WASHINGTON-Ford Motor Co. said it was ``too early to say'' whether it will sue Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. to recoup the estimated $3 billion cost of its unilateral recall of 13 million Firestone Wilderness AT tires last May.
Ford's legal claims for reimbursement-should it make them-would be bolstered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Oct. 4 call for a further recall of Wilderness tires, although BFS continues to claim that the auto maker's replacement program was unwarranted.
At the same time, Ford denied a story in the New York Times that its CEO, Jacques Nasser, will leave or be forced to leave the company by the end of the year. It also said that recent news reports of settled Ford Explorer/Firestone tire cases were ``misleading'' because the cases were actually settled months ago.
Bridgestone/Firestone, for its part, confirmed a report from Tokyo that Bridgestone Corp. will take a charge against earnings of up to $30 million for recalling another 768,000 tires at NHTSA's behest.
Those tires-the estimated surviving number of approximately 3.5 million pinpointed by NHTSA-allegedly have a tendency to develop weak spots around their circumference. The safety agency has tied them to approximately 50 injuries and 25 fatalities, raising to 271 the number of fatalities NHTSA has traced to Firestone tires.
All these tires were already covered under Ford's 13-million-tire recall, the auto maker confirmed. Although stopping short in May of calling them defective, Ford said its research showed the tires it recalled had been shown by Ford's own research to have an unacceptably high failure rate as they aged.
BFS reacted to Ford's decision by ending immediately its 95-year run as an original equipment supplier to the auto maker. The following month, it began releasing to NHTSA test data from Dennis Guenther, an Ohio State University engineering professor, which it said indicated that the design of the Ford Explorer was at least as culpable as Firestone tires in fatal rollover accidents.
Since May there has been widespread speculation that Ford would try to make BFS and its parent, Bridgestone Corp., pay at least part of the recall costs. The speculation received fresh fuel Oct. 11, when the Financial Times reported that Ford might file suit against Bridgestone to recoup expenses. The newspaper also reported that Ford officials had been in talks with Bridgestone President Shigeo Watanabe about possible reimbursement of recall costs.
``It's too early to say what action will be taken,'' a Ford spokeswoman said. ``We always prefer negotiations, rather than any kind of court action.''
A Bridgestone/Firestone spokeswoman said the Nashville, Tenn.-based Bridgestone subsidiary has heard nothing about a possible Ford lawsuit.
Regarding NHTSA's complaints that it needed more information from BFS before it could consider an investigation of the Ford Explorer, she said the company continues to send the agency Mr. Guenther's ongoing findings as they become available. Its last submission was in August, she added.
A Ford spokesman refused to comment on the New York Times report that Mr. Nasser would no longer be Ford CEO by the beginning of 2002. The article quoted ``a person close to the company'' as saying the executive's ouster was near.
The article cited the tire recall, the ongoing feud with BFS, Ford's current financial straits and Mr. Nasser's low popularity among Ford dealers as possible factors working against him. In July, Ford Chairman William Clay Ford created an office of the chairman and chief executive, forcing Mr. Nasser to share power.
It speculated that either Mr. Ford himself or Nicholas V. Scheele, appointed in August as head of Ford's North American operations, were the most likely candidates to succeed Mr. Nasser.
The Financial Times and New York Times articles appeared as legal action continued in personal injury cases related to Ford Explorers equipped with Firestone tires.
In Indianapolis, U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker delayed a hearing on whether a federal class-action lawsuit should be certified against Ford and Firestone.
Judge Barker made her ruling Oct. 10, the day before the hearing was to begin, because she wanted time to consider new information submitted by plaintiffs' attorneys. The new hearing date is Nov. 16.
Also, Montgomery, Ala., plaintiffs' attorney Jere Beasley announced a confidential settlement Oct. 16 with Ford and Firestone.
The case involved a Ford Explorer rollover accident that injured Cindy Geidner and her 14-year-old daughter Jessica.