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Venezuela Probes Tire Deaths Case

September 1, 2000

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ Venezuela’s Congress on Friday moved to launch an investigation into fatal road accidents allegedly caused by faulty Bridgestone/Firestone tires mounted on Ford Explorers.

The action follows up on a report by Venezuela’s consumer protection agency that holds both companies responsible for at least 46 deaths.

The congressional investigation, spearheaded by members of President Hugo’s leftist political party, parallels a criminal probe by the country’s attorney general’s office that could result in felony charges against executives of the Venezuelan branches of Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.

The legal maneuverings in Venezuela also coincide with growing action against the two companies in the United States. On Friday, the Clinton administration issued a consumer warning saying about 1.4 million Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. tires are susceptible to tread separation problems. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a statement saying the decision to put out the ``consumer advisory″ came after Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. refused to expand its voluntary 3-week-old recall beyond 6.5 million tires.

Meanwhile, a lawyer and victim of a 1998 accident in a Ford Explorer said Friday he will seek an order from Venezuela’s Supreme Court requiring both companies to alert the public about alleged defects in both Explorers and Firestone’s Wilderness tires.

Legislator Ibrahim Velasquez, a member of Chavez’s Fifth Republic Movement, said he would motion for Congress to appoint a special committee to investigate the consumer protection agency’s allegations that Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone engaged in a cover-up when they became aware of the tire problems. Chavez’s party controls 60 percent of Congress.

``There is a shared responsibility in the sense that both companies knew about the situation,″ Velasquez said on Friday after meeting with the president of the consumer protection agency, known as Indecu.

The Indecu report also said the design of the suspension on Ford Explorers contributed to the fatal accidents and accused Ford of recommending a pressure too low for the Wilderness tires.

Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone face a congressional probe in the United States, where government safety engineers suspect that the tire defects could have been responsible for 88 deaths and more than 250 injuries. Ford began replacing Bridgestone/Firestone tires for free in Venezuela in May.

Ford officials denied Indecu leader Samuel Ruh’s allegation that they misled customers in Venezuela, insisting they addressed the problem appropriately and on time.

``I just want to emphasize that the accusation from the Venezuelan government official that Ford Venezuela lied is completely unfounded,″ Ford chief executive Jac Nasser said Thursday.

Franklin Hoetz, a Venezuelan victim of a Ford Explorer crash, said he would file a motion by Monday asking the Venezuelan Supreme Court to order both the car maker and tire company to warn the Venezuelan public about the suspected defects in both Explorers and Bridgestone/Firestone tires. On Friday, the Venezelan government’s National Ombudsman said it would participate in soliciting the Supreme Court’s action.

``It’s a matter of preventing more deaths and new tragedies,″ Hoetz said on Friday.

Hoetz, a corporate lawyer who until months ago worked for Ford, was on his way to his ranch in 1998 when a tire blew out on his Explorer, causing the vehicle to turn over three times. Both his daughter and son-in-law were badly injured and their 20-year-old nanny died.

Hoetz at first attributed the accident to bad luck until he read about Ford’s recall of Firestone tires on their Explorers in May. He has since dropped the car maker as a client and has filed a lawsuit against Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone in a Miami court on behalf of his family and the nanny’s relatives.

The Indecu report says that Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone secretly agreed in 1999 to add a protective nylon layer to Wilderness tires after accidents in Venezuela related to those tires became more frequent. Meanwhile, unsuspecting costumers continued to drive with tires missing the layer.

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