Firestone In Tire Talks

Carlos Anaya accepts the "Outstanding Variety Program Segment" award onstage at the 18th annual GLAAD Media Awards March 26, 2007 in New York City. GETTY

Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. disclosed Wednesday it is holding settlement talks with attorneys representing hundreds of victims of accidents involving Firestone tires.

That comes as federal investigators enter the final stages of their probe into Firestone tires, including tire tests at a facility in Buffalo, New York.

The feds' focus is on millions of Wilderness tires that were not recalled and are still on the road, reports CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson.

The government has collected reports of at least 174 fatalities and more than 700 injuries among more than 6,000 complaints citing tread separations, blowouts and other problems with certain Firestone tires.

Firestone spokeswoman Jill Bratina and Tab Turner, a Little Rock, Ark., lawyer representing many of the victims, characterized the talks as very preliminary. The next session is scheduled for mid-May.

"We're always open to discussions that include a fair and reasonable settlement for all involved," Bratina said.

Turner, who already has settled several tire lawsuits for more than $100 million, said the talks are broad and no details for a settlement have been discussed.

Turner appeared at a news conference Wednesday to release a report that puts most of the blame for the accidents on Ford Motor Co.

Most of the accidents involved rollovers of the Ford Explorer, the world's top-selling sport utility vehicle, on which Firestone tires were standard equipment.

Turner said Ford has refused to be involved in the talks. A spokesman for Ford did not immediately return calls for comment.

The watchdog group Public Citizen and Safetyforum.com, a group of attorneys for tire victims, say the report is the "consumer reply to the official Ford/Firestone story."

Turner insisted there would be no settlement unless Bridgestone/Firestone agrees to expand its recall of 6.5 million Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires.

Bridgestone/Firestone maintains the recall announced last summer is adequate.

The only Wilderness tires Firestone agreed to recall last August were 15-inch tires made in Decatur, Ill. The company also recalled all of its ATX tires.

Both companies have analyzed what caused the tires to fail and concluded it was a problem with the design and a unique manufacturing process at Bridgestone/Firestone's plant in Decatur, Ill.

But consumer activists dispute that claim. The current federal investigation includes 15-inch Wilderness tires made in Wilson, N.C. and Joliette, Canada and all 16-inch Wilderness tires.

"The Decatur plant is simply a subterfuge, a cover-up for attempting to avoid a broader recall," said Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety. "They want to place the blame on Decatur, what they should place the blame on is management and design of this tire and they should all be recalled."

The Firestone Investigation
The following are investigative stories by CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson that peer into the Firestone tire recall:
  • New Worries For Firestone
  • The Casualty Count
  • Courting Firestone
  • Tire Victim: Apology Seemed Sincere
  • Holding Firestone, Ford Accountable
  • Firestone And Ford Place Blame
  • Tire Models In Question
  • The Public Citizen-Safetyforum.com report said Ford created the tire specifications, recommended a lower inflation pressure than suggested by Bridgestone/Firestone and had a poor Explorer design that made it difficult for motorists to control the vehicle when a tire failed.

    "Although Firestone's role in the debacle cannot be downplayed, the root of the problem lies with Ford Motor Company," the report asserted.

    The report calls on the companies to recall all 15- and 16-inch Wilderness AT tires and estimates the total to be 16.5 million.

    The report echoes long-standing consumer activist complaints.

    "Firestone has replaced some of the defective tires, not all," said Ditlow.

    Even an internal study conducted by Firestone seems to provide proof that people may still be driving on dangerous tires.

    In the study, Firestone engineers cut open and examined more than 400 undamaged Firestone tires to look for early signs of tread belt separation.

    When they specifically looked at samples from hot, southern states where the most damage is likely to occur, they found problems in 26 percent of the Decatur tires. But other plants were even worse — 48 percent from Wilson and 61 percent from Joliette.

    Firestone says those findings were based on a small sample and not supported by other tests. But the tiremaker's own consultant, Sanjay Govindjee was at a loss to explain the discrepancy when asked about it in a recent deposition obtained by CBS News.

    "Did that cause you to consider this may not be a Decatur only problem?" Govindjee was asked.

    "The results…I found rather counterintuitive…" he answered. "…I can't explain it."


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    • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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