Lawsuit demands Firestone recall Steeltex tires

LOS ANGELES, Aug 13 Gina Keating wrting for Reuters reports that a California lawyer filed a lawsuit on Tuesday demanding Bridgestone Corp.'s U.S. unit recall 27.5 million Steeltex tires he claims suffers from a tread separation defect similar to one that led to a massive recall of its tires two years ago. ADVERTISEMENT

The suit seeks class action status and could cost Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., the U.S. unit of Japan's Bridgestone, up to $2.75 billion to recall roughly 27.5 million Steeltex R4S, R4SII and A/T tires, attorney Joseph Lisoni told reporters at a news conference here.

The suit, filed in California Superior Court in Riverside County, east of Los Angeles, is patterned on a landmark 1999 suit in Oakland, California, in which a judge ordered Ford to fix 2 million cars that stalled.

A national consumer advocacy group hailed the lawsuit as an important tool in calling attention to a "stealth defect tire" whose danger to motorists, it said, was as great as that posed by Firestone's now discredited Wilderness tire.

"The problem with tracking these problems in the Steeltex ... is that it is was not associated with a particular make and model (of automobile)," Clarence Ditlow, a spokesman for the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C. told Reuters.

The Wilderness tire was standard equipment on the Ford Explorer and several other sport utility vehicles. About 20 million Wilderness tires were recalled, 14 million by Ford and 6.5 million by Firestone.

Ditlow said, "The Steeltex was the utilitarian version of the Wilderness. They are just as bad."

PERFECTLY SAFE

But a Bridgestone/Firestone spokeswoman said Steeltex tires were perfectly safe and had been tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from Sept. 2000 through April 2002, with no defects being found.

The study "clearly stated there was no indication of any type of manufacturing or design defect," said the spokeswoman.

The NHTSA closed the investigation after determining that only one death and eight injuries had resulted from Steeltex tread separations.

The agency concluded in a report: "Claims of tread separation are not necessarily evidence of a tire defect. Tread separations can also result from external factors, such as tire injury or poor maintenance."

The NHTSA report also determined that the complaint levels recorded between the summers of 2000 and the summer of 2001 "were influenced by the public's greater sensitivity to tire failures in the wake of the substantial media coverage" of the Wilderness recall.

Lisoni said he decided to file the suit in June, after Firestone rejected his demand that the tires be recalled as part of the settlement of another Steeltex lawsuit. That case involved a 1992 rollover accident in Barstow, California, that killed two people and injured nine.

Firestone paid an undisclosed sum to settle the case, he said, adding: "All we want to do is get these tires off the road. Sometimes we have to take the law into our own hands when the government watchdog agencies are not there for us."

The latest suit was filed on behalf of Roger Littell of Riverside, California, who has seen five Steeltex tires on his 1999 motor home disintegrate, and all other owners of Steeltex tires nationwide, Lisoni said.

Littell is a racing car enthusiast and was involved in road testing Firestone tires between 1955 and 1974.

LAMINATION DEFECT

The lawsuit contends the tires contain a lamination defect that can cause the tread to separate from the rest of the tire, "in a matter of seconds, leading to the tire's total destruction."

"Without question, millions of people are currently at risk who are riding the roads on Steeltex tires," Lisoni said.

Lisoni said the tires are designed for trucks, and many are fitted onto municipal vehicles such as school buses and ambulances.

He accused Bridgestone of cutting a deal with the Bush administration to close the investigation with no finding of fault to preserve the company's financial health.

Consumer advocate Ditlow said the attorney's claims were not far-fetched. "The fact that there is a government investigation and they did uncover high complaint rates suggests that there was a problem that wasn't addressed," he said, adding:

"As a consumer advocate I am increasingly concerned that the government doesn't have the resources or the willpower to do adequate investigations."

Two years ago, Firestone recalled 6.5 million tires, most installed on Ford Motor Co.'s Explorer sport utility vehicle, after federal safety regulators linked them to scores of deaths and injuries.

After Ford and Firestone battled for months over which company was to blame for the failures, Ford announced its own recall of an additional 14 million Firestone tires, a move that ended the nearly century-old relationship between the two companies. While the move threatened Firestone's survival, the brand's sales have recently rebounded.

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