WASHINGTON (Nov. 3, 2000) — Bridgestone/Firestone once again faced a grab-bag of issues related to its recall of 6.5 million tires, as:
* A federal judicial panel consolidated 62 product liability lawsuits against BFS in the court of an Indianapolis federal judge;
* Ford Motor Co. revealed that it will give purchasers of the 2002 Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer a choice between Firestone and ``non-Firestone´´ original equipment tires, but not between the Goodyear and Michelin tires, which are the alternatives;
* A team of Mexican lawyers said it will name GM as well as Ford vehicles in lawsuits in which they allege Firestone tire failures caused the deaths of more than 50 Mexican motorists; and
* An Associated Press story stated that the Arizona Department of Public Safety had system-wide problems with Firestone Steeltex tires as early as 1998, but failed to contact the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about them.
The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation ruled Oct. 24 to consolidate the pending Firestone cases in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana under Chief Judge Sarah Evans Barker.
Bridgestone/Firestone originally wanted the consolidation to occur in a Chicago federal court, because of its central location and proximity to distribution points for Firestone tires. Plaintiffs´ attorneys, on the other hand, wanted the multidistrict litigation in the court of an East St. Louis, Ill., federal judge who is a former plaintiffs´ attorney himself.
With the announcement of the Indianapolis MDL, however, BFS said it was ``pleased´´ by the consolidation. The tire maker said it ``will help to streamline the entire process,´´ particularly in the gathering of information.
Ms. Barker showed she was serious about the streamlining process Oct. 26, when she issued a stay on discovery for the consolidated cases ``until case management plans have been made, unless persuasive, exigent circumstances demand otherwise.´´
With the stay, Ms. Barker stopped the deposition of BFS Chairman and CEO John Lampe in one of the pending lawsuits. Stating that Mr. Lampe´s evidence would ``overlap substantially if he were deposed substantially in each case,´´ Ms. Barker ruled that deposing Mr. Lampe piecemeal ``threatens to undermine the purpose of multidistrict litigation.´´
Meanwhile, the team of Mexican lawyers who announced litigation against BFS said it would extend its original batch of lawsuits against the company.
International Legal Services, a Monterrey, Mexico-based firm, originally said it had evidence of 32 deaths on Mexican roads attributable to tread separations of Firestone tires on Ford Explorers. On Oct. 27, however, an attorney with the law firm told Reuters that he knew of 22 deaths and 15 injuries occurring from failures of Firestone FR480 tires on GM Suburbans and Silverados.
BFS dismissed the Mexican attorney´s charges in a prepared statement. ``Firestone and General Motors have a long history of outstanding performance in Mexico,´´ the company said. ``We disagree that there is a tire design problem as alleged by the lawyer who orchestrated the press conference in Mexico.´´
A GM spokesman declined comment on the Mexican situation. ``We haven´t really gotten anything from them at all,´´ he said.
Just across the border from Mexico, Joe Albo, director of the Arizona Department of Public Safety in 1998, moved to replace Firestone Steeltex tires with Goodyear tires on agency vehicles because of concerns over tread separations, according to an AP story dated Oct. 27.
But although the agency contacted the Arizona Department of Administration for reimbursement of the cost of replacing the tires, it never notified either NHTSA or the public about its concerns, the story said.
``Everybody would have been better off if all along a very bright light had been shone on this problem,´´ the story quoted former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods as saying. ``It seems that they took a very short-term, practical approach to this and didn´t look at the safety ramifications.´´
The Arizona Department of Administration provided Tire Business with a Dec. 18, 1998, letter by Ralph I. Gratz, chief of the Agency Support Bureau for the Arizona Department of Public Safety, requesting $210,000 to cover the cost of replacing Firestone with Goodyear tires on 600 vehicles.
Between October 1997 and December 1998, DPS vehicles ``experienced five tire failure events, severe enough to cause extensive vehicle damage and/or injuries,´´ Mr. Gratz wrote. ``Investigation by DPS Fleet Management Staff has found no evidence that would suggest the failures were due to road hazards or improper maintenance.´´
Mr. Gratz´s request was declined, a spokeswoman for the Department of Administration said. ``It´s like an insurance claim,´´ she said. ``The insurance company won´t pay for the replacement of your tires, but it will pay for the damage to your vehicle caused by a tire blowing out.´´
A BFS spokeswoman said she had no knowledge of the Arizona DPS action in 1998. ``We replaced Firestone tires with Firestone tires, not with Goodyear tires,´´ she said, referring to a ``customer satisfaction´´ program BFS undertook in 1996 to satisfy complaints from the Arizona Fish & Game Department.
The tire maker, finding that the Fish & Game Department had bought Firestone passenger tires for mostly off-road vehicles, gave the department credits toward the purchase of special service tires. Mr. Lampe discussed this program in Sept. 12 testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee.
Ford, meanwhile, has long made it known it will offer motorists a choice between Firestone and other OE tires on the 2002 Explorer and Mountaineer. It has also confirmed that Goodyear has joined Michelin North America Inc. as a supplier to the model.
If customers demand non-Firestone tires, they will not be given a choice between Goodyear and Michelin, but will get one or the other depending on the specific model of Explorer or Mountaineer, according to a Ford spokeswoman. ``We will have two choices for customers for any given tire,´´ she said.
``We knew this was happening,´´ the BFS spokeswoman said, adding that the company never comments on how its customers choose to implement their customer choice programs.