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Firestone California class-action lawsuit gets boost from court ruling

Fired employee to meet with NHTSA Wednesday

Fired employee to meet with NHTSA Wednesday

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A $3 billion proposed class action lawsuit against Bridgestone/Firestone Corp. is proceeding as planned, according to the law firm behind the suit.

Additionally, a former Firestone technician will meet with officials of the Department of Transportation's highway safety agency Wednesday in an attempt to reopen a tire recall investigation.

Attorneys of the Pasadena, California law firm of Lisoni & Lisoni held a news conference Monday updating reporters on the status of the class action. The suit, originally filed August 12, 2002, alleges a lamination defect in the Bridgestone/Firestone Steeltex R4S, R4SII, and A/T tires. The tires are standard equipment on 71 different types of vehicles, including pickup trucks, vans and ambulances.

The lawyers say the defect causes tread separation, and has resulted in thousands of consumer complaints of serious injuries, including one fatality.

Last week in Riverside, California, Superior Court Judge Christopher Sheldon upheld all five causes of legal action: fraudulent concealment, negligence, strict liability, violation of California Consumer Legal Remedies Act, and violation of California Unfair Business Practices Act.

The judge didn't say Firestone violated any of those rules, but concluded that there were enough facts to warrant keeping the case in progress. The judge also denied Firestone's motion to dismiss the class action complaint, ruling it unlawful. Bridgestone/Firestone had failed in an earlier attempt to move the case to federal district court in Los Angeles.

Bridgestone/Firestone spokesman Dan MacDonald told CNN that the Steeltex tires perform "excellent on the roads," and that their failure rate is "extremely low." He added that only the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has the authority to order a recall.

NHTSA declined to recall the Steeltex line last June, noting in its report that the failure rate on the tires was "low when compared to some competitor tires of the same load rating."

Ray Tyson, NHTSA spokesman, told CNN that the agency has no plans to reopen the investigation, but that it continues to monitor the performances of all brands and models of tires.

Joseph Lisoni, lead counsel in the class action, detailed what he described as a "smoking gun," an internal document from Bridgestone's Tokyo plant proposing cost-cutting measures to remedy what Lisoni described as the tire maker's $2 billion international debt due to lack of sales.

"These cost-cutting measures are directly responsible for the de-engineering of the tire, and they compromised every conceivable safety component known to the engineering field within the Steeltex tire as well as the Wilderness tire," Lisoni said.

McDonald said the internal document summarized a "brainstorming session" designed to "improve efficiency and quality." He said many of the proposed initiatives were never implemented.

Lisoni added that William Orr, a senior lab technician at Firestone's plant in Lavergne, Tennessee, plans to meet with NHTSA officials Wednesday. Orr contends he was fired after he complained to management that poor workmanship and inferior materials were producing dangerous tires. Bridgestone/Firestone says Orr was fired because he stole $7,000, and he didn't raise his quality complaints until after he was dismissed.

Lisoni says he expects to eventually represent over 8 million Steeltex tire owners, calling this is the largest single product liability class action in U.S. history.

Bridgestone/Firestone is still fighting lawsuits in state courts nationwide stemming from vehicle rollovers allegedly caused by tread separation problems in its Wilderness tires, which were standard features on the Ford Explorer and other sport utility vehicles. Some 20 million Wilderness tires were recalled in 2000.

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