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28 Deaths in Mexico Linked to Firestone Tires, Lawyers Say

October 21, 2000|JAMES F. SMITH and TERRIL YUE JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MEXICO CITY — The worldwide legal headaches of Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone have widened to include Mexico, where a law firm said Friday that complaints are surfacing each day of serious accidents involving Ford Explorers mounted with defective Firestone tires.

The law firm, Servicios Legales Internacionales, says it has filed 12 lawsuits against Ford and Firestone in Nashville, in connection with 28 deaths in Mexico that purportedly resulted from such accidents. Attorney Wilfrido Garcia said his team is investigating four more accidents that led to an additional seven deaths.

Bridgestone/Firestone public relations manager Susan Sizemore said Friday that its Mexican subsidiary had not been informed by Mexican officials or any customers of a single death in Mexico involving Ford Explorers and Firestone tires.

"We've definitely been made aware of the [Mexican] lawsuits," she said. "We don't know the details but we obviously take them very seriously and will look at them on a case-by-case basis."

Ford has not detected a pattern of complaints or accidents involving trucks using the suspect Firestone tires in Mexico, Ford spokesman Jon Harmon said. "We've been through a lot of history, and we're not aware of any such trends."

A spokesman for Mexico's consumer protection agency said no complaints had been received of any deaths or injuries relating to Explorers and Firestone tires.

Still, the Mexican lawsuits add another dimension to the problems facing Ford and Firestone internationally. Venezuela has blamed faulty Firestone tires on Explorers for 46 deaths, and its consumer protection agency has opened a criminal investigation. Fatal accidents have also been reported in Saudi Arabia involving Explorers fitted with Firestones, and that country has banned the importation of all Firestone products.

Garcia, director of the Monterrey-based law firm, accused Ford and Firestone of delaying the tire replacement program in Mexico because the legal system here offers consumers less protection than that of the United States.

Garcia noted that hot roadways are believed to be a contributing factor in the tire failures, so heat-prone Mexico should have been at the top of the list for the recalls rather than at the bottom, where he said Mexico was ranked by Ford and Firestone.

Asked whether there was any such delay, Bridgestone/Firestone's Sizemore answered: "Absolutely not. We took provisions as quickly as we could, globally, to recall tires from the market once the alleged tire failures were reported. Mexico was actually very much ahead of the game in changing tires. They were right in there early."

Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford officials in Mexico have said in full-page newspaper ads in recent days that they have replaced 80% of the 30,000 affected Firestone tires, mounted on some 6,000 Ford Explorers on the roads in Mexico.

Bridgestone/Firestone announced a worldwide recall of 6.5 million Firestone ATX, ATX2 and Wilderness AT tires on Aug. 9; it says it expects to complete the recall next month.

Manuel Cortes, spokesman for the Mexican consumer protection prosecutor's office, said the agency advised motorists in August not to use the questioned Firestone tires and invited consumers to call in with any complaints. Cortes said no complaints from consumers or reports of accidents related to the tires have been received.

Garcia said in a telephone interview that in addition to the 28 deaths, numerous crippling injuries have been caused by accidents. He said the staff's investigations had determined that all 28 deaths cited in the lawsuits resulted directly from tread separations, not from other types of accidents.

The 8-year-old law firm, which specializes in representing accident victims, this month opened a Web site, http://www.llantasasesinas.com (Spanish for killer-tires), inviting people who had experienced accidents involving Explorers with Firestone tires to contact the lawyers.

Garcia said complaints from consumers were being received each day, and that on Friday alone his investigators were checking out four more reported accidents that had resulted in seven deaths in the states of Veracruz, Guerrero, Mexico and Nayarit.

Garcia said his lawyers have held news conferences in recent weeks in different Mexican cities such as Guadalajara to raise public awareness of the possibility of holding Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone accountable.

Bridgestone/Firestone's Sizemore said of Garcia's campaign: "I believe Garcia has been holding these conferences in different areas to bring attention to this, and to drum up business for money. This is an opportunity to get more people to help his cause. There are certainly people with their own agendas in this."

Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is investigating 119 reported deaths in the United States related to Firestone tire failures, said he had no information on the Mexico cases because they are outside the agency's jurisdiction.

But he said that if auto safety legislation passed Oct. 11 had been in effect, NHTSA would have been made aware of problems that develop in other countries. "If suits were filed against a company, or replacement actions taken [outside the U.S.], we would be notified," Tyson said. "Now, we have no way of knowing that."

The legislation raises maximum fines and adds criminal penalties for firms that hide such information from regulators.

There was "absolutely not" any customer satisfaction action in Mexico to replace Firestone tires on Ford vehicles before the Aug. 9 recall, said a Ford official with knowledge of the company's legal affairs. Ford had taken such action in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries in the summer and fall of 1999, in Malaysia and Thailand in February, and in Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela in May.

*

Smith reported from Mexico City and Jones from Detroit.

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