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Are Your Car Tires Safe?

Firestone Tire Problems Raise Questions of Safety


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By Norman G. Schneider

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has raised the number of deaths linked to blowouts of Firestone tires to 62 and the number of injuries to more than 100. These numbers may increase as more complaints are registered. So far, there have been approximately 750 complaints filed.

Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., the company name after the Japanese company Bridgestone bought Firestone in 1988, has announced a recall of 6.5 million tires, many of which were issued as standard equipment on the Ford Explorer. Firestone continues to insist that the tire failures are due to improper inflation and maintenance of their tires and not to some manufacturing defect. The tire company has also stated that tread separation claims in northern states are extremely rare.

Ford Motor Company Review

Ford Motor Co., in conducting its own review of the information, concluded that most of the failed tires were made during a worker strike at the Decatur, Illinois plant during the mid-1990s. But Firestone claims that the Ford review was faulty and based primarily on "the comments of two very disgruntled employees" that were being taken out of context. "These comments fly in the face of recent published comments by Decatur employees that testify to the high quality of tires made there," Firestone said in a statement.

Nevertheless, Firestone has now agreed to replace all 15-inch all-terrain tires for free on the condition that the work is performed at a Firestone Tire and Service Center or an authorized Bridgestone/Firestone retailer, including most Ford dealers, and to reimburse $100 to people who changed their tires elsewhere prior to their official recall. The company and the NHTSA are also investigating the 16-inch Wilderness tires that Ford recalled in other nations, but Firestone has stated that the "data is very conclusive that the incidents are limited to the tires we announced in the recall."

Better Safe Than Sorry

Obviously, as the old saying goes, "it is better to be safe than sorry." Although a tire blow-out that causes severe injury or death can result in a large legal settlement or verdict, most people would agree that it is better not to suffer such an accident simply for the right to sue Bridgestone/Firestone or Ford.

But what does it mean to be safe? Although Firestone says that its replacement tires are safely manufactured, the fact that they continue to claim that the tires being recalled are safe calls into question the veracity of their statements. Even though Firestone says that it would allow competitors' tires to be used in the replacement if there is insufficient supply of Firestone tires, why would someone want a Firestone product now that they're being recalled?

Several years ago, my firm was involved in a tire tread case that was settled confidentially so I cannot discuss the name of the company or any settlement information. My firm represented a driver who was involved a highway blow-out that forced his non-Ford SUV off the road, resulting in a multiple roll-over destruction of the vehicle and serious, but not life-threatening injuries to the occupant. At that time, we requested information concerning the manufacture of the tire and obtained expert opinions regarding the cause of the tire failure. The information we received and the opinions generated are sealed, but I can tell you that some of the evidence pointed to a failure by a dealer repair shop in assessing tire wear, and a claim that the tire was improperly inflated.

One Problem With Settlements

The case and the settlement expose one of the problems with case settlements: often manufacturers and other defendants desire secrecy, and often that secrecy is the price for monetary compensation. By keeping such lawsuits and the opinions and evidence from the public, the possibility of other people suffering similar fates is increased. Unfortunately, it is often in the individual plaintiff's best interest to settle than to proceed to a public airing of the danger, and thus information about many product dangers is possessed only by a small group of injured people and their attorneys.

Many new claims have been made public since the dangerous Firestone tires became a news item. Although Firestone and Ford and consumer groups can dispute the interpretation of the claims and the cause of the tire failures, the fact is that owners of Firestone tires can now ask themselves and salespeople some serious questions about the tires, and people who own tires made by other companies can reevaluate their own tire selection.

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