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Tire defects targeted in litigation and recall.

Following the voluntary recall by Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., of selected models of its SUV tires, litigation against the company has escalated. At least four nationwide class actions have been filed against the company relating to the August recall of Firestone's ATX, ATX II, and Wilderness AT tires. In addition, a dozen state class actions have been filed--including suits in California, Florida, Kentucky, and Maryland. Some of these suits list Ford Motor Co. as co-defendant, because the recalled tires are standard equipment on the Ford Explorer and several Ford pickup trucks.

Individual consumer litigation against both Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford is also expected to increase, plaintiff attorneys say. According to news reports, injured motorists and their families have brought over 100 suits against Ford and Firestone since 1992, including at least 10 complaints about tread separation that the companies have settled.

In addition, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) launched an investigation last May into the causes of tread separation. The agency is investigating more than 750 complaints that allege a link between the tires and at least 88 deaths and 250 injuries. On September 1, NHTSA issued a consumer advisory regarding an additional 1.4 million Firestone tires. The U.S. Justice Department is also reviewing the recall to determine whether criminal charges are warranted.

Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) has called for investigative hearings into why NHTSA didn't detect the problems earlier, how soon Firestone officials noticed a problem with their product, and why Ford didn't publicize its decision to replace Firestone tires on its vehicles overseas last year. Hearings were also scheduled in the House of Representatives.

Much of the blame for the defective tires has been focused on a Firestone plant in Decatur, Illinois. Six former workers have testified in suits against the company, alleging quality-control problems in the mid-1990s. The company defends the quality of work at the Decatur plant and has--in both the media and the lawsuits against it--blamed motorists for abusing the tires and keeping them underinflated.

However, according to plaintiff attorneys handling litigation against the company, the wave of tread-separation failures was caused by the defective design of these tires and improper manufacturing practices. Bruce Kaster, an Ocala, Florida, attorney, maintains that the failures were the result of the lack of nylon safety belts in the tires. "Properly constructed tires should never fail from underinflation. Underinflation only exacerbates the design defects and manufacturing problems," he said.

"The recall is a step in the right direction," Kaster added, "but it is wholly inadequate, because the replacement tires still don't have nylon safety belts. Replacing the tires only slightly delays the failures."

In addition, he insisted that broadening the recall will not resolve the problem, "because Firestone hasn't incorporated the design changes that would fix the problem."

Tab Turner, a Little Rock, Arkansas, attorney who is also handling cases involving the tires, is concerned because the recall "has been handled horribly by both Ford and Firestone from a consumer information standpoint. Consumers are confused, have insufficient information to make informed choices for their families, and are unable to get quick replacement tires."

Kaster added that the companies' efforts to avoid blame for the tire failures will end up costing them down the road. "This opens up a whole new area of discovery," he said. "We are going to pursue discovery against these people who are making these claims in the media."

On August 9, Bridgestone/Firestone announced that it would voluntarily recall 6.5 million Firestone tires that had been linked to numerous accidents and at least 88 fatalities nationwide. The tires being recalled are the 15-inch models of Firestone's ATX and ATX II tires and the Wilderness AT tires manufactured at Firestone's Decatur, Illinois, plant. In addition to the Ford Explorer, these tires are sold on some vehicles made by General Motors, Mazda, Nissan, Toyota, and Subaru.

Pressure to expand recall

The company has been under pressure to expand or modify the recall. The Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C., filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, claiming that all Firestone radial ATX, ATX II, and Wilderness AT tires are defective, not just the 15-inch models. The suit seeks a court order to widen the recall to include the 16-inch models.

The attorney general of Florida is investigating civil RICO charges against the company. In addition, South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon filed suit against Bridgestone/Firestone on August 14, claiming the company's plans to stagger distribution of replacements for recalled tires violates the state's Unfair Trade Practices Act. Attorneys general from other states, including Georgia, Nevada, New York, and North Carolina, are also considering suits.

Turner said the recall "is good in the sense that it finally accomplishes the removal of some of the bad tires off the roadway, but it is bad in that it is far too late in coming and it is not sufficiently broad. Unfortunately, [this] may result in additional litigation for those consumers who are led to believe that it is safe to continue to operate vehicles with the bad tires."
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Author:Jurand, Sara Hoffman
Publication:Trial
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2000
Words:854
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