WASHINGTON-Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., which has quietly sought settlements of individual personal injury lawsuits involving recalled Firestone tires on the Ford Explorer and other vehicles, now is seeking to settle all of them.
The Nashville-based tire maker held preliminary talks April 25 with plaintiffs' attorneys on the possibility of fashioning an agreement to settle the hundreds of lawsuits outstanding against BFS, the company has confirmed. Further discussions are scheduled for mid-May.
Some of the news reports concerning the talks have been ``a bit out of proportion,'' according to a BFS spokeswoman. The company, she said, is ``open to discussions that are fair and reasonable to all parties.''
Crafting a settlement agreement would be a major coup for Bridgestone/Firestone, which is following a policy of settling as many of the cases related to the 6.5 million recalled ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires as it can. Those agreements normally contain confidentiality provisions to prevent the release of information that BFS claims is proprietary.
That the recall, with resulting litigation and bad publicity, has been expensive to BFS is beyond dispute.
The tire maker already has set aside $753 million in recall-related costs-$388 million for the recall itself and $463 million for its legal reserve, minus a $98 million offset BFS seeks from its product liability insurer, according to information on the company's Web site.
One item BFS insists is not included in the discussions is the possibility of extending the recall to other Firestone tire models.
That has not pleased C. Tab Turner, a Little Rock, Ark., plaintiffs' attorney and tire attorney of record for the plaintiffs' attorney Web site Safetyforum.com. He was quoted by the Associated Press as saying he will veto any settlement that doesn't include the recall of all 15- and 16-inch Wilderness tires. Safetyforum.com and Public Citizen are calling for the recall of this tire population-estimated at up to 10 million-claiming their data demonstrate that they are at least as prone to failure as the already recalled tires.
The BFS spokeswoman said that company information indicates otherwise. ``Our data show that the original recall in August was sufficient,'' she said. Neither Mr. Turner nor Bruce Kaster, an Ocala, Fla., plaintiffs' attorney who represents many plaintiffs against Bridgestone/Firestone, could be reached for comment.
The BFS spokeswoman said she could not estimate how many lawsuits have been filed against BFS regarding the recalled tires, or how many the tire maker has settled. ``That number changes daily,'' she said. The commonly given estimate for Firestone-related lawsuits is over 200-and some sources estimate that BFS may have settled as many as 100.
Two of the most recent lawsuits were filed in Nebraska and Utah. The first, filed in Dodge County, Neb., District Court, seeks unspecified damages against Ford and BFS in the rape and murder of 19-year-old Amy Stahlecker. She was fixing a flat Firestone tire on a 1997 Ford Explorer when she was attacked, and her family claims she would not have been placed in danger if the tire had not failed.
The second suit was filed in the 3rd Circuit Court of Utah by Steven Pantuso, a former tire salesman who seeks unspecified damages in the death of his father, Gildo ``Gil'' Pantuso.
Gil Pantuso and his friend Ralf ``Ed'' Jones were killed when a Firestone tire on Mr. Jones' Ford Ranger suffered a tire separation, causing Mr. Jones to lose control and crash.
Steven Pantuso also named Wayne's Tire Wholesale, a Salt Lake City Firestone distributor, as a defendant in the suit. Cary Self, owner-manager of Wayne's Tire, said he'd heard about the lawsuit only through news reports. ``I haven't been served (with court papers), and Bridgestone/Firestone hasn't been served,'' he said.
While giving their condolences to the families, and referring to the Stahlecker murder as ``an absolute tragedy,'' BFS said it is too soon to speculate on the cause of the tire failures. ``We take any accident that occurs with our tires very seriously,'' the BFS spokeswoman said.
Meanwhile, legislators in California and Nevada are sponsoring bills which would prohibit sealed court settlements.
The California bill had a committee hearing scheduled May 1, while the Nevada legislation-which would apply to cases that involve ``substantial bodily injury or death''-was stalled in the state senate by two senators who said the bill needed more work. The Nevada bill was a revised version of legislation originally introduced in 1991.
``We are committed to working closely with the states to provide information relevant to our products,'' the BFS spokeswoman said concerning the California and Nevada bills. ``The confidentiality agreements relate to proprietary information, and it's important for all companies to have confidential information.''