By MILO GEYELIN and TIMOTHY AEPPEL
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Moving to break a logjam of lawsuits against Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.
and Ford Motor Co., a judicial panel bundled together more than 60
class-action and individual suits involving rollover accidents connected to
tire-tread separations, then assigned them to a federal judge in
The step forward in that legal case came as
another tire maker, Goodyear Tire & Rubber
Co., conceded there have been at least 15
deaths and about 120 injuries allegedly linked to
tread separations on some of its light-truck
tires used mainly on commercial vehicles, pickups and vans. Goodyear
says it has received claims involving injuries or fatalities arising from 30
accidents since 1994, and leading to 25 lawsuits, five of which have
already been settled.
The legal storm over Firestone tires and Ford vehicle's problems is still
crescendoing. Wednesday, the Judicial Panel on Multi-District Litigation
in Washington assigned the federal cases against Ford and Firestone to
Chief U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker, a former U.S. attorney in
southern Indiana who was appointed to the federal bench by President
Reagan in 1984.
The panel's selection of a judge was being closely monitored by both
companies and the plaintiffs lawyers who have filed 67 class-action and
individual suits in federal courts against Ford and Firestone, which is
owned by Japan's Bridgestone Corp. The suits started piling up after
Firestone recalled 6.5 million tires in August because of a possible
manufacturing defect causing the tires to shred apart at highway
speeds. Most of the tires in question were mounted on Explorers, which
in turn have experienced a high number of injuries and deaths from
rollovers connected to tire failures.
The pending suits blame both Firestone and Ford for manufacturing
defects and are seeking class-action status for tens of thousands of
potential claimants. These include accident-injury and wrongful-death
victims nationwide, as well as some owners of Explorers generally, who
claim the value of their vehicles have diminished because of the
controversy. In addition, at least two federal suits are seeking to force
Firestone to broaden its recall to include all tires mounted on Ford
The multi-district panel ruled there were enough similarities among the
claims to warrant consolidating them before Judge Barker. The panel's
decision consolidates the cases for evidence-gathering and to resolve
procedural and legal questions, including whether the suits meet legal
standards required to proceed as class actions. Lawyers on both sides
said they were pleased with the decision.
Spotlight Shifts to Goodyear
15 deaths, 120 injuries linked to 30 accidents since 1994.
Tires involved: 16-inch Load Range E tires including the popular
Goodyear Wrangler AT and HT.
Vehicles involved: trailers, passenger vans and large sport-utility
25 lawsuits filed, some settled, some pending.
NHTSA received 58 reports alleging failure of 98 Goodyear
Wrangler tires over at least a three-year time period.
Source: Goodyear and NHTSA
News that Goodyear tires also were being blamed in a series of
accidents, reported in Wednesday's Los Angeles Times, adds to safety
concerns for tires on heavy vehicles. "Up until now, [Goodyear's] done a
good job of keeping this quiet," says Christine Spagnoli, a Los Angeles
attorney representing several claims against Goodyear, including one
involving an accident in Saudi Arabia, where many Firestone tires failed.
She notes that, as often happens in such tire-related cases, the tire
maker has insisted on keeping virtually all documents related to its
lawsuits sealed, claiming they contain trade secrets.
The Akron, Ohio, tire maker says it began investigating the problem
about five years ago when claims began coming in. After studying the
manufacturing processes and the tires, the company added a nylon
layer over the steel belts.
"While we were going through this process of looking at these tires,
what we did notice was a change in the vehicles these were going on --
they were getting much heavier," says John Perduyn, a Goodyear
spokesman. Added weight in a vehicle would increase the stress on the
tires and could contribute to tire failures. Goodyear says it didn't
identify any defect in the tires, so it didn't notify federal safety officials
about their probe. The company says that in every case where it was
able to study the tires that lost their treads, Goodyear determined that
it was the result of factors such as hitting something on the road, a
puncture, overloading or under-inflation. In the wake of the recent
publicity, the company says it decided to contact the National Highway
Traffic Safety Administration "to touch base with them and give them
the information we have."
The NHTSA has received 58 reports, involving one fatality, of 98
Goodyear light-truck tires over at least a three-year time period. The
agency says it has not opened a preliminary inquiry into the Goodyear
tire, which would be the first step in any probe that might lead to a
recall, but is "monitoring" the situation. The NHTSA relies on its Office of
Defects Investigation to determine when to open inquiries, but its
approach has come under criticism from members of Congress, who
have seen it as either too quick or, in the case of Firestone, too slow to
The agency has said it does not have a uniform-threshold test for
identifying a defect, noting that some products, such as tires, are
expected to fail, while others, such as seat belts, are expected to work
100% of the time.
-- Stephen Power contributed to this article.
Write to Milo Geyelin at firstname.lastname@example.org and Timothy Aeppel at