Bridgestone/Firestone in settlement talks to end tire lawsuits

Wednesday, April 25th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. disclosed Wednesday it is holding settlement talks with attorneys representing hundreds of victims of accidents involving Firestone tires.

Company spokeswoman Jill Bratina and Tab Turner, a Little Rock, Ark., lawyer representing some of the victims, characterized the talks as very preliminary. The next session is scheduled for mid-May.

``We're always open to discussions that include a fair and reasonable settlement for all involved,'' Bratina said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has collected reports of at least 174 fatalities and more than 700 injuries among more than 6,000 complaints citing tread separations, blowouts and other problems with certain Firestone tires. NHTSA is investigating the tires but is not expected to announce its findings until at least August.

Most of the accidents involved rollovers of the Ford Explorer, the world's top-selling sport utility vehicle, on which Firestone tires were standard equipment.

The tires also have been linked to at least seven deaths in the Middle East and 46 in Venezuela. Ford Motor Co. replaced Firestone tires in those countries with Goodyear tires months before Bridgestone/Firestone issued a recall last August. Critics have said Ford should have notified U.S. authorities about the foreign recall so the domestic probe could have begun sooner.

Dozens of cases brought against Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone already have been settled, but many more remain. The talks are the first attempt to reach a broader settlement and could affect the more than 300 cases combined in the Indianapolis courtroom of U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker.

Bridgestone/Firestone has set aside $750 million to cover the cost of the recall and potential legal liabilities. Ford disclosed in its annual report that the lawsuits sought damages of at least $590 million.

Turner said Ford has refused to be involved in the talks. Ford spokesman Ken Zino declined to comment on the lawsuits, but said the automaker is working with NHTSA on its investigation.

Turner, who already has settled several tire lawsuits for more than $100 million, said the talks are broad and no details for a settlement have been discussed.

Turner insisted there would be no settlement unless Bridgestone/Firestone agrees to expand its recall of 6.5 million Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires.

Bridgestone/Firestone maintains the recall announced last summer is adequate.

Turner appeared at a news conference Wednesday to release a report that puts most of the blame for the accidents on Ford. The watchdog group Public Citizen and, a group of attorneys for tire victims, say the report is the ``consumer reply to the official Ford/Firestone story.''

Both companies have analyzed what caused the tires to fail and concluded it was a problem with the design and a unique manufacturing process at Bridgestone/Firestone's plant in Decatur, Ill.

But the Public report said Ford created the tire specifications, recommended a lower inflation pressure than suggested by Bridgestone/Firestone and had a poor Explorer design that made it difficult for motorists to control the vehicle when a tire failed.

``Although Firestone's role in the debacle cannot be downplayed, the root of the problem lies with Ford Motor Company,'' the report asserted.

The report calls on the companies to recall all 15- and 16-inch Wilderness AT tires and estimates the total to be 16.5 million.

Firestone's recall is limited to 15-inch Wilderness AT tires made at its plant in Decatur and all 15-inch ATX and ATX II tires.

``We stand behind our root-cause analysis ... and we feel the recall was more than adequate to protect the public,'' Bratina said.