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Ono: Tire Recall Done for Safety

October 10, 2000

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ The chief executive of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. told attorneys during an eight-hour deposition on Monday that the company recalled 6.5 million tires in August for safety purposes and that the decision did not mean the company was admitting to any product defect.

During his deposition at a Nashville hotel, Bridgestone/Firestone CEO Masatoshi Ono, 63, also told attorneys representing customers who are suing the tire maker that he offered to retire shortly after the company recalled tires that have been linked to at least 101 deaths in the United States.

The attorneys are trying to convince the courts to expand the tire maker’s recall.

Ono testified that the public apologies made by him and other Bridgestone/Firestone executives during September’s congressional hearings on the recall should not be construed as an admittance of corporate liability.

``At present, we have not concluded whether or not there was a defect,″ Ono said in the deposition. ``However, we have to acknowledge there may have been safety related problems _ there were safety related problems.″

Gordon Ball, one of the attorneys seeking an expanded recall, suggested Ono was trying to back off of earlier comments Bridgestone/Firestone executives made to Congress.

But Daniel J. Adomitis, an attorney for the embattled tire company, said nothing Ono discussed Monday contradicted his testimony before congressional committees looking into the recall of tires Firestone’s ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires.

``There was really nothing new,″ Adomitis said.

Last month John Lampe, Bridgestone/Firestone’s executive vice president, told Congress that tire failure had been responsible in a ``very, very small percentage of these deaths.″

When asked Monday about Lampe’s congressional testimony, Ono said, ``I don’t know on what basis Mr. Lampe stated there were defects. Right now what I can say is we have not discovered defects.″

Regarding his offer to retire, Ono said the president of Bridgestone/Firestone’s Japanese parent company asked him not to leave, according to Adomitis.

``In a conversation with Mr. (Yoichiro) Kaizaki, he indicated he was ready to retire. Mr. Kaizaki asked him not to do that immediately,″ Adomitis said.

Last week, Kaizaki told Nikkei Business magazine that Bridgestone/Firestone’s top management would be restructured, though he didn’t specify how.

The company plans a news conference Tuesday afternoon, but Adomitis declined to say whether Ono would be announcing his retirement. When asked whether the company planned to sell the Firestone unit, Adomitis said there’s been no discussion of that.

``We’re committed to our products and to our customers,″ he said.

Attorneys Gordon Ball and Mary Pat Viles want the recall to include 24 other models of Bridgestone/Firestone tires and be overseen by a judge, rather than the tire maker.

But Adomitis said the company opposes that. He said the recall is progressing well and is expected to be completed in November.

Before the deposition, Ono was brought in through one of six hotel entrances, avoiding waiting reporters before he went to a room on the ninth floor for questioning.

The deposition ended around 6 p.m. CDT, and Ono left without talking to reporters.

It was believed this would be the first time he would talk to attorneys suing over his company’s tires.

``We want to know when he knew there were problems with the tires, what he knew, what the company knew,″ said Ball, of Knoxville.

Two other top Bridgestone/Firestone executives _ vice presidents Gary Crigger and John Lampe _ were to be questioned later this week.

Nashville-based Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of Tokyo’s Bridgestone Corp., announced the recall in August.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration later issued a consumer advisory on 1.4 million more Firestone tires considered potentially unsafe, and opened an investigation into the Steeltex brand.

Ball, of Knoxville, and Viles, of Fort Myers, Fla., represent consumers seeking class action status for lawsuits claiming Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford Motor Co., which used the tires as standard equipment on some vehicles, breached their warranties and provided products that were not fit for their intended use.

Bridgestone/Firestone officials have said the cost of the original tire recall will likely run the company about $350 million.

In a ″60 Minutes″ interview that aired Sunday night, Ford CEO Jacques Nasser was asked about the cost of the recall to Ford. Nasser didn’t specify a number, but when asked if it would be around $500 million, he said that was a close figure.

___

On the Net:

Ford Motor Co.: http://www.ford.com

Bridgestone/Firestone: http://www.bridgestone-firestone.com

NHSTA: http://www.nhtsa.gov

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