Firestone deal done, focus shifts to Ford
By ANITA KUMAR
© St. Petersburg Times,
The Florida Attorney General's Office is launching a full-blown investigation into Ford Motor Co., trying to prove that the automaker shares the blame in rollover accidents that led to hundreds of deaths nationwide.
Attorney General Bob Butterworth will use $2.3-million that the state will receive from a settlement announced Thursday with Ford's former partner, Bridgestone/Firestone Corp., to try to show that Ford is just as, or perhaps even more, responsible than the tiremaker.
The inquiry, expected to take several months, likely will end with the state suing Ford on behalf of its residents or striking a deal with the second-largest automaker, much like the one with Firestone filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court on Thursday.
Without admitting any wrongdoing, Firestone agreed to a settlement with Florida and other states that calls for the tiremaker to pay $41.5-million to the states and up to $10-million to reimburse customers denied compensation in tire recalls, and to undergo company-wide changes.
Florida's share will be $500,000 -- the same as other states -- and about $1.8-million for reimbursement of attorneys' fees.
"Even before the settlement, we had an impact," Butterworth said Thursday. "We changed the corporate culture of Firestone."
The tiremaker, hard hit in recent years with financial and consumer confidence problems, struck a deal with 53 states and territories to discontinue making and selling unsafe tires, provide clear warranty and safety information, and stop marketing dangerous tires as appropriate for sport utility vehicles.
The company would be subject to fees or other penalties if it failed to comply.
Firestone officials described the settlement as another important step in the company's effort to resolve recall-related issues but strongly disagreed with many of the accusations.
"We ... believe that these efforts have allowed us to reach an acceptable agreement that permits us to focus our energies and our resources on rebuilding our company and the Firestone brand," Firestone president John Lampe said in a statement.
Attorneys general had threatened to sue both Ford and Firestone but negotiated a settlement with the tiremaker before filing.
Florida began parallel inquiries into Firestone and Ford in August 2000. Butterworth said he spent 10 percent of his time on the case this year.
The attorney general said concluding the Firestone investigation will allow his staff to devote undivided time to the more complicated Ford case, which includes the review of 4.5-million company documents housed in Tallahassee.
As part of the settlement, Firestone agreed to testify against Ford in any future legal action brought by the states -- one of the most valuable aspects of the agreement, Butterworth stressed.
"The company will now provide sworn testimony and otherwise cooperate with the ongoing investigation," he said. "That should help us better determine all the factors involved in the rash of vehicle rollovers and take further steps to reduce or eliminate the risk."
The states accuse Ford of failing to tell consumers about the dangers of the combination of certain SUVs and tires, hiding overseas recalls from customers and forcing Firestone to slash costs -- which made tires considerably less safe -- to keep doing business with Ford.
Ford spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes declined to comment Thursday on the Firestone settlement. She said that the company was cooperating fully with the attorneys general but that describing their actions as an investigation into Ford was wrong.
"So far, there are tire problems, not vehicle problems," she said.
The federal agency that oversees the auto industry estimates 271 people died and hundreds more were injured in the United States in accidents related to Firestone tires. Most of them involved rollovers of the Ford Explorer, the best-selling SUV in the world.
A St. Petersburg Times analysis found 44 people have been killed and 230 injured in Florida alone since 1997 in SUVs equipped with Firestone tires, making it one of the leading states for those types of crashes. Firestone has spent about $18.6-million to replace 208,407 tires in Florida.
The Firestone lawsuit and settlement, filed simultaneously in the 50 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, blames Firestone for engaging in unfair and deceptive trade practices in manufacturing, advertising, marketing and sale of certain tires.
Florida, along with Tennessee, Texas, Georgia, Connecticut and Wisconsin, led the inquiry into Firestone and will do the same with Ford.
Butterworth acknowledged that the amount of money the states will receive in the Firestone settlement is low, but said the states did not want to bankrupt the company, which already has spent more than $1-billion on the recall.
"We wanted to leave enough money out there," he said. "We wanted to leave them in a position to resolve individual claims of those who lost loved ones or require medical treatment."
About 400 lawsuits against Ford and Firestone, including in a class-action suit in federal court, have not been resolved, said Tab Turner, a Little Rock, Ark., lawyer specializing in vehicle rollover cases. The companies have settled another 200.
Seymour Kantor, father of a 19-year-old Florida State University student killed last year, wondered if the settlement with states would provide Firestone incentive to settle his lawsuit.
"Hopefully this approach by Firestone will mean something," Kantor said. "The way they have behaved is criminal. They knew about this for years and still haven't come forward and admit that."
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire