WASHINGTON (July 5, 2001)—The Fourth of July found Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. facing not only 10 new personal injury lawsuits, but also a suit from Sears, Roebuck and Co. demanding that BFS keep its promise to pay tire-related damage awards and legal costs related to the recall of Firestone light truck tires.
Meanwhile, Continental Tire North America (CTNA) Inc. felt obliged to defend the General Ameri 550AS radial tire from a disparaging news report that it had an unusually high tread separation claims rate. The Ameri 550AS—one of the replacement tires Ford Motor Co. is using for the Firestone Wilderness AT—apparently is one of 11 of those the House Energy and Commerce Committee identified as having an elevated claims rate. A committee spokesman, however, refused to confirm this.
The Jacksonville law firm of Pajcic & Pajcic filed 10 lawsuits on behalf of 13 plaintiffs June 28 against BFS and Ford. The same day, a Jacksonville TV station interviewed some of the plaintiffs about their grievances against the companies and the extent of their injuries.
Steve Pajcic, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, could not be reached for comment. A Bridgestone/Firestone spokeswoman said the company could not speak specifically to the new cases, but added: “We take very seriously any accident that occurs on our tires, and our sympathies go out to those involved and their families. But accidents happen for a number of reasons, and that will have to be determined in a court of law.”
Meanwhile, on June 21 Sears filed a motion before Judge Sarah Evans Barker of the Indianapolis federal district court. The judge has more than 200 Ford-Firestone personal injury lawsuits consolidated in her court, and Sears wants her to order BFS to honor an agreement to indemnify Sears in case of losses related to tread separation in Firestone tires.
Sears has been named as a co-defendant in 11 lawsuits with Ford and BFS. In eight of those, Sears sold the failed tires to customers, a Sears spokesman said.
The contract Sears signed with BFS in 1997 contains an indemnity clause stating that Sears will not be responsible for any costs or damages related to deaths or injuries caused by BFS-made tires.
“We are asking that that clause be honored,” the Sears spokesman said. “I wouldn't read too much into this. This is simply a matter of litigation, and I'm sure each side will do what is best for their company.”
Sears has “a good relationship with Firestone,” he added, “and we are optimistic we can come to an agreement.” The spokesman didn't know if any court hearings were scheduled in the matter, or whether Ms. Barker had a deadline to rule on the motion.
The Bridgestone/Firestone spokeswoman acknowledged the indemnity clause in the Sears contract, but said the tire maker is taking every lawsuit “on a case-by-case basis.” As the cases progress, she said, “we will be making determinations, and will certainly be honoring our contracts if the responsibility resides with us.”
There was no word on how many Firestone tires Sears sells annually, or what percentage Sears has of the Firestone-brand replacement market. The BFS spokeswoman told the Associated Press, however, that Sears is not one of Firestone's largest dealers.
Ford recalled 13 million Firestone Wilderness AT tires May 22. One of the tire models the auto maker certified for replacement of the Wilderness tires is the 16-inch General Ameri 550AS, which is used as original equipment on the Ford F150 pickup truck.
The week of June 19, the House Energy and Commerce Committee revealed data that showed 11 of Ford's replacement tire models had tread separation claims rates higher than five per million—the benchmark figure Ford used to justify the recall against Firestone.
One tire model had a reported claims rate of 124.4 per million, but the committee refused to identify the model because it came from the tire maker's proprietary information. On June 29, the Washington Post ran an article identifying the General Ameri 550AS as the model.
A committee spokesman declined to confirm or deny that report. “That didn't come from us,” he said. Meanwhile, CTNA said the entire issue had become overblown.
“We want to emphasize that parts-per-million is only one measure of a tire's quality, and a minor one,” a Conti spokeswoman said. “It is really important to emphasize this is not the crucial number everyone should be looking at.”
Conti “could never confirm that number” regarding claims rates with the committee, the spokeswoman added. “Everyone is looking at that data differently,” she said. “They're not comparing apples with apples.”
Many sources—including other tire makers and the committee itself—have also warned against taking too much stock in the claims data alone. The strongest warning came from Donald B. Shea, president of the Rubber Manufacturers Association, who said in a press release that the tire industry has no definition of property damage claims or accepted average for an appropriate claims rate on tires.
“Property damage claims and the associated claims rate have not, do not, and can not define the safety of a tire,” Mr. Shea said. “U.S. tire makers actually use a number of indicators when determining if a process of post-manufacturing study, testing, analysis and evaluation of a tire is warranted.”