Lawsuits cite problems at plant that made recalled tires

Sunday, August 13th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

The Firestone plant in Illinois that manufactured many of the 6.5 million tires recalled last week was rife with quality control problems in the mid-1990s, with workers using questionable tactics to speed production and managers giving short shrift to inspections, according to testimony of former employees in lawsuits against company.

The Decatur plant was singled out last week by company officials as being "over-represented" in the complaints and crash claims linked Wednesday to the recalled Firestone ATX and Wilderness tires.

Many of the ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires recalled by Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., a subsidiary of the Japan-based Bridgestone Corp., came as standard equipment on top-selling Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicles, after the federal government began investigating tire failures in accidents that killed 46 people and injured 80. The company said it did not know what caused those tires to fail in these cases.

In court records reviewed by The Washington Post, former workers who testified or who are scheduled to testify alleged that:

Decatur workers engaged in practices, such as puncturing bubbles on tires, to cover up flaws on products that should have been scrapped.

Conditions in the plant, particularly high humidity from a lack of air conditioning in some areas, made it more likely that corrosion would occur on the brass-coated steel in the steel-belted radial tires.

Employees had powerful financial incentives to release botched tires.

And to meet stringent quotas, inspections of finished tires were often virtually nonexistent, two of the workers said in testimony for a lawsuit that Firestone settled for $375,000 last month in federal court in Manhattan.

"If you get behind on the lines, some of the tires pass without being inspected," retired Firestone employee Joe Roundtree, who worked at the plant from 1965 to 1996, said in a sworn deposition on Dec. 16 in Decatur.

That testimony involved a tire for passenger cars that was not recalled. But the workers' testimony was not unique to that type of tire, which was made during the same period that Firestone ATXs were produced at Decatur.

Bridgestone/Firestone on Saturday adamantly defended the quality of the work in the Decatur plant.

Plaintiffs' attorneys call the allegations a significant development in their cases because the claims undercut a key defense for Bridgestone/Firestone: In virtually all of the more than 100 lawsuits filed against Bridgestone/Firestone, the company has blamed the motorist for abusing the tires – driving over roadway debris that punctured the tires, which allowed moisture to get in and caused the leakage of air.

Company officials accused the two workers who have already testified of being disgruntled former employees.

Six workers are scheduled to testify in 10 days about the same practices in a Florida lawsuit filed over a traffic accident involving a 1996 Ford Explorer riding on ATX tires made in Decatur, in which two people were killed. Medhat Labib and his family were traveling on Interstate 95 last October when an ATX tire blew.

Bridgestone/Firestone denied the workers' charges and aggressively questioned them in pretrial depositions. Company attorneys forced them to acknowledge that they had received several quality reprimands during their lengthy careers, court records show.

The workers also had been active in the local union, which staged a bitter strike in 1994 and 1995. All six employees left in 1995 or 1996.

Attorney Bruce Kaster, who subpoenaed the former employees to testify, staunchly defended the workers, saying they were paid based on whether they met production quotas imposed under onerous circumstances.

Clarence Wood, who worked at the plant until 1996, said in a signed statement that workers, who were paid on a piecework salary program, protested that quality was being sacrificed.

"When inspectors complained about tires not being right, the response from management would be, "You don't understand the tire business,'" he said. "We knew the tires were bad."

In 1988, workers were instructed to deflate bubbles and blisters on the tire's inner liner by lancing them with an awl. Three other workers are prepared to testify this month that the practice continued into the mid-1990s.