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Ford Urges Firestone to Recall Tires in Venezuela

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ford Motor Co. said Monday that it has urged Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. to recall some of its tires in Venezuela and accused the tire maker of failing to meet specifications on tires supplied to Ford for its Explorer sport-utility vehicle in that country.

Ford officials said they had urged Bridgestone/Firestone last week to do a formal recall of Wilderness AT tires manufactured in Venezuela because they lacked an internal nylon layer that could have played a role in preventing the accidents.

Bridgestone/Firestone acknowledged Monday that it provided some tires to Ford in Venezuela that did not have that nylon layer, Associated Press reported.

Firestone “inadvertently began marking tires without a cap ply as tires that had a cap ply” prior to June, tire company spokesman Ken Fields was quoted as saying.

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Acting on its own, Ford last May replaced about 39,000 Firestone Wilderness AT tires outfitted on Explorers in Venezuela after reports of tread separation accidents that included numerous fatalities. But so far, Firestone’s recall has not applied to those tires because they were not made in the United States.

In an apparent rift between the two companies, Ford officials said the tires supplied by Firestone in Venezuela failed to include a nylon cap that the auto maker had specified in its contracts with Firestone, even though they were labeled as having the cap. The nylon cap would have amounted to a fifth internal layer in the tire construction.

Since the controversy surfaced, Ford said it has examined Firestone tires from Venezuela and, “Lo and behold, many of them were missing this fifth nylon cap, which is not what the tire was specified to be,” Ford spokesman Mike Vaughn told The Times. “It was not what we were supposed to get.”

There was a meeting Tuesday of last week with Bridgestone/Firestone officials at Ford’s headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., just outside Detroit, and, “in light of what we had found in [tire] carcasses we had cut into that were returned from Venezuela, we did recommend to them they expand the recall that we had done in May and include all the 15- and 16-inch Wilderness AT tires,” Vaughn said.

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Earlier, Bridgestone/Firestone had denied that the tires supplied to Ford lacked the extra nylon layer, saying in a statement that the tires were incorrectly marked, and that the error had been corrected.

“Our documentation shows that these mismarked tires were indeed the tires Ford requested, per their specification,” the statement said. “The inadvertent marking errors had no bearing on tire quality, performance or safety of the product delivered to Ford.” The statement added that the company has “no plans at this time” to conduct a recall in Venezuela.

It was not clear why Bridgestone/Firestone changed its account Monday evening.

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Meanwhile, the tire company’s legal problems deepened Monday as the firm’s chief executive and three senior executives were ordered to give depositions next month in the trial of a couple killed in Texas when the tread on their Firestone tires failed.

Lawyers for relatives of the Texas couple said they want Bridgestone/Firestone CEO Masatoshi Ono and the other executives to tell what they knew and when they knew about potential problems with the recalled tires, according to two Corpus Christi law firms representing the plaintiffs.

Nashville-based Bridgestone/Firestone is a subsidiary of Japan’s Bridgestone Corp.

“The testimony of Mr. Ono is extremely significant because he has made statements indicating Firestone was aware of the problems with its tires and was taking steps to address the situation without advising the government or the public,” the law firms Constant & Vela and Robert Patterson & Associates said.

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“This will be the first opportunity for Mr. Ono to be formally questioned about his company’s conduct and its knowledge of the defect.”

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times last week, Ono denied a report quoting him as saying that Bridgestone/Firestone had detected flaws in the now-recalled Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT series tires and was preparing to implement improvements in their design.

“In the manufacturing industry, you always strive for kaizen [continuous improvement] in the production process,” Ono said. “We are constantly trying to effect improvements; it is an ongoing process.”

Seeking improvements is “part of the normal evolution of any tire,” Bridgestone/Firestone spokesman Fields said Monday. “It had nothing to do with the safety recall whatsoever.”

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Firestone officials said they will cooperate with the Texas court order.

The tire maker announced Aug. 9 that it was recalling some 6.5 million of the tires after reports of accidents caused when the tires lost their tread. Most of the tires were installed on new Explorer SUVs, Ranger pickup trucks and other Ford trucks. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating at least 54 deaths involving the tires.

Texas State District Judge John Pope ordered the depositions in a lawsuit brought by relatives of Patricio and Nidia Leal, who died in May 1999 near Brownsville, Texas, in an accident involving their Ford Explorer and its Firestone ATX tires.

Pope ordered Ono, as well as Bridgestone/Firestone Executive Vice President Gary Crigger, Vice President for Corporate Quality Robert Wyant and Vice President for Public Affairs Christine Karbowiak, to give depositions Sept. 15 in Nashville.

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The Leal trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 16. It’s the first case to go to trial since the recall almost three weeks ago.

Also on Monday, staff members of the House Commerce Committee met with Bridgestone/Firestone executives at the company’s Nashville headquarters. The House delegation is looking into when the company knew there was a problem with the three tire models involved in the recall.


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