Contradictory Statements Prove Difficult for Firestone

Evidence pointing to the tire maker's possible liability could lead to class actions and possible financial ruin.

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By Norman G. Schneider

Firestone has lately shown all the signs of wanting to pay high verdicts and settlements to people who have been injured in crashes involving the failure of their tires.

First, Firestone apparently made defective tires. Then the company's officials stated that they didn't know that the tires were defective. Then they claimed that some tires might have been defective, but that any accidents were due to mistakes by the drivers or by the manufacturer of the vehicles, most notably Ford. And most recently, following deposition testimony that was contrary to testimony before Congress, Masatoshi Ono retired. Ono was the top officer in the U.S. branch of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.

Depositions are oral statements taken under oath outside of a courtroom which are recorded by a stenographer. As President Clinton's deposition showed, statements made in these sessions are just as sacred to the judges as statements made in a courtroom. Similarly, Congressional testimony is also covered by the rules against perjury.

No Admission of Corporate Liability, Former Exec Says

Nevertheless, in a deposition given on October 9, as part of lawsuit filed against both Firestone and Ford, Ono testified that the public apologies made by him and other Bridgestone/Firestone executives during September's congressional hearings on the recall should not be construed as an admission of corporate liability, stating that "At present, we have not concluded whether or not there was a defect . . . However, we have to acknowledge there may have been safety related problems -- there were safety related problems."

Ono also contradicted John Lampe, the new head of the company, who had testified during the congressional hearings that only a "very, very small percentage of these deaths" were due to tire failure. Ono claimed that he didn't know the basis for Lampe's statements. "Right now, what I can say is we have not discovered defects," Ono added. Lampe's deposition is expected to occur on Oct. 12 in Nashville.

Little Credibility Left

Firestone has little credibility left among consumers. As discussed in a previous article, tire failure cases often result in confidential settlements which restrict the ability of plaintiffs and their attorneys to discuss the details of the case, the materials gathered during the case, and the amount of the settlement. Through this secrecy, little has been known about how Firestone's tires have performed and what defects they have known about.

However, the secrecy surrounding these settlements simply compounds Firestone's public relations problems, because for every statement they make about how they didn't know about the defect or how the defect was someone else's fault, a former plaintiff comes forward to show that Firestone is not telling the truth. They're even coming forward at the risk of losing whatever settlement award they were given.

Between the contradictions before Congress, in depositions, and in statements to the public, Firestone is quickly eroding any possible goodwill that people might have for the company's long history of good tire production.

Assembling the Class

Personal injury lawyers are now attempting to pool the people who have been injured and the information discovered in their cases and are attempting to bring a class action lawsuit against both Firestone and Ford.

Class actions are a type of complex litigation in which people with similar claims join forces under a court's supervision in an attempt to minimize the costs and duplicative efforts necessary to prove each individual case. In most of these cases the typical secrecy concerning information and settlements is avoided and information about all aspects of each individual case is disseminated to all the people who join the class action lawsuit.

Incentive for Plaintiffs' Attorneys

A successful class action suit usually results in a large award for the class of plaintiffs from which a huge chunk is taken by the lawyers, which is one reason that lawyers are willing to sacrifice years of effort and thousands of hours of time that could be spent working on other cases. Without the ability to form a class action, each person might have to bring his or her own lawsuit in isolation from all the other people who have suffered similar tire failures. Each case on its own would not only be more difficult to prove, but was also be expensive to bring and time-consuming for both the lawyers and their clients. Class action lawsuits are generally less expensive and less time-consuming for each individual plaintiff.

In the end, if Firestone settles a large class action lawsuit, it might be forced into bankruptcy or receivership. If so, each plaintiff might receive only a fraction of what they could have received from a solvent company. It will be interesting to watch not only the attempts to sway the public's reaction to Firestone tire problems, but to watch their efforts to maintain a viable corporation in the face of extensive litigation.

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