Lawsuits and calls for a wider recall
of Firestone tires multiplied on Monday as the tire maker's
replacement plan failed to calm anger over tire failures and
left Ford Motor Co (F.N) privately expressing frustration with
its partner of nearly 100 years.
Safety groups called for the expansion of the voluntary
recall announced last week to include the 16-inch size of the
ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires in addition to all of the
15-inch models. Firestone announced the limited recall in
response to customer concern after reports of deteriorating
treads and blown tires.
Those fears have led to numerous lawsuits, including class
action lawsuits filed on Monday on behalf of tire owners in
Florida and Maryland. South Carolina also filed suit seeking a
higher priority in the recall plan.
Rating agency Standard & Poor's on Monday lowered its
long-term credit rating on Firestone's parent, Bridgestone Corp
(5108.T) of Japan, and said further downgrades were possible
because of the recall's possible impact.
The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
(NHTSA) has said it is investigating at least 46 deaths and
over 300 complaints about the tires. Those numbers are expected
to grow and new data could be released as early as Tuesday.
A majority of the tires being recalled were fitted as
standard equipment by Ford to its popular Explorer, the
top-selling sport utility vehicle in the United States.
Ford has publicly stood by Firestone, saying it has no
intention of switching from Firestone tires on its SUVs and
pickups, extending a relationship that dates back to 1906.
"I see no way that we would drop Firestone as a supplier,''
Ken Zino, a spokesman for the No. 2 automaker, told reporters
on a late Monday conference call.
However, privately Ford officials have expressed
frustration with Firestone's inability to inform the public
properly which tires were being affected by the recall and deal
with the consumer backlash.
In response, Firestone said it will launch an ad campaign
in several major metropolitan daily newspapers on Wednesday to
better explain the recall.
Executives at the tire maker insist they are moving as fast
as they can, that the recalled tires are the only ones that
need to be replaced, and that all their actions have been in
the interest of customer safety.
"Maybe 20 years from now, when they're doing studies of
this (recall) in Harvard Business School they may say the
company should have done this, or might have done that
differently,'' Firestone Vice President Christine Karbowiak told
Reuters. "But at the time, we were making what we thought were
the right judgements.''
Public Citizen, Safetyforum.com and Strategic Safety said
the replacement of the larger tires in other countries by Ford
combined with 19 U.S. failures the groups had identified
provided sufficient grounds for the 16-inch versions to be
The groups also questioned the restriction of the recall to
those 15-inch Wilderness tires made at Firestone's Decatur,
Ill., plant, citing at least three non-Decatur failures.
Firestone's Karbowiak called the groups' charges
''unsubstantiated allegations'' not supported by the company's
data that shows all tires other than those recalled are safe.
The safety groups, some of whom work with plaintiffs'
attorneys, challenged the phased recall that gives priority to
southern states, where most of the incidents have been
"I don't think it's an issue of ambient temperature or
weather, I don't think it's a usage issue, a Decatur plant
issue -- I think it's a design defect,'' Public Citizen
President Joan Claybrook told a news conference.
"There is ample evidence to show that vehicle owners with
these other, non-recalled tires may be at substantial risk,''
said Claybrook, a former NHTSA Administrator.
Ford spokesman Jon Harmon said the data showed no reason to
expand the recall. "We're looking for solutions for our
customers. These people are looking for lawsuits,'' he said.
The number of suits against Ford and Firestone are already
estimated at about 100 by plaintiffs' attorneys. In response to
the South Carolina lawsuit, Karbowiak said Firestone would
''make happy'' any concerned customers in that state if they
visited a Firestone store.
She added the recall is ahead of schedule. Originally
slated for completion after next summer, the recall is now on
pace to be completed before then thanks to increased Firestone
tire output at its plants and use of competitors' tires.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman and Arizona Republican
Sen. John McCain sent a letter on Monday to Transportation
Secretary Rodney Slater expressing concern the recall may fail
to adequately protect consumers in all states.
Firestone made 14.4 million of the 15-inch tires subject to
recall, but only 6.5 million are thought to still be in use.
By either count, it is the second-largest tire recall in
U.S. history since Firestone recalled 14.5 million radial tires
in 1978. Adding 16-inch tires could set a new record.
While Ford used a company-owned Cray supercomputer to help
Firestone analyze and discover the tires that needed to be
recalled, a cause for the problems has yet to be discovered.
Meanwhile, Ford launched its own ad campaign on Friday and
Sunday to better inform its customers on what vehicles were
affected by the recall.
Zino said the automaker has seen a short-term dip in
Explorer sales because of customer concerns and there have been
reports of some customers insisting Firestone tires be removed
from new Ford SUVs before they will buy them.
Ford truck engineering director Tom Baughman said the
automaker is sending a team to the Decatur plant to review
operations and production records to help isolate the cause.
"We really believe this is most likely a quality defect
based on what we know,'' he said, adding that Ford's lower tire
pressure requirements, the automaker's specifications for the