HILTON HEAD, S.C. (April 2, 2002)—“No one and everyone was to blame for what happened” in the deadly tread separations of Firestone tires on Ford Explorers, according to a speaker at the Clemson Tire Conference.
While no one set out to make a defective product, the resulting 6.5-million-tire recall and public relations fiasco is something the tire industry as a whole is paying for through increased regulation and litigation, according to Michael Krauss, professor of law at George Mason University, Arlington, Va.
“A long series of design and manufacturing decisions by two companies was taken,” Mr. Krauss said at the March 20-22 conference. Each decision was understandable and maybe even defensible. The combination was not even particularly dangerous unless misused, which of course it was. When added to the misuse, what you have in the extreme southern states was a vehicle that was potentially quite dangerous.”
When Ford Motor Co. first brought out the prototype Explorer in 1989, it insisted on P235-size tires because consumers liked the high ride, although tires of that size made the vehicle unstable, according to Mr. Krauss.
“Given this tire choice…Ford engineers listed three options for improving the stability of the SUV: widening the chassis by two inches; lowering the engine in the engine bay; or lowering tire pressure and stiffening springs,” he said. “Ford chose the last option…This was not an unreasonable choice, in my opinion, given the tradeoffs and if consumers actually did inflate their tires to 26 psi.”
For cost reasons, Ford also ordered Firestone tires with “C” temperature ratings, when most other manufacturers of sport-utility vehicles were specifying tires with “B” ratings. When rollovers started to occur in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, Mr. Krauss said, the company replaced the Firestone tires in those countries with “B” rated tires, but made no similar move in the U.S.
Bridgestone/Firestone, meanwhile, had its own problems. “Just as the Explorer was a cash cow for Ford, so it was for Firestone,” Mr. Krauss said. “While it was struggling to keep up with the insatiable demand for its Explorer tires, it was also quite aggressive in its labor relations.”
Mr. Krauss quoted the Princeton study that said tires made at Firestone's Decatur, Ill., plant during the 1994-95 strike were nearly four times as likely to fail as tires made at other company facilities. Firestone also supplied, with Ford's knowledge, tires for the Explorer without nylon cap plies, though it knew the SUV tread separation rate with the cap ply was three to five times lower than without, he said.
Added to this was the abuse Explorer drivers heaped on their tires and their inexperience with vehicles with high centers of gravity, according to Mr. Krauss. The result was 271 dead and more than 800 injured; Bridgestone Corp. losing more than 50 percent of its market capitalization; Ford stock losing about 50 percent of its value; and Ford having to discount the 2002 Explorer because Explorers have lost 12 percent of their resale value, he said.
Ford claimed exoneration when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration refused to instigate a safety investigation of the Explorer, but NHTSA's decision won't help in personal injury lawsuits, according to Mr. Krauss.
“If NHTSA had decided to investigate, that would have been used against Ford in court,” he said. “But their refusal to investigate isn't necessarily a de-fense, because any plaintiffs' attorney worth his salt can find a witness who claims there's a defect.”
Even when the company isn't at fault, the deck is stacked against corporations in product liability suits, according to Mr. Krauss. He cited a case in which the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld a $12 million judgment against Continental A.G. in a case in which a family drove underinflated 10-year-old Conti snow tires on an overloaded van from Wisconsin to Florida.
“Was this verdict ridiculous? Yes. But cases like this are almost never reviewed on appeal,” he said. “It's almost impossible to get a judge to take a decision like this from a jury, and in cases like these it's always grievously injured in-state plaintiffs vs. out-of-state defendants in three-piece suits.”