- The Washington Times - Friday, September 1, 2000

From combined dispatches

Federal investigators said yesterday that 26 more U.S. traffic deaths have been linked to recalled Firestone tires, while Venezuelan authorities called for criminal prosecution of Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone Corp. for 46 deaths there.
The latest news brings to 88 the number of deaths on U.S. American highways linked to the defective tires by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigators. The agency has received more than 1,400 complaints and reports of 250 injuries from tires that reportedly lost their tread while traveling at highway speeds.
The House is set to hold a hearing on the case Wednesday, with the Senate following Sept. 12. Ford's chief executive, Jacques Nasser, changed his mind and announced yesterday that he would testify. Mr. Nasser also expressed sympathy to those who had been affected by problems with the tires, often found on Ford vehicles.
"At this point, it's a very difficult situation [for] everyone," he said. "I'd like you to know we're sorry that these tires are on our vehicles and I'm depressed about the resulting anxiety, injuries and deaths."
Meanwhile, union workers rallied yesterday at the Bridgestone/ Firestone Co.'s U.S. headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., as a countdown to what they say is an inevitable strike this weekend. If agreement on a new labor contract for nine U.S. tire plants is not reached by midnight tonight, some 8,000 union members nationwide are expected to begin picketing immediately.
In his comments, Mr. Nasser said the problem "was a tire issue, not a vehicle issue."
That's not how authorities in Venezuela see it, however. The Venezuelan consumer-protection agency, known as Indecu, issued a report to the country's attorney general saying Ford and Firestone suppressed information about defects in Firestone's Wilderness tires.
Indecu President Samuel Ruh said that as complaints about the tires mounted, the companies held a secret meeting in early 1999, at which they agreed to change the tire design rather than issue a recall. Ford eventually did issue a recall in some countries in August 1999 and in Venezuela last May.
Because Ford and Firestone did not act sooner, defects could have resulted in "many consumers of their products losing their lives or the lives of their loved ones," the report said.
Chief Indecu investigator Jorge Dominguez said "approximately 46 deaths" in Venezuela could be linked to accidents involving Ford Explorers and Firestone tires.
"We believe that all people who suffered should be compensated for the human and material damages," the report said.
Mr. Nasser insisted that Ford did not lie to the Venezuelan government.
"Is there any confusion down there? I'd have to say there is. And we will continue to meet with the government to try and clear up the matter," he said.
"But I want to just emphasize the accusation from the Venezuelan government official that Ford Venezuela lied is completely unfounded. We did not lie to the Venezuelan government."
Ford officials have said the company's first report of problems with Firestone tires in Venezuela came in 1998, two years before it began replacing tires there.
Ford did not notify U.S. officials of the foreign recalls because company officials said they thought the problems were caused by higher temperatures and unique driving conditions in those countries.
Bridgestone/Firestone announced a U.S. recall of 6.5 million Wilderness AT, ATX and ATX II tires Aug. 9, three months after the NHTSA opened its investigation, but nearly nine months after Ford started its overseas recall.
Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone have said they do not know the cause of the problems. The recall was based on Ford's analysis of property-claims data from Bridgestone/Firestone showing a complaint rate for the tires under recall far higher than for its other tires.
Trial lawyers and some safety advocates claim the problems stem from poor tire design, a tire-pressure recommendation from Ford that was too low, or both. Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone have denied those claims.
Congressional investigators hope to uncover when Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone learned of the tire problems.
U.S. Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, Louisiana Republican, who will preside over a Wednesday hearing before two subcommittees of the House Commerce Committee, reacted sharply when Mr. Nasser refused to testify. Mr. Nasser had said he was too busy managing the recall to come to Washington.
"We don't care why he changed his mind. We're just glad that he did," said Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson. "Mr. Nasser's appearance, hopefully, will assist us in getting to the bottom of this growing national controversy and at the same time assure that this will be one of the most important congressional hearings in recent years."
Meanwhile, about 40 state attorneys general have discussed litigation in two conference calls. The talks have focused on ways in which the states can protect consumers and punish the companies for any wrongdoing.
"We are very seriously considering a variety of claims" that include deceptive or unfair trade practices, racketeering and fraudulent concealment of defects, said Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut's attorney general.
Besides Connecticut, New Mexico is considering a lawsuit, according to press reports. Last week, Florida's attorney general, Bob Butterworth, began a racketeering investigation against Ford and Bridgestone.
So far, South Carolina is the only state to go to court. That state's attorney general, Charlie Condon, sued Bridgestone's U.S. unit, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., in state court seeking to accelerate the recall of tires in South Carolina. The state was originally scheduled to receive replacement tires in the fall.
The South Carolina suit says Bridgestone/Firestone violated the state's unfair trade practices law by marketing a product the company knew was dangerous.
The companies also face civil lawsuits worldwide, including proposed class actions in the United States with product-liability and personal-injury claims.
The news has dragged down the stock of both companies. Bridgestone shares fell 6.6 percent yesterday to $13.02 in Tokyo, while Ford shares dropped 6.5 percent to $24.25 on the New York Stock Exchange.

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