Firestone and Ford: the Tire Tread Separation Tragedy

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Case 30
Firestone and Ford: The Tire Tread
Separation Tragedy

I

t is often tricky to know when an ethical or
social issue really begins. Does it begin before it
is “recognized” or “identified” as an issue?
Does it begin when an isolated manager recognizes an incident or a trend and reports it via a memo to his superiors? Does it begin once the
media get hold of information and the frenzy
begins? Such questions arise in the case of the
Firestone–Ford tire tread separation debacle that
began dominating business news in the fall of
2000, with implications for passenger safety that
continue today.
Ask any consumer about the two most critical
features of safety on their automobiles, and most
will quickly respond—brakes and tires. It is not
surprising, then, that the tire tread separations that
began appearing on certain categories of Firestone
tires, especially those associated with the Ford
Explorer, caught the public’s attention like few
other recent product safety issues.
Was this a tire problem or an SUV problem?
Was this Firestone’s problem or Ford’s problem?
Were both companies responsible for what happened? Were government regulations administered through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) adequate to protect the
public? These questions are simple to ask but
difficult to answer because they are complex.
Let’s start where the “public” knowledge of the
product dangers began to surface—with a couple
of accidents reported since 1998.

This case was written/updated by Archie B. Carroll, University of Georgia.

TWO KEY ACCIDENTS
Jessica LeAnn Taylor was a 14-year-old junior high
school cheerleader on the way to a homecoming
football game near her hometown of Mexia, Texas,
on October 16, 1998. She was in a Ford Explorer
SUV, driven by a friend of her mother’s, when the
tread on the left-rear Firestone ATX tire allegedly
“peeled off like a banana,” leading the Explorer to
veer left and roll over. Jessica died in this
accident.1 In another incident, two years later,
Victor Rodriguez and his family piled into the
family’s Ford Explorer over Labor Day weekend
and prepared to visit a sick aunt at a hospital in
Laredo, Texas. As Rodriguez started down Interstate 35, he was startled by a thumping sound and looked in his rearview mirror to see the tread
shredding off one of his Firestone Wilderness AT
tires. Rodriguez was unable to control his vehicle.
It flipped, ejecting five of its passengers. Among
the passengers was his 10-year-old son, Mark
Anthony, who died instantly.2
Jessica LeAnn Taylor and Mark Anthony
Rodriguez were just two of many victims in a
far-reaching safety crisis that, according to some
accounts, had taken the lives of close to 90
Americans by fall 2000 and had “driven fear into
the hearts of motorists” who had begun to think of
the sport utility vehicle as the ideal family car.
A KEY COURT VICTORY
A number of different people brought the tire
safety/SUV tragedy to the public’s attention. One
account gives the credit to Jessica Taylor’s family
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Case 30

| Firestone and Ford: The Tire Tread Separation Tragedy

lawyer, Randy Roberts, because of his tenacity.
Roberts was a small-town lawyer, and when he
took the case, he realized there was not much hope
of taking on a corporate giant such as Firestone, a
unit of Japan’s Bridgestone Corporation. As many
other tire companies have successfully done in the
past, Firestone ruled out a tire problem at the very
outset. It and other companies have been successful in keeping lawsuits and consumer complaint data confidential, or private, saying the Taylor
accident was similar to only one other with which
they were familiar. Randy Roberts did not buy this
argument, and in November 1999, he won a
crucial victory from state judge Sam Bournias,
who ordered Firestone to turn over any information on complaints or other lawsuits, as well as employee depositions...
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