FIRESTONE chief John Lampe blames Ford; says tread separation didn't cause rollover

Saturday, August 18th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

McALLEN, Texas (AP) _ Testifying in a $1 billion lawsuit against his company, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. chief executive John Lampe said Ford Motor Co. was solely to blame for a rollover accident that left a woman brain damaged and paralyzed.

Lampe admitted Friday on the stand that there were flaws with some Firestone tires causing tread to separate, but he said the separation would not by itself cause a vehicle to roll over.

``We take responsibility for our tires, and tires are part of the issue, but doggone it, we have to look at the vehicles,'' Lampe said. ``All manufacturers see separations in their tires. Separation is not the cause of the problem; it's a result of something.''

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Dr. Joel Rodriguez, who along with his wife and son were passengers in a Ford Explorer his brother was driving on a Mexican toll road when it blew a tire and rolled over last year. Rodriguez's 39-year-old wife, Marisa, now requires a wheelchair and must be fed through a tube.

Last summer, Firestone recalled 6.5 million tires, many of which were standard on Ford Explorers. The recalled tires have been linked to at least 203 deaths and 700 injuries. In May, Ford Motor Co. said it would replace 13 million more Firestone tires.

Firestone has settled more than 150 cases, mostly involving tires on Explorers, for undisclosed sums. Attorneys for Rodriguez have already settled their case against Ford for $6 million.

On the stand Friday, Lampe said 42 of 43 rollovers involving Ford Explorers in Venezuela were on competitor's tires. Bridgestone/Firestone has said its tires were made according to specifications set by Ford and that tread separations do not cause rollovers.

When asked by Judge Filemon Vela if tread separation was the result of a problem with Ford Explorers, Lampe said company research so far was inconclusive.

``One of the things that mystifies us is that so many of these accidents happen on the rear,'' Lampe said. ``Could there be something on the vehicle that causes the tread to separate more on the rear and more on the left rear?''

Earlier Friday, Rodriguez told jurors that his wife's eyes ``no longer shine'' and his children, including 4-year-old Joel Jr., are now uncomfortable around their mother.

``He wouldn't even climb up to the bed or be near her because he was scared. He would tell me that 'my mama is dead,''' Rodriguez said.

Company attorney Tony Canales used Mexican police reports taken weeks after the accident to try to cast doubt on Rodriguez's memory of it. Rodriguez had told Mexican police he was asleep at the time of the accident, waking up only when he heard a loud noise and seeing what he thought was a tire fly by.

Initially, Rodriguez blamed the tire failure on a broken axle.

Marisa Rodriguez was wheeled to the stand and provided nods and slow ``yes'' answers when Canales asked if she wished she could play with her children.