August 16, 2001 - Expert Says Tires Lacked Key Strip; 90-cent Piece Crucial For Safety, Witness Claims In Firestone Trial
A 90-cent nylon strip would have made the Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. tire linked to hundreds of deadly accidents safer, a tire expert testified Wednesday. The 90-cent figure was mentioned in an internal Firestone memo concerning the safety strips installed on tires shipped to Venezuela after accidents, said Robert Charles Ochs, the former head of product development for Michelin Tire Co. The strips were not used on tires distributed in the United States.
Ochs' revelation came in a videotaped deposition played for the federal jury considering a $1 billion negligence lawsuit filed against Bridgestone/Firestone by Dr. Joel Rodriguez and his family. The Rodriguez's claim a tire blowout caused their Explorer to roll over on a Mexican toll road in March 2000, injuring the eye doctor and his wife. Marisa Rodriguez suffered brain damage. The suit is the first against Bridgestone/Firestone to go to trial. The company has settled more than 150 claims.
The Rodriguez's earlier settled a suit for $6 million against Ford and the dealer that sold the Explorer. In addition to Ochs' testimony, attorneys for the Rodriguez's played for the jury the videotaped depositions of several top Firestone executives, including one who discussed cost-cutting steps at manufacturing plants. Firestone Chief Executive John Lampe acknowledged that an employee suggested the company could save 90 cents a tire by not using the nylon strips on the almost 285,000 15-inch Wilderness ATs produced annually in the United States.
The Firestone executives seemed unfamiliar with crucial details of the Firestone tires involved in 203 U.S. traffic deaths and more than 700 injuries. Tab Turner, the lead attorney for the Rodriguez family, asked Ochs how much it would have cost to install the nylon safety strip on the tires Firestone developed especially for the Ford Explorer.
"There is an estimate in a Firestone document I've seen of 90 cents a tire," Ochs answered, referring to the cost on tires shipped to Venezuela. During the trial, Firestone executives have been questioned about a meeting in Venezuela with Ford executives in 1997. Venezuelan attorneys reported 60 rollovers of Explorers - many of them fatal - after the tread came off Firestone tires.
Ochs showed jurors the defects of the shredded Firestone tire from the Rodriguez's' 1998 Ford Explorer. He said the tire's two steel belts had come apart over a long period of time before they separated, disputing assertions by Firestone that the separation took place because the tire was damaged 1,500 to 2,000 miles before the accident.
Ochs said the Wilderness AT tires, produced in Firestone's aging and troubled plant in Decatur, Ill., failed as a result of design and manufacturing defects including poor adhesion of the rubber used to secure the two steel belts. Also on Wednesday, Lampe testified he did not know - until his company recalled 6.5 million tires last August - that Ford engineers had specified inflating the Firestone tires used on Explorers to only 26 pounds of pressure.
Lampe said he later learned Ford recommended the low pressure to reduce the height of the Ford Explorer, an attempt to improve handling and prevent rollovers.
Still, Lampe said he is not sure whether he would have done anything had he known about the recommendation sooner. "We've always contended that the vehicle manufacturer has to be involved in setting the air pressure of the tire," Lampe said.
He acknowledged that the company was reducing the time it cured its tires at the Decatur plant. "Did you know they were reducing curing time for these tires at the plant to save money?" Lampe was asked on the videotape. "Being able to reduce curing time would be a way to increase production," he replied. "Make more tires in a shorter period of time by not cooking them as long, is that right?" "That possibly could be the case," Lampe said.
Robert O. Martin, Firestone's former vice-president of quality assurance, insisted that the tires used on the Explorer had the government's highest temperature rating. But after being shown information from the company's Web site that the tire actually had the government's lowest rating, he recanted.
"I'm wrong. I stand corrected, sir," Martin replied. Martin acknowledged that Firestone did not test its tires at the lower air pressure established by Ford.
Attorneys for the family have produced maps showing the majority of Firestone tires failed in warm Southern states, including Texas, California, Arizona and Florida.
In all tire blowout and rollover cases it is essential that measures be taken promptly to preserve evidence, investigate the accident in question, and to enable physicians or other expert witnesses to thoroughly evaluate any injuries. If you or a loved one is a victim of a serious automobile accident, call now at or CLICK HERE TO SUBMIT A CASE FORM. The initial consultation is free of charge, and if we agree to accept your case, we will work on a contingent fee basis, which means we get paid for our services only if there is a monetary award or recovery of funds. Don't delay! You may have a valid claim and be entitled to compensation for your injuries, but a lawsuit must be filed before the statute of limitations expires.