NASHVILLE, Tenn.—As it continued to move toward completion of its massive tire recall, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. faced more controversy, 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 BFS spokesman said.
At the same time, the tire maker said it was "pleased" that a federal panel issued an order Oct. 24 to consolidate 62 Ford/BFS lawsuits in 29 federal district courts to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, under Sarah Evans Barker, the Indiana court's chief judge.
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.
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, BFS agreed to replace 62,000 mismarked Wilderness tires manufactured and sold in Venezuela—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 that 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 28 motorists killed and 32 seriously injured in crashes of 30 sport-utility vehicles fitted with Firestone tires, 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. Neither side revealed its terms.
BFS 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.
He also said the firm has worked hard to uncover the root causes of the tire problems. 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.
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, a 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 from 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 AT 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.
"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.
Regarding the Oct. 24 ruling to consolidate the 62 cases by the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, a BFS spokeswoman said the consolidation is "the most efficient way" to proceed with the issue. The consolidation "will help to streamline the entire process," she said.
On Oct. 26, Judge Barker moved to end all discovery in the massed lawsuits "until case management plans have been made, unless persuasive, exigent circumstances demand otherwise."
Judge Barker made her ruling after the deposition of BFS' Mr. Lampe began in one of the cases. "Because the evidence produced by Mr. Lampe likely would overlap substiantially if he were deposed separately for each case, it is better to conserve the resources of the parties and their counsel by waiting until a combined plan for conserving his testimony can be organized," she wrote.