The quiet of the August congressional recess was interrupted on August 9 by Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., when it announced that, because of a safety-related defect, it would recall 6.5 million of its Firestone ATX tires and Wilderness AT tires. Members of Congress promptly issued statements pledging they would hold fact-finding hearings upon their return.
Firestone and Ford executives were summoned to Capitol Hill for answers. Lawmakers in the House and the Senate, Republicans and Democrats alike, wanted to know, to paraphrase me well-worn words of Watergate-era senator Howard Baker, "What did they know, and when did they know it?"
According to the Wall Street Journal, which reported on revelations from internal Firestone documents, "Bridgestone/ Firestone compiled evidence of tire safety problems at least eight months before its huge recall in the United States, but failed to take any action." Other evidence indicates the company knew as far back as 1996 that its tires contained a lethal defect.
In the past decade, more than 100 people died and hundreds were injured in Ford Explorer rollovers caused by Firestone tire failures. Suddenly issues that Congress had been debating for years, such as liability, responsibility and accountability, corporate record keeping, and court-sanctioned secrecy were cast in a new light, raising these issues to a new level in the conscience of the public and the Congress.
During the tire recall hearing that was held September 6 by the House Commerce Committee, committee member Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) said, "I am a pro-business Republican. I am married to an insurance defense attorney. We talk a lot about liability in our house, about tort reform ....But it seems to me I'm looking at a company that pays attention to claims data as it affects profit and loss and liability. And you have lost your way, and it's about time you fired your lawyers and started listening to your hearts and protecting the people of this country."
Throughout the hearings, Firestone was criticized for not reporting crucial information to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and the agency was criticized for being slow to investigate the tire company.
The agency Web site states that it is "responsible for reducing deaths, injuries, and economic losses resulting from motor vehicle crashes," "setting and enforcing safety performance standards for motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment," and "[investigating] safety defects in motor vehicles." The list of its responsibilities is long, but its enforcement powers come up short.
Other agencies, such as the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are authorized to seek criminal penalties against companies or individuals that threaten public health and safety with willful and reckless actions. While NHTSA has sought congressional action in the past to increase its authority, lawmakers were not interested. It took more than 100 deaths and the second-largest tire recall in history to generate the necessary interest.
Five bills were introduced on the Senate side, and two on the House side.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) sponsored the Transportation Information Recall Enhancement Act (S. 3012), a bill "to amend title 18, United States Code, to impose criminal and civil penalties for false statements and failure to file reports concerning defects in foreign motor vehicle products, and to require the timely provision of notice of such defects...."
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) proposed an amendment to title 18 with a bill (S. 3014) "to penalize the knowing and reckless introduction of a defective product into interstate commerce."
Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) called for a bill (S. 3061) to "require the president to negotiate an international agreement governing the recall by manufacturers of motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment-with safety-related defects...."
Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Cal.) and Herbert Kohl (D-Wis.) focused on sunshine in litigation in the Defective Product Penalty Act (S. 3070). Along with establishing criminal penalties for the distribution of defective products, the bill would "amend chapter 111 of title 28, United States Code, relating to protective orders, sealing of cases, and disclosures of discovery information in civil actions."
In the House, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) introduced H.R. 5164 and H.R. 5154, respectively. Hutchinson's bill includes imposing criminal and civil penalties for certain actions. His bill is cosponsored by conservative Republicans such as Brian Bilbray (R-Cal.), Jay Dickey (R-Ark.), and James Rogan (R-Cal.). (Rogan, coincidentally, is the chief sponsor of the Small Business Liability Reform Act of 2000, which has, at its core, a limit on punitive damages.)
The bill with the most traction, however, as Congress headed into the final two weeks prior to adjournment, was Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) Motor Vehicle and Motor Vehicle Equipment Defect Notification Improvement Act (S. 3059), it would "require motor vehicle and motor vehicle equipment manufacturers to obtain information and maintain records about potential safety defects in their foreign products that may affect the safety of vehicles and equipment in the United States." Among other things, the bill establishes both civil and criminal penalties for failure to comply with the act.
Regardless of possible Senate action, the magnitude of the unfolding Firestone/Ford debacle has registered in the halls of Congress. The issue will linger, not only into the new year, but into future debates that revolve around issues of tort "reform."
Kristin Loiacono is media relations coordinator for ATLA.
In the past decade, more than 100 people died and hundreds more were injured in Ford Explorer rollovers caused by Firestone tire failures.
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|Date:||Nov 1, 2000|
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