• U.S.

An Unwieldy Recall

3 minute read
Daniel Eisenberg

If Ford and Firestone’s biggest challenge these days was just getting 6.5 million defective tires off the road, they wouldn’t be having such a rough ride. While the Aug. 9 voluntary recall has created a run on tires for the popular Ford Explorer SUV and Ranger pickups, rivals like Michelin and Goodyear have gladly picked up the slack. Close to 900,000 of the 15-in. Radial ATX, ATX II and certain Wilderness AT models linked to 62 deaths have been exchanged. To free up 70,000 more tires, Ford is temporarily shutting down three U.S. truck plants and Firestone is airlifting replacements from Japan, headquarters of its parent company, Bridgestone. Firestone said it would also hire an independent expert to investigate the failures

Not surprisingly, though, that doesn’t satisfy the swarm of trial lawyers and consumer advocates buzzing about–and therein lies the companies’ real problem. No matter how well they handle the basic mechanics of the recall, the wheels are coming off their efforts at damage control.

Both companies, for instance, are continuing to deal with the recent revelation that State Farm, the nation’s largest car insurer, alerted the government and Firestone to an unusually large number of claims for the bad tires as far back as 1997. And on Wednesday, former workers at Firestone’s Decatur, Ill., plant, who were replaced by non-union workers during a 1994-96 strike, gave depositions that their supervisors had put quantity ahead of quality. Many of the suspect tires were made there. Firestone says those testifying are disgruntled employees. Also, attorneys want the recall to be widened to include all 47 million tires produced, which Ford says is irresponsible and not supported by the data.

The recall is taking its toll on the bottom line. Ford Explorer sales are slipping, and Bridgestone announced on Friday that profit in the first half of the year fell nearly 50% as a result of the recall.

As with any product-liability case, all parties involved are playing the blame game. Last weekend trial lawyers leaked an internal Ford document from 1989 that shows the company may have recommended inflating the Firestone tires to less than the maximum level to decrease the possibility of a rollover, even though underinflated tires pose a greater threat of tread separation. Ford says the SUVs’ design isn’t the issue. None of the similar Goodyear tires used on its SUVs have had that problem. Senator John McCain will try to resolve some of these issues in Commerce Committee hearings next week.

Apart from the root cause, safety advocates and government officials want to know why it took so long for the recall to start. After all, some 100 lawsuits concerning the tires have been filed over the past decade. “I have a hard time understanding how the litigation wasn’t an early warning sign,” says Sean Kane, co-founder of Strategic Safety, an Arlington, Va., research firm. Now the alarm bells won’t stop going off.

–By Daniel Eisenberg. With reporting by Mike Eskenazi/New York and Joseph R. Szczesny/Detroit

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