Gary C. Eto filed the first case in California against Ford Motor Company and Bridgestone/Firestone arising out of the tread separation rollover problem that ultimately led to the recall of tens of millions of tires.

Gary was the first California lawyer to take the depositions of the CEOs and presidents of both Ford Motor Company and Bridgestone Firestone. Below is his article that was published on the topic soon after.

GLOBAL RECALL: THE HISTORY OF THE FIRESTONE TIRE DEBACLE by Gary C. Eto, Esq.

I. INTRODUCTION

It is very pathetic that our Explorer customers are losing lives because of the Firestone tyres. Letter dated June 23, 1999, from Ford Service Manager in Oman to Ford National Field Service Manager, in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, copied to seven other individuals in Ford Motor Company’s management, four in the United States of America.

On August 9, 2000, Ford Motor Company and Bridgestone/Firestone jointly announced a recall in the United States of approximately 6.5 million ATX, ATXII and Wilderness AT tires made in Decatur, Illinois because of tread separation problems. The tire recall included the P235/75R15 (15 inch) ATX and ATXII tires and a certain number of Wilderness AT tires. The majority of these tires were original equipment on Ford Explorers.

According to recent figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the accidents in the United States associated with these tire failures have resulted in 148 deaths and over 500 injuries . The majority of the tire failures that have caused injury or death occurred in the south and southwest regions of the United States and virtually all involved Ford Explorers.

The United States recall came after similar recalls in South America, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Thailand.

II. BRIDGESTONE/FIRESTONE'S EXPLANATION

On December 19, 2000, Bridgestone/Firestone issued a report, its Root Cause Analysis addressing the tire failure/tread separation problems, citing (1) faulty tire design, (2) manufacturing processes at its Decatur, Illinois plant, (3) lower inflation pressure recommended by Ford (triggered by design problems/roll over propensities of the Explorer), (4) and, of course, blaming customers for misusing the tires.

a. Tire Design
In its report, Bridgestone/Firestone stated that the shoulder design of the tire could lead to cracking at the shoulder pocket bottom. This could become the starting point of a failure and could result in a reduction of resistance against belt detachment, and ultimately cause a tread separation.

b. The Decatur Plant
The report noted problems with the manufacturing process in Firestone’s Decatur plant, specifically citing the composition of the rubber used and the adhesion characteristics of the tires. According to Firestone, the recalled tires manufactured at the Decatur facility, exhibited different belt adhesion characteristics, including lower initial adhesion than those same size and line of tires produced at other (Bridgestone/Firestone) plants.

c. Under Inflated Tires Recommend By Ford
Design problems in the Explorer triggered Ford’s recommendation that the tires be inflated to 26 pounds per square inch (psi) significantly lower than the maximum allowed (35 psi). According to Bridgestone/Firestone, the lower inflation rate increased the running temperature of the tires and contributed to a decreased belt-adhesion level.

d. Blame The Consumer
In directing blame toward consumers, Firestone stated: Tire industry experience that many tread separations can be caused by various forms of tire damage encountered in daily use, such as punctures, improper repairs, severe impacts or being misapplied.

III. FORD'S EXPLANATION

Ford also issued a report indicating that both the design problems and manufacturing difficulties at Firestone’s Decatur plant caused the tire failures. Ford, however, denied Firestone’s claim that the design of the Explorer was a causal factor in the crashes. Ford’s report indicated that testing on Ford and other makes of vehicles show that the P235/75R15 ATX and Wilderness AT tires do become hotter during use than similar competitive designs, and that test data showed that rubber cohesion is lower in the belt area of Decatur built tires. Ford’s report stated:

The design of the tire generates high stresses in heat in the wedge and belt area. Manufacturing processes at Firestone’s Decatur plant reduced the cohesion level of the rubber in that same area of the tire. This reduced strength permits cracks to propagate between the steel belts. We believe it is a combination of manufacturing factors and the reaction of the tire design to field operating conditions including hot weather and very low tire pressure that have caused the increased failure rate of these tires.

IV. HISTORY: FORD AND FIRESTONE JOINTLY DEVELOPED THE TIRE TO BE SPECIFICALLY USED ON THE EXPLORER

Firestone’s P235/75R15 ATX tire, which is sometimes referred to informally as the ATX II, was specifically developed for use on the Ford Explorer. Thomas Baughman, Ford’s Chief Engineer and lead investigator in the Firestone recall, testified in December 2000, that the development of the tire was a cooperative effort between Firestone and Ford.
The ATX tire was original equipment (OE) on the Ford Explorer when first produced in 1990. Earlier versions of the tire were designed with aggressive shoulder patterns and were more of an on-off highway tire. In the latter part of the 1980’s, Ford Motor Company asked Firestone to make a tire that looked like a truck tire but performed like a passenger car tire. Firestone’s James D. Gardner, former Director of Product Analysis, testified in his deposition in December 2000, that Ford Motor Company was at the top of sophistication as a customer, with its own engineering staff and its own tire people. The ATX tire was designed for a maximum of 35 psi. According to Gardner, Ford Motor Company made the decision to lower the air pressure to 26 psi on all four tires of the Explorer.

a. The Explorer’s Propensity To Rollover
The Ford Explorer was first produced in 1990 to replace the Bronco II starting in the 1991 model year. The Bronco II was known to have a dangerous tendency to flip over during typical emergency turning maneuvers. During the development of the Explorer in the late 1980’s, Ford’s engineers noted the Explorer’s static stability factor (ssf) – one measure of a vehicle’s propensity to roll over – was worse than that of the Bronco II. An October 1989 Ford document provided a detailed analysis of the vehicle’s propensity to rollover and indicated the Explorer would fail tests when the tires were fully inflated to 35 psi.

Ford’s engineers recommended increasing the vehicle’s tract width, lowering the vehicle’s center of gravity and using smaller tires. These recommendations were ignored by Ford’s management. However, both computer simulated testing and on road testing of Ford’s prototype Explorer revealed a tendency to lift two wheels off of the pavement. Ford’s management’s response was to create a recommended inflation level of 26 psi.

While Ford may have initially implied that the reduction in psi was to improve ride comfort, the company’s documents, now public as a result of Congressional hearings, revealed that the lower recommended inflation levels were management’s remedy for the Explorer’s tendency to lift its wheels off the pavement and roll over. Any suggestion to the contrary was also dispelled by Ford’s (Baughman’s)deposition testimony on December 21, 2000, where renown plaintiff’s attorney Tab Turner, had Mr. Baughman authenticate his earlier statements to the media, to the effect that the lower air pressure was because of the Explorer’s…relatively high center of gravity and relatively short wheelbase. . . the Explorer’s stability was one reason Ford recommended a lower tire pressure. . .We try to dial as much of that inherent instability out of the vehicle.

b. Under Inflated Tires Addressed Stability, But Ultimately Caused Tread Separation
By lowering the air pressure, the tires became softer, which in turn slowed the steering response and reduced the risk of rollovers when drivers made sudden directional changes. However, Firestone’s Gardner testified that under inflated tires create the opportunity for tread separations and that when you get about 20% under-inflated, you’re starting to get into an area where you could be in trouble. Gardner stated that under inflation would particularly affect the belt edge region of the tire. Gary Crigger, Executive Vice President of Bridgestone/Firestone stated at an August 9, 2000 news conference, the day of the U.S. recall, When under inflated, all radial tires generate excessive heat. Driving on tires in this condition can lead to tread separation.

c. Ford and Firestone Compromise The Durability of The Tire In Exchange For Fuel Efficiency
In 1990, Ford Motor Company expressed concerns about the poor rolling resistence (created by under inflated tires) which resulted in decreased fuel economy for the Explorer. Ford’s management ordered an improvement in the vehicle’s fuel economy performance, and assigned Ford’s employee Jim Burdette the task of improving the rolling resistence of Firestone tires.

There were three methods available to improve the rolling resistence of the tires: (1) modification of the rubber compounds by incorporating low rolling resistence compound; (2) increasing the air pressure in the tire or (3) reducing the weight of the tire. Burdette learned that changing to low resistence compounds was not a viable solution because the modified compounds compromised the traction of the tires such that the wheels of the Explorer would not stay on the ground during testing. Burdette then requested that the tire inflation pressure be increased from 26 psi to 30/35 psi. This request was rejected because increasing the inflation pressure also caused the wheels of the Explorers to lift off of the ground, which was of course, the impetus to lower the air pressure in the beginning. Consequently, Ford advised Firestone to reduce the weight of the tire by modifying and reducing the weight of certain components.

By 1994, the weight of the tire was reduced from 30.1 pounds to 28.5 pounds. Firestone reduced the weight of the tire by changing the subtread compound, using a lightweight belt package (less steel compared to extra load tires), removing some of the bead filler area and modifying the body ply gauge. In essence, per Ford’s directive, the tire was made lighter, less durable and consequently more susceptible to tread separation.

d. The Proliferation of Tread Separations
The tread separation problems began soon after the Ford Explorer was released in 1990. On February 12, 1991, the first lawsuit, Woodburn v. Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, et al. was filed. Other lawsuits followed involving Ford Explorers and ATX tread separations (e.g. Cherinka v. Ford, filed April 23, 1992; Robertson v. Firestone/Bridgestone, filed April 29, 1992, etc.).

After the weight of the tire was reduced in 1994, the number of tire failures, crashes and deaths increased substantially. According to the November 15, 2000 USA Today, of the 100 plus people killed in accidents in the United States involving Firestone tires, nearly 90% died after 1995. As of 1997, Ford was aware of at least 26 lawsuits involving a combination of Firestone tread separations and Ford Explorer rollovers.

In 1996, Firestone’s Wilderness AT tire went into production to replace ATX tires as original equipment on Ford Explorers. Ford’s internal documents indicate that one of the goals was to increase tire pressure above 26 psi, but Ford determined that 26 psi was necessary to keep the wheels on the ground for emergency turning maneuvers. The Wilderness AT was a tire specifically designed pursuant to Ford’s request for a tire that looked like an aggressive truck tire but performed like a passenger car tire. The only difference between the Wilderness AT and the ATX was that the tread pattern on the Wilderness appeared more aggressive looking. Otherwise, the Wilderness was a standard passenger car tire that incorporated the same internal components as the ATX tire. The Wilderness AT tire was assigned a AC rating for temperature/heat resistence, which is the lowest possible rating allowed under NHTSA’s Uniform Tire Quality Grading System.

Less than a year after the first Wilderness AT tire was produced, Firestone engineers changed the design of the wedge in an effort to improve durability and to reduce the risk of tread separation.

A June 24, 1998 Bridgestone/Firestone internal memo states that in 1997, tread separations accounted for 92.8 percent of all ATX II tire claims and 53.6 percent of all Firestone light truck claims. Tire warranty claims increased 700 percent from 1995 to 1997, and by 1998, tread separations accounted for 469 light truck (e.g., Explorer) claims, compared to only eight (8) claims attributable to road hazards.

e. State Farm Complains To Firestone in 1997, and NHTSA In 1998
State Farm Insurance Company, the nation’s largest auto insurer, stated in 1997, it noticed that Firestone tires were involved in an unusually high volume of tread separation accidents, and thus began complaining to Firestone about the problem. Samuel Boyden of State Farm subsequently contacted NHTSA by e-mail on July 22,1998 and provided specific data on 21 tread separation incidents between 1992 and 1998 involving Firestone P235/75/R15 ATX tires, 14 of which involved Ford Explorers.

V. FOREIGN COUNTRIES

Customers in foreign countries were informed of the tread separations and rollovers, and given replacement tires well before United States citizens were advised of the problem, and long before the August 9, 2000 recall.

a. Venezuela, Columbia and Ecuador
In 1997, Ford of Venezuela attended a meeting in Caracas with independent attorneys representing Ford customers to discuss the multitude of Wilderness AT tread separations and resulting Explorer roll over crashes. Ford executives reportedly asked Firestone for an explanation in 1998, and Firestone’s response blamed the accidents on excess tire pressure, poorly repaired tires and external damage to the service of the tires.

Unsatisfied with Firestones response, Ford began buying tires from Goodyear in 1999. Accidents in Venezuela involving Wilderness tires also became more frequent in 1999.
In or about May, 2000, after 100 deaths and 400 crashes in Venezuela (out of a total vehicle population of only 39,800), Ford began replacing the Firestone tires with Goodyear tires on Explorers in Venezuela, Columbia and Ecuador. A Caracas newspaper had described the Explorer as the Killer Explorer.

On May 4, 2000, Bridgestone/Firestone of Venezuela advised Ford of Venezuela that Firestone would participate in replacing tires on Ford Explorers on which the suspension was modified. Two Bridgestone/Firestone internal memos dated May 9, 2000 described a May 5, 2000 meeting with Ford of Venezuela, wherein Firestone reminded Ford that the same Firestone tires were on Chevrolet Grand Blazers and Toyotas and that these vehicles did not roll over when the tires failed. Firestone apparently requested Ford to correct the suspension on the Explorer prior to installing new (Bridgestone) tires because the vehicle may roll over with any brand tire… Ford refused to change the suspension on the Explorer.

A threat of prosecution in Venezuela further raised tensions between Ford and Firestone. Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford disagreed on what tire specifications applied for Venezuela. Ford claimed that it requested from Firestone tires containing a layer known as a nylon cap in 1996. Nylon caps supposedly create a stronger bond between the tread and the steel belts in the tires, which Ford claimed it considered necessary for Venezuela’s rougher roads. Bridgestone/Firestone, however, claimed that Ford did not request the nylon cap until 1999.

According to Consumer Group Public Citizen and Attorney Tab Turner, the Firestone tire/Ford Explorer scenario in Venezuela has important ramifications for United States citizens because a significant number of the tires that failed in Venezuela were manufactured at Firestone’s Wilson, North Carolina plant. These same Firestone tires, from the Wilson plant, have not been the subject of any recall and are the exact same tires United States citizens are continuing to use on Ford Explorers manufactured in the United States.

b. Arabian Gulf Coast Countries
In or about August 1997, Ford and Firestone were notified of tire separations and rollovers in the Arabian Gulf Coast Countries, particularly Saudi Arabia. A letter dated October 24, 1998, from a Ford Lincoln dealer references complaining of tread separations as early as mid-1997″, references a meeting with Firestone Dubai Office and specifically request Firestone to recall the tires on all 1995/1996/1997 Explorers, as a safety related concern. A Ford memo dated April 28, 1999, referenced eight (8) tread separations and rollovers in Saudi Arabia. A subsequent Ford memo dated July 8, 1999 described 18 incidents in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar, and 2 in Malaysia, all as a result of belt edge separations, all on 1996 and 1997 Explorers and Explorer/Mountaineers, each with mileage between 9,500-34,000 miles (15,200-55,000 km). On August 17, 1999, after 19 rollovers and 14 deaths, Ford began replacing tires in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Ford refused to describe the tire replacement program as a recall, but instead referred to it as customer notification enhancement action.

Firestone, on the other hand, disclaimed any responsibility for the tragedies in the Middle East, insisting it provided the tire that Ford requested, that the unique environmental conditions (heat and consumer misuse) caused the tread separations, and that there was no evidence of a design defect. An exchange of correspondence in February, 1999, between Bridgestone/Firestone and John Garthwaite, National Service Director for a Ford/Lincoln dealer in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, reflects Firestone’s unwillingness to accept responsibility, in response to Garthwaite’s complaints of repeated tread separations. Garthwaite’s February 25, 1999 letter revealed his frustration with Firestone, stating that Firestone’s response was. . .no more than an attempt to create a smoke screen over the issue. . .You should be aware that we have another case of complete thread (sic) separation which has been involved in a very serious accident . . . Nothing in your reply has done anything to re-assure me that there may not exist a defect in a particular batch of your product.

Ford’s Thomas Baughman, however, dispelled (at least in part) Firestone’s attempted explanation of the problem in Saudi Arabia when he was deposed by Mr. Turner. Mr. Baughman stated that the tread separations could not be fully explained by the unique environmental operating conditions in Saudi Arabia, and that the unique environmental operating conditions were no different than those in the South and Southwest United States.

c. Malaysia and Thailand
An internal Ford memo entitled 1997 Explorer P235/75R15 Tire Separation in Malaysia and Thailand marked Draft of 2/11/2000″, described 13 tread separations (6 in Malaysia and 7 in Thailand) all occurring on 1997 Ford Explorers with mileage between 10,250-34,500 miles. The memo blamed the separations on the high temperatures in Asian countries, poor road conditions and under inflation. This Ford memo discussed Field Service Action as part of a Global Recall Process.

According to Reuters news service, in February 2000, Ford offered free replacement tires for vehicles in Malaysia and Thailand.

d. Ford and Firestone Fail to tell U. S. Authorities of the Problems Overseas
Not surprisingly, Firestone’s Spokesperson Christine Karbowiak, stated on July 31, 2000 that there was no connection with Ford’s decision to replace tires in Venezuela to the situation in the United States.

A Bridgestone/Firestone memo dated March 11, 1999, which purported to compare tire separations in Saudi Arabia to those in the U.S., expressed concerns about Ford’s proposed customer notification program because of …related complications that it would create in North America.

Ford’s Tom Baughman testified that Ford did not notify NHTSA or the Department of Transportation of Ford’s decision to replace tires in Saudi Arabia in 1999, and that Ford did not think it was necessary or that Ford was required by law to do so.

e. The News Finally Breaks In The U.S.
On February 7, and 10, 2000, KHOU-TV, the CBS affiliate in Houston, Texas reports the story of numerous deaths and lawsuits caused by Firestone tread separations and Ford Explorer rollovers.

On March 6, 2000, NHTSA began a preliminary investigation, and by May 2, 2000, commenced a formal investigation into 47 million Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires.

VI. THE DECATUR, ILLINOIS FIRESTONE PLANT

Publicity surrounding the recall focused upon Firestone’s oldest plant located in Decatur, Illinois. Both Ford and Firestone directed attention to a pellitizing process used at Decatur to coat the steel belts with rubber. Pelletizing is a process where rubber pellets are blended with a lubricant to create the rubber that coats the steel belts of the tire. Only Decatur uses this process; other plants use a slab system that does not involve pellets. The lubricant causes a breakdown in the tire, leading to separation of the tread. In addition to this process which was unique to this plant, questionable manufacturing practices and a well publicized labor strike in 1995-96 drew attention to Decatur.

According to court records reviewed by the Washington Post, Decatur employees engaged in practices such as puncturing bubbles and blisters on tires to deflate them, on the inner liners of tires. These tires would then be sent to the warehouse and ultimately into the marketplace, rather than destroyed.

Substandard conditions at the plant, such as high humidity, created an environment conducive to the production of corrosion on the brass-coated steel in the steel belted radials.

Workers described a practice where solvents were swabbed onto outdated stock which had lost its adhesiveness in order to make it sticky. If the solvent did not evaporate, it would turn to vapor during the vulcanization process and create holes in the tire.

In 1993, supervisors at Decatur implemented a policy that shortened the time spent curing the tires from 26 to 16 minutes. (Curing is the process where different layers are bonded together with intense heat. Curing changes the physical properties of rubber. Before curing, if rubber is stretched it has a putty like consistency and does not snap back like a rubber band. Once it cures with sulphur, the tire/rubber then has new physical properties that make it resilient, so that when stretched, it returns to its original position ). News reports also indicated that employees had financial incentives to release substandard tires to the general public.

Tab Turner/Public Citizen warns that while Decatur has been singled out as being over represented, if not the source of all recalled tires, it is a mistake to assume that non Decatur tires are safe. In fact, Turner has amassed compelling evidence indicating the recall should be expanded far beyond Decatur produced tires.

Turner notes that all tires, regardless of their plant of manufacture, have a common pattern of failure (which Ford now concedes). Internal Ford records and Internal Firestone records regarding forensic inspections in both the U.S. and Middle East pinpoint problems in the wedge of failed tires. The wedge is designed to increase the durability of the tire at the belt’s edges. Firestone employees have indicated that the wedge originally used in the Wilderness AT tire was a passenger car wedge as opposed to a truck type wedge, despite the fact that the Ford Explorer is a light truck. Firestone employees have conceded that the wedge of the Wilderness AT tire was redesigned in 1998 to be stronger and more durable with the intent of reducing the risk of tread separation. Firestone’s retained expert Sanjay Govindjee, while yet to issue a final report, stated that all evidence to date points to a fatigue crack in the wedge, which spread to the area between the steel belts. Govindjee also reported no differences among tires from different plants.

VII. LEGAL IMPLICATIONS OF THE RECALL AND SIMILAR ACCIDENTS

While lawsuits have been filed against Ford and Firestone since 1991 claiming the same product defects described above (design and manufacturing defects in the tire and in the Ford Explorer), the number of actions filed increased dramatically once the American public learned of the magnitude of the problem, and following the August 9, 2000 recall.

The recall is tantamount to a slam dunk on the issue of liability, at least in California (and ironically, Illinois, where the Decatur plant is located, see, Sutkowski v. Universal Marion Corp. (1972) 5 Ill.App.3d 313, 281 N.E. 2d 749).In Ault v International Harvester Co. (1974) 13 Cal.3d 113, the California Supreme Court held that Evidence Code ‘ 1151 (which excludes evidence of subsequent remedial or precautionary measures) does not apply in an action based upon strict liability. Consequently, evidence that Firestone has recalled 6.5 million tires is admissible to prove liability in a strict product liability lawsuit.

The recall should be used as evidence against Firestone, and Ford. Since the development of the tire was a cooperative effort between Ford and Firestone, evidence of a defective tire creates liability for Ford, not just Firestone. In other words, irrespective of whether the plaintiff establishes Ford’s liability for the Explorer’s design defects (high center of gravity, inherent instability and rollover propensities), the recall establishes liability for Ford, based upon a defective tire, which was jointly developed by Ford.

Additionally, counsel for plaintiffs should also allege that the tire was original equipment on the Ford Explorer, and thus establish both strict liability under Vandermark v. Ford Motor Co (1964) 61 Cal 2d 256 (automobile manufacturer cannot avoid strict liability by tracing defect in product to component part supplied by another) and negligence, under the theory of supplier liability, supplier’s duty to warn, B.A.J.I. 9.20, against Ford.

Ault v. International Harvester, supra, also holds that evidence of other accidents is admissible to prove a defective condition, knowledge, or cause of an accident, provided that the circumstances of the other accidents are similar and not too remote. id, 13 Cal.3d at 122,123. Accordingly, the multitude of similar Firestone tread separations and Ford Explorer rollovers is admissible to prove the defects as well as to establish prior knowledge of the danger posed by the tires. The extensive prior knowledge of the tread separation problem, both in the U.S. and abroad, should be used to establish conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others and concealment in order to prove malice, fraud or oppression required by Civil Code ‘ 3294 for punitive damages.

VIII. CONCLUSION

In their efforts to establish scienter and punitive damages against the offending companies, plaintiffs’ counsel should explain the history of Ford and Firestone’s joint participation in the development of the defective tires, as well as the corporate cover-up of the global magnitude of the tread separation problem.

Published June 2001 in ADVOCATE, The Journal of the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles

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