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Ford Executive: Company Knew About Tire Problems

Aug 18, 2001 | USA Today

The Ford executive in charge of wheel engineering for the Ford Explorer testified at a trial here Saturday that the auto company knew about at least ten cases of possible tread separations in Goodyear tires fitted onto Ford Explorers a year before Ford chief executive Jacques Nasser told Congress and the media last September that it had "not one tread separation problem " in almost three million Goodyear tires.

Allan Rauner, tire and wheel engineer for the Explorer, testified by videotaped deposition Saturday that in 1999, Ford surveyed 4,236 reports of tire and wheel problem with the Explorer and found 32 "possible tread separations." Of that number, said Rauner, there were 22 Firestone tires and 10 Goodyears.

There have been over 200 deaths and 800 injuries in the U.S. attributed to Explorers rolling over after a tire loses its tread. Ford compelled Bridgestone/Firestone to recall 6.5 million ATX and Wilderness AT tires last year. And last May, Ford agreed to replace on its own another 13.5 Wilderness AT tires it said, after months of tire testing and data analysis, posed an "unacceptable safety risk" to its customers.

Ford has maintained since the controversy surfaced last year that the Firestone tires have been at fault for the rollover accidents. Since last fall, Bridgestone has maintained that Ford had long recommended a too-low tire pressure of 26 pounds per square inch that overburdened the tires, and that a design defect in the Explorer makes the vehicle too vulnerable to rollover during a tire failure.

Key to Ford's defense that a Firestone tire defect is responsible for the rollovers is that out of almost three million Goodyear tires fitted onto Explorers in 1996 through 1998, it had no reports of tread separation. Based on property damage claims supplied by the tire companies, and reported in the fall of 2000, Firestone reported over 1,000 tread separation claims on its Wilderness AT tires, while Goodyear reported just two.

Though Ford is not represented in court here, Bridgestone/Firestone is defending itself in a $1 billion lawsuit brought on behalf of the Rodriguez family of Renosa, Texas, who were in a rollover accident in their Explorer in March 2000 in Mexico. Marisa Rodriguez was left brain damaged and paralyzed after her Explorer rolled over three times. The accident was set off by the right rear Firestone tire losing its tread.

Ford settled the case for $6 million. Bridgestone/Firestone could not come to a settlement agreement with the Rodriguez family who, according to sources, attempted to force the tire company to recall all of the Wilderness AT tires it made for Ford as a condition of any settlement

Ford's Rauner said the survey was conducted in order to make a report to Ford's Critical Concerns Review Group. Rauner testified that about one-third of the tread belt separation cases on Explorers in the Ford database involved Goodyear tires. Asked why Ford, and specifically Nasser, has maintained that it saw no cases of tread separations in Goodyear tires, Rauner said, "He (Nasser) may have misspoken, or (been) misinformed on the number."

Rauner had drawn the more than 4,200 reports of tire and wheel problems from an internal database of Ford's that includes warranty claims, customer complaints among other reports of product problems.

Bridgestone/Firestone Saturday put up its expert witness, a one-time Ford employee and current vehicle dynamics engineer, who told jurors that he believes Ford's own test data on the Explorer sold between 1990 and 2001, which he recently analyzed, shows the Explorer to be defective in its ability to withstand a tire emergency such as a tread separation.

"A tread separation is not as serious an incident as a blowout," said Dr. Christopher Shapley. "And a blowout should not cause the driver to lose control of the vehicle...blowouts and tread separations are foreseeable events that a driver should be able to handle without crashing or rolling over," said Shapley.

Shapley supported and advanced the position put forth by Bridgestone/Firestone earlier this year that the Explorer's problem is excessive oversteer in an emergency handling situation-meaning that the vehicle over-responds when the driver turns the wheel. A driver turning the wheel just three or four inches during an event like a tread separation, for example, has the effect of turning the vehicle as if the driver turned the wheel a full revolution.

Shapley testified that Ford has collected abundant testing data showing the Explorer to be defective. "But I don't think they have analyzed it."

Ford has maintained that the Explorer's handling characteristics and safety are as good or better in some measurements than the industry average for sport utilities.

A Ford spokesman did not return phone calls on Saturday.

The Rodriguez family, represented by Arkansas lawyer Tab Turner, Corpus Christi attorney Guy Allison and McAllen attorney Robert Salazar among others, is seeking a $1 billion judgment. However, the actual award is expected to be far less.

The jury, which will probably convene Tuesday after the Bridgestone defense rests, will be instructed to assign a percentage of blame for the accident that injured Marisa Rodriguez. That blame will be apportioned to Ford and Bridgestone based on the jury's findings.

Ford already settled with the Rodriguez family.

In an odd twist, Turner used charts and tables created by Ford and posted on the automaker's Web site to support the company's position that the Explorer is safe in order to make his case against Bridgestone.

These are charts that Turner has debunked in previous cases where he has litigated against Ford. Turner may again face off against Ford in Texas state court next month in a case involving an Explorer rollover.

Bridgestone/Firestone chief executive John Lampe testified Friday that the company's net worth will be about $1.1 billion by year end. That is down from $2.4 billion at the end of 1999, before its consumer business was hurt by negative publicity over the tire recall.

"That's not cash we have in the bank," Lampe quickly asserted to the jury. "That's our net worth if you subtract liabilities from our assets."

Bridgestone/Firestone's much larger parent company, Japan's Bridgestone, does not have liability in the Rodriguez case.

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