Ford’s test results of replacement tires, introduced as evidence last month in an Explorer trial in Mississippi, may support hundreds of pending lawsuits contending that the vehicle is unstable and can flip over amid evasive driving maneuvers. Ford has lost six Explorer rollover cases totaling $151 million in jury verdicts in the past year. In a 2000 government investigation into Explorer rollovers, the company blamed the original Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. tires for the accidents.
“It wasn’t just the tires,” said Sean Kane, co-founder of Safety Research and Strategies. “This shows just how on edge the Ford Explorer is.”
In computer simulations used to test substitutes, the Explorer tipped onto two wheels a Ford indicator of rollover risk on tires made by Goodyear, Michelin’s Uniroyal, Continental and other manufacturers, the records show.
The company approved some failed tires as replacements, according to Ford documents. The Explorer tipped most frequently in the vehicle’s two-wheel-drive model.
Ford spokeswoman Karen Shaughnessy said in an e-mail that “Ford performed extensive testing and analysis before approving any replacement tires. No single factor determined whether a specific tire was approved as a replacement tire.”
Ford remodeled the Explorer for the 2002 model year, making it less susceptible to tire-related rollovers, said Bruce Kaster, who has filed suits on behalf of several accident victims.
U.S. sales of the Explorer fell 29% last year. The Chevrolet TrailBlazer, made by General Motors Corp., surpassed the Explorer last year as the best selling SUV in the U.S. for the first time in 15 years.
The records have “the ability to have a negative impact on the Explorer and the image of the company in general,” said auto analyst Erich Merkle at consulting firm IRN Inc. “With the new Explorer, I think they’ve engineered out a lot of these things. But people aren’t going to connect those dots.”
Ford’s trial losses in rollover cases last year ranged from $61 million in Florida to $2.3 million in South Carolina. The automaker lost another Explorer case, for $29.5 million, in January in Texas.
Ford won the Mississippi case, filed by the family of 27-year-old Damond Howard, who was killed in an April 2003 rollover accident. Ford said he wasn’t wearing a seat belt when the car flipped over. The tires on the truck weren’t approved by Ford.
The company has trial dates for more than a dozen Explorer rollover cases this year. It has appealed most trial losses and settled others out of court.
Ford’s win in the Mississippi case won’t help it in other cases, said Omar Medina, a lawyer who represented the Howard family and introduced the test documents. “The tests showed this isn’t a tire issue,” he said. “It’s a vehicle issue.”
In Ford’s tests of replacement tires, the Explorer tipped onto two wheels on 15-inch models of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.’s Wrangler RTS/AT, Wrangler GS/A A/S, Wrangler HT A/S and Wrangler Workhorse as well as 16-inch models of Goodyear’s Wrangler and Eagle tires, according to a Nov. 28, 2000, spreadsheet introduced as evidence in the trial.
The spreadsheet listed the same results for 15-inch models of Continental AG’s General Grabber and Continental models, Cooper Tire & Rubber Co.’s Roadmaster Roughneck and all versions tested of Uniroyal’s Tiger Paw.
In 2001, Ford approved as replacement tires the 15-inch Wrangler GS/A and HT and the 16-inch AP and RT/S, as well as General’s Grabber tire, according to a list provided to dealers.
The computer tests, called ADAMS modeling, simulated a maneuver called a J-turn and were the primary procedure to test for resistance to rollovers, Ford executive Thomas Baughman said in a December 2000 deposition. In testimony before Congress in 2000, Helen Petrauskas, at the time the head of Ford safety, said the company required the Explorer to pass the J-turn test.
Tire makers said they couldn’t comment on the records. “I can’t comment on their internal documents because we don’t have access to them,” said Bridgestone/Firestone spokeswoman Chris Karbowiak. Chuck Sinclair, a spokesman at Goodyear, said in an e-mail he was unaware of any such test and therefore believes any comment would be inappropriate.