Firestone Replacement of 6.4 Million Defective Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT Tires Begins

August 10, 2000
By John O’Dell and Edmund Sanders

Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. launched one of the largest tire safety recalls in history Wednesday but acknowledged that it will not be able to replace some of the 6.4 million suspect tires still in use for up to a year.

Almost immediately after the announcement in Washington, worried motorists seeking information and appointments for tire replacement jammed the phone lines of Firestone dealers’ stores around the country.

In Southern California, some drivers were being told just an hour after the recall announcement that, because of the heavy demand, it would be late next month before replacement tires could be fitted to their cars.

Firestone created a potentially explosive situation Wednesday by acknowledging that it does not have sufficient supplies to immediately replace all of the suspect tires, which have been linked to at least 46 deaths and nearly 300 accidents.

The tires, subject of a growing federal inquiry that began in March, are being recalled because of a tread-separation problem that can result in loss of traction and control.

The affected tires are the Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT models, all bearing the size designation P235/75R15.

In addition to the delays being experienced by motorists who responded promptly to news of the recall, some consumers may have to wait a year or more for replacements, said Gary Crigger, executive vice president of Nashville-based Bridgestone/Firestone.

He added that the company will use competitors’ tires if customers insist. The preferred replacement is a Firestone product, Crigger said, by agreement with Ford Motor Co., manufacturer of most of the affected vehicles. The recalled tires all have the size designation (P235/75R15) molded into the tire sidewall.

Analysts estimate that the recall will cost the tire maker about $300 million–not counting any liability associated with pending and expected lawsuits.

“Firestone will likely carry the brunt of the liability,” said David Bradley, an analyst at J.P. Morgan Securities Inc. “The long-term issue for them is the public relations black eye.”

By agreeing Wednesday to the recall, Bridgestone/Firestone reluctantly opened the door to what could be an avalanche of litigation, potentially costing the company hundreds of millions–perhaps billions–of dollars, attorneys say.

A similar Firestone recall of millions of tires in the late 1970s cost the company more than $155 million, hurt sales for several years and resulted in hundreds of lawsuits.

“Any time a manufacturer initiates a recall, it becomes an admission of liability,” said Sean Kane, president of Strategic Safety, a Virginia organization that was one of the first to call upon Firestone to recall the tires. He predicted that Firestone would likely attempt to settle the cases, rather than fight the claims and risk huge jury verdicts.

Executives at Firestone declined comment on the lawsuits or potential liability.

About 100 lawsuits already have been filed by Firestone customers claiming defects in the last four years. About a third of those suits have been settled, attorneys estimate.

Most of the remaining suits involve drivers who were killed or seriously injured.

“The potential liability could be staggering,” said Kevin Meenan, a Pasadena attorney specializing in product liability.

Not including punitive damages, each wrongful-death suit could cost up to $2 million, based on awards in similar recent cases, while injury claims could vary from several hundred thousand dollars to several million dollars, based upon the severity, said Don Fountain, an attorney in West Palm Beach, Fla.

But the real wild card is punitive damages. If victims can prove that Firestone or Ford knew of the dangers posed by the tires and took no action, angry juries may opt to teach the corporations an expensive lesson.

Last year, a family trapped inside a burning car was awarded more than $4.8 billion dollars in punitive damages against General Motors. That award was later reduced to about $1 billion.

Attorneys and safety groups are already accusing Firestone and Ford of dragging their feet in recalling the tires in the United States.

Because hot weather is thought to play a role in the problem, the first supplies of replacement tires will be shipped to Firestone dealers in California, Texas, Arizona and Florida, the states where most of the accidents and deaths have occurred. The recall then will be extended to other Southern and Southwestern states and, after next summer, to customers in the rest of the country.

Beyond that, details remained sketchy, as Firestone and Ford officials were unable to explain why most of the incidents involve Ford sport-utility vehicles; the apparent cause of the tread separation; or the significance of why all of the Wilderness AT tires involved in the recall were built at Firestone’s plant in Decatur, Ill. The company is not recalling Wilderness ATs built at four other plants, although those tires too were used on many Ford Explorers.

Ford has also opened itself up to questions about the company’s own investigation of the problem and why the auto maker chose to replace some Firestone tires overseas but not in the U.S.

Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford began receiving complaints about tread separation from Explorer owners in hot climates overseas last summer, said Helen Petrauskas, the company’s vice president of environmental and safety engineering. By early this year, Ford had voluntarily replaced almost 47,000 Firestone tires on SUVs and pickup trucks in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Thailand, Venezuela, Uruguay and Colombia.

This summer, she said, Ford’s investigation moved into the hot-weather states of the Southwestern U.S.

“We had owners come in and we exchanged tires with those who had high-use tires [on their vehicles],” she said. “Then we took the high-use tires back to the lab and investigated, and we did not find evidence of the tread separation we were seeing outside of the U.S.”

Petrauskas said Ford “is satisfied that Firestone has isolated the tires that need to be recalled.”

Another possibly critical factor left unexplored Wednesday is the extent to which tire pressure might have played a role in the failures. Under-inflated tires can develop excessive heat, which can damage them internally and cause the tread to separate from the body of the tire, industry sources say.

And although Firestone recommends that the tires it makes for the Explorer be inflated to 30 pounds of pressure per square inch, or psi, Ford had always told buyers–on a label installed on each vehicle–that it recommends a pressure of 26 psi. By comparison, General Motors recommends 35 psi for the Wilderness AT tires on its SUVs and the new 2001 Pontiac Aztek.

Ford changed its recommendation slightly on Wednesday and is now urging owners to use pressures ranging from 26 to 30 psi.

Company executives say the lower pressure results in the best combination of ride comfort, handling and reduced noise and vibration at all speeds and under all acceptable loads in the Explorer.

But tire consultant Richard Baumgardner, an Alpharetta, Ga., specialist who often analyzes tire defects in lawsuits, says Ford’s lower pressure recommendation is aimed at making the tires softer. That would slow steering response and reduce the risk of rollovers when drivers make sudden directional changes, as would happen when trying to avoid hitting an object in the road.

Baumgardner said his research shows that when the treads came apart, the vehicles “had an average of three people on board, which means that quite a few of them were being used on trips, they were heavy, probably loaded with luggage, and off to the races and running pretty fast.”

Tire tread separation, he said, is not instantaneous, noting: “It usually takes 3,000 to 4,000 miles of wear for a small flaw to develop into the kind of tread failure we see here, where the tread separates and shreds.”

A spokesman for the Tire Assn. of North America, an industry trade group, declined to discuss tire wear, design or other issues Wednesday.

The recall is a response to reports of accidents linked to shredding treads on a particular size of three Firestone light-truck tires, used mostly on Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer SUVs.

Bridgestone/Firestone, a unit of Japan’s Bridgestone Corp., said it will voluntarily recall the three tire models used on the Ford vehicles and on a small number of other manufacturers’ SUVs and light trucks since 1991.

About 6.4 million of the 14.4 million tires Firestone supplied to auto makers and tire dealers, all marked with the P235/75R15 size designation, are believed to be still in use.

It is the nation’s second-largest tire recall ever, trailing the 1978 Firestone 500 callback, which also centered on tread separation and loss of air pressure. The company then was Firestone Tire & Rubber Co.; Bridgestone acquired Firestone in 1988.

The accidents ran the gamut from single-car incidents to multiple-car collisions and rollovers, said Rae Tyson, a spokeswoman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in Washington. It will be months before the agency concludes its probe or issues any findings, she said.

But Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford executives said they did not want to wait and decided after lengthy meetings with federal safety officials to announce a voluntary recall by the tire maker.

Firestone in the past has said that the tires being recalled were also fitted on some SUVs and light pickups made by GM, Toyota Motor Corp., Nissan Motor Co. and Mazda Motor Corp.

But GM, Toyota and Nissan said Wednesday that their Firestone-outfitted vehicles use different size tires than those being recalled and that they have not been able to identify a single incident involving their vehicles when outfitted with the original-equipment tires.

Crigger, the Bridgestone/Firestone executive in Nashville, said the company will send letters detailing the recall to owners who bought new vehicles outfitted with the suspect tires. But customers who bought the tires as replacements for other brands or other Firestone styles also can participate, he said.

Consumers who have vehicles with the recalled tires should call a local Firestone dealer to make an appointment for installation of replacement tires, Crigger said. He also urged any consumers with concerns about their tires, regardless of manufacturer, to call a tire dealer for an inspection. Firestone dealers, he said, will inspect any company’s products at no charge.

Firestone has established a toll-free line, (800) 465-1904, that customers can call for more information or to obtain the location of the closest Firestone dealer. Ford owners can obtain information by calling (800) 660-4719 or e-mailing

SOURCE: Los Angeles Times