiffs´ attorneys´ Web site whose members have a vested interest in saying such things."
The tire maker said it had "no specific information" about lawsuits filed in Mexico City by an attorney who claimed failures of Firestone tires had caused 28 deaths in Mexico. But it did confirm that it had reached a settlement with the children of a Texas couple who were killed in the crash of a Ford Explorer equipped with Firestone ATX tires.
Also, an interim report issued by a team of Bridgestone Corp. engineers showed no major development or production problems at BFS manufacturing facilities in North America, Bridgestone Chairman Yoichiro Kaizaki told reporters in Tokyo. A BFS spokeswoman in Nashville did not immediately know if copies of the interim report had been made available to the public.
Ford Motor de Venezuela and Bridgestone/Firestone Venezolana have for the past several months been under the scrutiny of INDECU, the Venezuelan consumer protection agency, for allegedly causing the deaths of 46 Venezuelan motorists. The agency has recommended that criminal charges be brought against both companies.
In September, Bridgestone/Firestone agreed to replace 62,000 mismarked Wilderness tires manufactured and sold in Venezuela. This came 13 months after Ford began a "consumer satisfaction" campaign to replace the Wilderness tires on approximately 40,000 Explorers in Venezuela with Goodyear Wranglers.
Ford´s latest assertions extend the acrimony between the two companies in Venezuela—stemming from BFS supplying Wilderness tires which lacked the extra nylon ply Ford specified, and from Ford´s refusal of BFS´ suggestion to modify the suspensions on Venezuelan Explorers.
Of the sampled tires Ford has examined, 21.7 percent of the 16-inch tires had tread separations of an inch or greater, the auto maker said. The 15-inch tires had a slightly smaller rate of separations, at 16 percent.
Ford´s announcement came on the heels of an Oct. 19 announcement by the Mexico City law firm Servicios Legales Internationales that it was filing suit on behalf of the 28 motorists killed and 32 seriously injured in the crash of 30 sport-utility vehicles fitted with Firestone tires.
The accidents occurred mainly in Mexico City and the states of Jalisco, Guanajuato, Chihuahua and Nuevo Leon, according to Rafael Alday, an attorney for SLI.
The day after the Mexican suits were filed, Bridgestone/Firestone reached a verbal settlement with Ryan and Kimberly Guillen, whose mother and stepfather, Nidia and Patricio Leal, were killed in May 1999 when a Firestone ATX tire on their Ford Explorer came apart.
In their wrongful death suit filed in the Starr County, Texas, District Court, the Guillens claimed the tire was defective. BFS argued in its answering brief that driver negligence and alterations to the tire were to blame. The trial had been set to begin Nov. 13.
Both sides said final agreement on the settlement was imminent. Neither revealed its terms.
Bridgestone/Firestone Chairman and CEO John Lampe reported Oct. 17 that his company had replaced more than 4.2 million of the 6.5 million recalled Firestone ATX and Wilderness AT tires, and planned to finish up the replacements by the end of November.
At the same time, Mr. Lampe said, the company has been hard at work to uncover the root causes of the problems with those tires. Among those working on that issue is a team of engineers from Bridgestone headquarters in Tokyo, which toured BFS´ North American manufacturing facilities to study quality and production issues there.
It was this team´s interim report that sparked Mr. Kaizaki´s comments about the evidence showing no signs of development or production problems at BFS, the company spokeswoman said. Originally, before a translation of Mr. Kaizaki´s remarks was available, BFS officials thought he was referring to the interim report issued Oct. 16 by Sanjay Govindjee, an engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
In his report, Mr. Govindjee said the evidence "points to a slowly developing fatigue crack that propagates through the belt wedge material." The problem is a "quite complex interaction of the effects of tire design...the manufacturability of the tire...and loading conditions," he wrote.
Mr. Kaizaki´s happy news was contradicted by an Oct. 25 release from Safetyforum.com, the safety Web site funded by plaintiffs´ attorneys.
By analyzing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration´s file of more than 3,500 complaints, the Web site said, it had determined that Wilderness tires made at the BFS plant in Wilson, N.C., had five times the number of tread separation reports against them as the recalled 15-inch Wilderness tires from Decatur.
"Canadian-made" Wilderness tires—presumably made at the BFS facility in Joliette, Quebec—had double the complaints of the Decatur tires, according to Safetyforum.com.
The Web site has contended since the BFS recall began Aug. 9 that the Decatur plant was being used as a scapegoat and the Wilderness tire was inherently defective.
"While NHTSA is studying Tire Mechanics 101, people are dying," said Tab Turner, Safetyforum.com´s legal counsel for tires, in a press release. "The time has come for the agency to quit pandering to the industry and do something to help the consumer."
Mr. Turner also noted the latest accident report involving a Ford Explorer fitted with Firestone tires. In that Oct. 25 accident, Michelle Simmons, a 32-year-old pregnant woman, was seriously injured in an accident on Interstate 95 in Florida. Officials at the Orlando Regional Medical Center said both she and her unborn baby would recover.
"How many more people have to die and how many more families have to suffer before these two companies act responsibly and ethically by getting the bad tires off the road?" Mr. Turner asked.
A NHTSA spokesman said the agency never comments on continuing investigations.