Firestone knew about tire failure factore, documents say
By Lynn Brezosky
McALLEN, Texas Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. knew that tires with an inexpensive nylon layer would be as much as five times less likely to fail than those without the caps, according to court documents.
Internal company correspondence included in the mounds of evidence introduced this week in a $1 billion case against the tire manufacturer may show the company knew years ago about ways to reduce the sort of tread separation plaintiffs in the case say led to a March 2000 Ford Explorer rollover that injured four people.
In a memo dated Nov. 7 1998, David Laube, executive director of Bridgestone/Firestone sales engineering, said the company compared tires with and without protective shoulder strips and found the "rate for tires with shoulder strips is three to five times lower."
Four months later, Bruce Halverson, the head of the company's quality assurance, wrote that a light truck tire known as the Dueler AT with nylon cap strips showed "tire and tread belt edge separations were reduced by more than 50 percent."
Through hours of cross examination by Bridgestone/Firestone attorneys yesterday, tire design engineer Robert Ochs insisted that tread separation on one of the Explorer's tires was a factor in the rollover.
Ochs has testified in many other trials, and Bridgestone/Firestone attorney Scott Edwards reminded him that he had never said whether the absence of nylon caps was a tire defect.
"That's correct, but it is in this tire," Ochs replied.
Ochs was an engineer at Michelin, the French tire maker, and Edwards noted that Michelin didn't use nylon caps on its own tires.
"They may have spent a few dollars on the quality of the rubber, and that's why they didn't have to spend 90 cents," Ochs responded during a terse exchange.
The cost of the nylon strap was just 90 cents per tire.
Last summer, Firestone recalled 6.5 million tires, many of which were standard on Ford Explorers. The recalled tires have been linked to at least 203 deaths and 700 injuries. In May, Ford Motor Co. said it would replace 13 million more Firestone tires.
Firestone has settled more than 150 cases, mostly involving tires on Explorers, for undisclosed sums. But in McAllen, the first Ford Explorer rollover case against Bridgestone/Firestone has gone to trial and brought forth new details.
Firestone chief executive John Lampe, in videotaped testimony Wednesday, revealed that the company was considering skipping the cap strips to reduce costs. One memo shows that eliminating the strips could save the Decatur, Ill. plant some $225,000, or 90 cents per tire.
Cap strips are a layer of nylon between the tire belt and tread designed to help the tire keep its shape. Shoulder strips are a thinner version placed within the edge of the tire where most of the stress lands.
"What's important about these documents is that it shows that Bridgestone/Firestone knew that a ply would reduce the incidents of tread separation significantly but chose not to use them," said Sean Kane of Strategic Safety, a research firm that works for plaintiff's attorneys.
Bridgestone/Firestone spokeswoman Jill Bratina said the Dueler tire had other changes besides the cap strips and are a different design than the Wilderness AT tire involved in the trial and the company's recall. She said the company's position is that nylon caps only make a difference when tires are going above highway speeds.
"They in no way affect the performance at normal speed," she said.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Dr. Joel Rodriguez, who was injured along with his brother, wife and son when their sport utility vehicle blew a tire and flipped on a Mexican toll road last year. The accident left Rodriguez's 39-year-old wife, Marisa, with garbled speech, an IQ of 79 and needing a wheelchair for the rest of her life.
Attorneys for Rodriguez have already settled their case against Ford for $6 million, according to court documents.
Yesterday was the fourth day in a fast-paced trial, with more than a dozen witnesses already. It is the first lawsuit involving a Ford Explorer with Bridgestone/Firestone tires to go to trial. The tire company has settled more than 150 cases out of court.
Testimony was expected to continue through tomorrow morning with jurors beginning their deliberations early next week.
Bridgestone/Firestone attorneys, who may begin presenting their case before the end of the week, said they will show jurors that the tires did not cause the wreck.