CARACAS, Venezuela -- Bridgestone/Firestone Corp. refused to attend
a government-arranged meeting Wednesday with victims of accidents
involving Firestone tire failures on Ford Explorers, saying it cannot be
blamed for the vehicles' going out of control.
Ford Motor Co.'s Venezuelan subsidiary did
send representatives to the meeting, and
offered to set up a committee to negotiate
compensation for victims. Ford said it felt "as
betrayed as the Venezuelan people" by
Firestone, which it said hid information about tire problems.
The meeting with some 50 victims, called by Venezuela's
consumer-protection agency, quickly became the latest battleground for
what has become an open war between the two companies over who is
to blame for at least 150 fatal crashes worldwide involving Firestone
tires. In many cases the tires were on Explorers.
Ford contends that tread is peeling off the Firestone tires, causing
vehicles to crash. Firestone contends that the Explorer is unstable and
that its suspension system may have contributed to tire failure, charges
Although summoned by the government agency, Bridgestone/Firestone
declined. To attend "would imply an admission of guilt that is not ours,"
according to Ana Cecilia Colmenarez, legal director for the company's
subsidiary in Venezuela.
Bridgestone/Firestone "has emphatically maintained it has no
responsibility" for the accidents, she told the agency's director, Samuel
Ruh, in a letter.
Ms. Colmenarez said the tire company was cooperating with a
government investigation into the cause of tire blowouts, allowing a
prosecutor to visit a tire plant in the city of Valencia on Wednesday.
The consumer-protection agency's legal adviser, Steleo Pebreanez, said
Bridgestone's absence "implies they have no desire to reach a
He said the companies must cooperate in reaching a settlement with
victims, or would face fines of up to $11,600 for each victim. The
government wants both companies to compensate a total of 104
victims for deaths, injuries and damage to vehicles.
Japan's Bridgestone Corp., the parent of Bridgestone/Firestone, posted
18.90 billion yen, or $172.8 million, in profits for the six months ended
June 30. During the same period, Ford earned $1.5 billion on revenue of
Ford sent lawyers, its purchasing manager and about 50 mechanics to
Andres Mezgradis, legal counsel for Ford of Venezuela, urged the
accident victims to work with a Ford committee on quickly determining
compensation, arguing that lawsuits could take years to resolve.
In a prepared statement, Ford legal director Irene de Fuentes said that
"as a serious company," Ford believed that reaching settlements "is the
best way to help those affected by the problems associated with
Ford also gave the government test results that "confirmed the stability
and maneuverability of Ford Explorer sport utility vehicles," said Ford
sales director Hector Rodriguez.
"We all know that the problem is with the tires," Mr. Rodriguez said.
"In 1999, while Firestone was assuring us that the tires had no
problems, they were secretly compiling information and data about
defective tires," Mr. Rodriguez said. "Firestone didn't give us all the
information and we feel as betrayed as the Venezuelan people. It's time
that Firestone assumes its responsibility and indemnify victims."
Venezuela's Congress is also looking into the controversy, and two
accident victims gave brief testimony before a panel that oversees
transportation issues. The panel planned to summon the local
company's leaders, Jorge Gonzalez of Firestone and Emanuel
Cassingena of Ford, to testify Oct. 11.
Tread separation, blowouts and rollover crashes involving vehicles with
Firestone tires have been linked to 101 deaths in the United States and
46 in Venezuela. In the United States, 6.5 million Firestone tires have
In Venezuela, Ford began replacing Bridgestone/Firestone tires on its
Explorers in Venezuela for free in May. Bridgestone/Firestone has not
issued a recall but has agreed to replace up to 62,000 mislabeled
Venezuelan tires upon customer request. Tires mislabeled as having an
extra nylon safety layer will be replaced with tires having the layer.