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Thursday, September 14, 2000 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | NEXT: Preview of Tomorrow’s Program: The Olympic...
2000-09-14

Firestone: Above the Law?

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Bridgestone/Firestone executive vice president John Lampe admitted for the first time this week that it had produced defective tires, and that their design, along with possible quality control problems at one of its plants, appear to be factors in the catastrophic tread failures. It was the first time the tire company has taken any responsibility for the faulty tires that have been linked to 88 deaths at last count. [includes rush transcript]

In recent days, documents have emerged showing that the companies were aware of problems with Explorers equipped with the tires several years before the recall of the 6.5 million tires. A new report highlights that Ford and Firestone knew of at least 35 deaths and 130 injuries before the federal government launched its investigation earlier this year. The companies were being sued by the families of the victims. They have made a settlement with the parents of one boy killed and are negotiating other settlements. The conditions of the settlement stipulated by Ford and Firestone was that the lawyers not speak to anyone about what they found out during the case.

But while some monetary compensation has been paid, no criminal charges have been filed against Firestone. Families of victims are seeking criminal justice, and Attorney General Janet Reno announced last week that she was looking into whether a criminal case can be brought against the companies.

When the auto safety law was first passed in 1966, the auto companies prevented criminal penalties from becoming law. And they have blocked criminal penalties ever since.

Guests:

  • Russell Mokhiber, editor of the Washington D.C. based "Corporate Crime Reporter" and co- author of ??Corporate Predators: The Hunt for Megaprofits and the Attack on Democracy (Common Courage Press).
  • Robert Weissman, editor of the Washington DC based Multinational Monitor and co-author of ??Corporate Predators: The Hunt for Megaprofits and the Attack on Democracy (Common Courage Press).
  • Vicki Hendricks, her 18 year old son Matthew Hendricks was killed in a car accident driving a Ford Explorer when one of his tires exploded.
  • Michael McCann, the Milwaukee County District Attorney. He is one of the few prosecutors in the country who tries corporations criminally in homicide cases. He has ordered an investigation of the auto deaths in Milwaukee County to see if any of them are as a result of the Freestone tires.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Bridgestone/Firestone Executive Vice President John [Lampe] admitted for the first time this week that the company produced defective tires and that their design, along with possible quality control problems at one of its plants, appear to be factors in the catastrophic tread failures. This is the first time the tire company has taken any responsibility for the faulty tires that have been linked to eighty-eight deaths, at last count.

In recent days, documents have emerged showing that the companies were aware of problems with Ford Explorers equipped with the tires several years before the recall of six-and-a-half million tires. A new report highlights that Ford and Firestone knew of at least thirty-five deaths and 130 injuries before the federal government launched its investigation earlier this year.

The companies were being sued by the families of the victims. They’ve made a settlement with the parents of one boy killed, and are negotiating other settlements. The conditions of the settlement stipulated by Ford and Firestone was that the lawyers not speak to anyone about what they found out during the case.

But while some monetary compensation has been paid, no criminal charges have been filed against Firestone. Families of victims are seeking criminal justice, and Attorney General Janet Reno announced last week she’s looking into whether a criminal case can be brought against the companies.

When the auto safety law was first passed in 1966, the auto companies prevented criminal penalties from becoming law, and they’ve blocked criminal penalties ever since.

We’re joined right now by Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman. Russell Mokhiber is editor of Corporate Crime Reporter; Robert Weissman, editor of the Multinational Monitor. And this week they did a column called, "Ford/Firestone: Homocide?"

Russell Mokhiber, what do you think?

RUSSELL MOKHIBER: Well, Amy, you know, if you or I got drunk and got behind the wheel, crossed the center line and killed someone, we didn’t intend to kill that person, but the likelihood is that a prosecutor would prosecute us for reckless homicide. It’s unlikely, however, that if a corporation engages in recklessness that results in the deaths of individuals, that they will be criminally prosecuted.

There have been — twenty-two years ago this month in northern Indiana, a prosecutor in Elkhart County, Michael Constantino, indicted Ford for homicide in connection with the deaths of three teenage girls who were riding in a Ford Pinto that was rear-ended. The doors slammed shut, the gas tank split, gas leaked out. An explosion resulted, and the girls were incinerated in their car.

Constantino knew of a 1973 Ford memo, where Ford put a value on human life at $200,000, put a value on burn injuries at $67,000, and calculated that the cost of saving lives and prohibiting burn injuries by recalling the Pinto and doing an eleven-dollar fix would be prohibitive. So he thought that, given that knowledge, given that cost-benefit analysis that they did, that Ford should be held liable for homicide.

Ford spent $1million, brought in a hotshot attorney from Nashville, Tennessee. The attorney hired the judge’s best friend in this small town in northern Indiana and precluded this and other evidence from going to the jury, and Ford was found not guilty. But that was one of the few cases where a prosecutor had the guts, the courage, to go after a giant multinational corporation and charge them with homicide.

We believe that this case presents a similar fact pattern and that some prosecutor is going to step forward, and should step forward soon, and begin a criminal investigation into Ford and Firestone for reckless homicide. We believe this because the information is now out that Ford was being sued in the early '90s, that NHTSA was getting — the government safety agency — was getting consumer complaints about these tires in the early 1990s. Then in 1996, Arizona state agencies confronted Firestone about tread separations, particularly in hot weather, and nothing was done. Then in 1998, Ford began receiving complaints on Firestone tires about Explorers in other countries, including this email from Ford's regional marketing manager, Glenn Drake, in the United Arab Emirates, in which he says, "If this was a single case, I would accept Firestone’s response, as they are experts in the tire business. Case closed."

However, we now have three cases, and it is possible that Firestone is not telling us the whole story, to protect them from a recall or a lawsuit. That was January 1998. So we have eighty-eight Americans who are dead; we have 150 people around the world who are dead as a result of this. The companies — there’s evidence the companies knew what was going on, and yet failed to recall in a timely manner, and as a result, these people died, and we think this calls for a criminal prosecution.

AMY GOODMAN: Russell Mokhiber is editor of Corporate Crime Reporter. We’re also joined by Michael McCann, who is Milwaukee County District Attorney, one of the few prosecutors in the country who tries corporations criminally in homicide cases. He has ordered an investigation of the auto deaths in Milwaukee County to see if any of them are as a result of the Firestone tires. So, where are you at right now, Michael McCann?

MICHAEL McCANN: Well, we’ve consulted with the medical examiner. Unfortunately — and one can understand this — they have not tracked in the auto accidents what the tire brand was, in some cases, not even the vehicle. So we’re going to have to — we’re sifting — we’ll be sifting through all the police reports in the county, through a county of about a million people. I’m not at this time aware of any such case, but our purpose will be to see if there was an accident causing death or great bodily injury involving the Firestone tire and, of course, particularly if there’s a Ford Explorer involved.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, they don’t check the tires in an accident? And do you have those cars impounded, or can you go back and get that information?

MICHAEL McCANN: My suspicion is that we will be able to find it from the police reports. The medical examiner, of course, is focused on cause of injury and might not appreciate — in other words, that the man died from impact — but would not be seeking the underlying cause or the defect in the car or the tire, or so on. He’s involved, of course; if there’s drunk driving, he will be testifying in a criminal prosecution. In an accident, however — let’s say where there isn’t intoxicants or drugs — he would not be specifically endeavoring to determine was it a part defect, a tire defect, or what else. So I’m confident that the police reports will show that information or at least, in the particular case where it’s not there, will excite our interest. We’ll contact the families and see if we can establish what type of tires were involved.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what about this auto safety law first passed in ’66, the auto companies preventing criminal penalties from becoming law?

MICHAEL McCANN: I think we’re seeing the bad result from this. Senator Specter now has suggested that there should be a crime attached to it. As you may recall, in 1970 when OSHA was adopted, industry at that time fought very hard against there being any criminal penalties for violation of OSHA regulations, and in fact the only one passed was basically a misdemeanor, and there was very little enforcement of it until recent years — the criminal aspect. I think there definitely should be a felony at the federal level. If there were such a felony, of course, our office might not be looking at it. But there’s a vacuum. There’s a tragic vacuum here. And we think this matter should be investigated.

My jurisdiction, of course, is circumscribed by the limits of Milwaukee County. But we’ll be looking back for several years over that.

What we have used in prior cases against corporations, and one of them was an international, S.A. Healy Company, which is, I believe, as I recall, a subsidiary of Fiat, a very large corporation, which we secured two counts of reckless homicide against the corporation for their involvement in an underground explosion that killed several men. And what we looked to, really, is, was there reckless conduct?

Here, no one is going to allege intentional taking of a life. I don’t think that’s even at issue here. And we have laws that address that. And specifically, basically, is whether the defendants’ conduct created an unreasonable and substantial risk of death or great bodily harm to another person and that the defendant was aware of the risk. Obviously in the earlier cases of tire failure, before it emerged as a pattern or a profile, one would not find reckless conduct in the criminal sense. However, if in fact it became aware to the executives in Firestone or Ford, that this was very clear what was happening here and that there indeed was a very mortal risk here to people involved, under those circumstances, then I’d like to see a jury look at it. This is basically a jury finding. No statute says, obviously, after eighty tires, if someone dies — it’s not that specific. It’s a general statute, which means, whether a person acted, or a corporation, recklessly is a jury question.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael McCann, Milwaukee County District Attorney.

In 1998 in Corpus Christi, Texas, Matthew Hendricks, who was seventeen years old, was on his way to pick up his girlfriend. Yes, he was driving a Ford Explorer. Well, his mother is going to be joining us in just one minute to talk about what happened to him.

But as you listen to this, Rob Weissman of Multinational Monitor, as you hear what the Milwaukee County District Attorney has to say, give us your response.

ROB WEISSMAN: Well, I think it’s critically important that there are prosecutors like Mr. McCann. I’m worried that even if there were a federal criminal statute, that despite Attorney General Reno’s comments, that in fact there wouldn’t be a criminal prosecution, because there are criminal statutes in other areas, and there’s been a steady resistance from the Clinton administration and administrations previous to prosecute in a criminal fashion companies that endanger the lives of people, whether it’s by selling them dangerous drugs, by putting their lives at risk on the job, even when there is clear evidence that the companies knew of the hazards they were creating and then went ahead and let the situation continue. So, what we need is a refashioning of our conception of corporations and corporate responsibility, so that we hold corporations to at least the same standards that we hold real live human beings. And we also need to push, not just at the federal level, but around the country, for more people to emulate what Mr. McCann is trying to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s bring Vicki Hendricks on, Matthew Hendricks’s mother. Tell us what happened to your son.

VICKI HENDRICKS: On that night he was driving — and I need to correct one thing: Matthew was eighteen when this happened. He was on his way to pick his girlfriend up to go bowling that night. He had just left the house from having dinner with his father and I, and we were discussing his future for college, because he was about four, five months from graduation. The next thing, I was contacted at 12:30 at night by the sheriff’s department and the coroner that my son had been killed.

It — when we started getting into it, we found that it was a de-tread on the left rear tire of my Ford Explorer. We started really looking into it, as to the tire failure, because the tire still maintained air in it after the tread was removed in the de-tread, and found that it was a defective tire. And the more we got into it and the more we found out, we decided to pursue some criminal — I’m sorry, civil action against them.

During the civil suit, we discovered that they had had the recalls in the other countries, and they had known about this ten years prior, which really angered my husband and I, because we felt that with them knowing this, they should have protected consumers and let everyone know ahead of time, and couldn’t understand why they were recalling in other countries and not the United States, except for the fact of the cost analysis that big corporations always do. We feel, ourselves, that they should be held liable criminally and feel that somebody needs to make them accountable.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the Corpus Christi District Attorney?

VICKI HENDRICKS: We have not contacted him yet. We — you know, this has been a very rough time for us over the past two-and-a-half, almost three, years, just getting through the civil part and getting through all of the discovery of what we’ve found out. It wasn’t until August that we were — that it was confirmed that they did know ten years prior. Now that we have finished with the civil portion, we are looking at what our next step needs to be, and we have not contacted him at this point, but are feeling very strongly that we need to.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael McCann, does this sound like a case that you think should be criminally prosecuted, you as Milwaukee County District Attorney?

MICHAEL McCANN: It certainly should be criminally investigated. You’ll have to show, then, that there — we should point out, too, here that we’re not talking about criminally prosecuting for the manufacture; it’s for the failure to give notice, as this lady points out. It’s the failure to give notice. If, by that time that her son died, that they knew the lethal danger involved and didn’t act, because they have an obligation to act — and under our state and, I assume, most states, a reckless act can be a failure to act when there’s a duty to act, so you don’t have to show that they deliberately acted recklessly. The fact that they didn’t undertake to give notice would be, really, the criminal aspect here.

You have to look at time and place and say, did they know by 1998, the month of her son’s death — should they have known, with all they had in front of them, that this was a lethal danger and that not to warn people was to let this risk continue when it could be prevented? That would be the issue. And it’s a — in other words, what they knew and when they knew it. When you establish that — and it won’t be easy; possibly it may be very difficult — but when you can establish that — and, of course, in a corporation there’s diffusion of responsibility. That’s sometimes why you go after the corporation itself, rather than an individual, because with the diffusion of responsibility, particularly in an immense corporation, you can imagine, it may be very difficult to establish who really made the decision.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to ask you all to stay on. We have to break for stations to identify themselves for sixty seconds. We’re talking to Milwaukee County District Attorney Michael McCann; Vicki Hendricks, who lost her eighteen-year-old son in a car accident, driving a Ford Explorer when the tire exploded; and we’re joined by Russell Mokhiber and Rob Weissman, who write a column on corporate crime. You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. As we talk about Firestone, Bridgestone, Ford, did they make mistakes, or did they commit homicide? How do we treat corporations, their executives, versus common criminals? What is the difference in the law?

We’re joined by four people. We’re joined by Vicki Hendricks, her eighteen-year-old son died in a Ford Explorer when the tire exploded; Milwaukee County District Attorney Michael McCann; and Russell Mokhiber, editor of Corporate Crime Reporter; Rob Weissman, editor of Multinational Monitor.

The issue of settlements being made with family members of people killed. They negotiate settlements, and then the conditions of the settlements, stipulated in cases — for example, Ford and Firestone — lawyers not speak to anyone about what they found out during the case. Rob Weissman, what is the rationale for this? And doesn’t this lead to future deaths?

ROB WEISSMAN: Well, the rationale is pretty obvious. The companies that are settling don’t want the lawyers to publicize — the lawyers or the victims — to publicize the information they’ve found about corporate wrongdoing. They’re scared that if that wrongdoing is publicized, that there will be more lawsuits, more congressional investigations, more media inquiries and more regulation. So they’re trying to escape people trying to remedy the problems that the lawsuits have found in the first place. And the answer to the second question is: yes, absolutely, this leads to greater death and harm.

AMY GOODMAN: Russell Mokhiber, I mean, as an individual, if you knew that a crime was about to happen or something was going to happen that would lead to someone’s death, couldn’t you be held criminally liable if you didn’t let the authorities know?

RUSSELL MOKHIBER: Absolutely. In most cases, individuals are. But when it comes to corporations, it’s a different situation, because of their political power. I mean, I think one of the reasons why there’s such a short list of district attorneys and prosecuting attorneys who will bring this kind of case, not just in consumer products cases, but in construction deaths and other consumer products cases, which Michael McCann has brought over the years — the reason there’s such a short list is because we’re not accustomed to seeing corporations as criminals. We see them as employers, we see them as people who drive the economy, but we don’t see them as criminals. Now, I think that one of the things that the Ford/Firestone case is going to do is drive home the case that, in fact, corporations can engage in this kind of behavior that takes the lives of individuals.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, interestingly, there’s an article saying that the deaths continue to mount, even though Ford is recalling 6.5 million — or Firestone is recalling 6.5 million tires. They’ve only recalled 2.2 million, and the Wall Street Journal today reports on an additional five deaths, including a ten-year-old on September 3 near Laredo, Texas — ten-year-old Mark Anthony Rodriguez, who was killed when the tire ripped apart, the Explorer flipped over, and he was ejected from the car. So this is ongoing.

The other thing that’s happening is in the next couple weeks Congress is going to pass legislation. And I heard the press conference yesterday where all these previous defenders of corporate power who now are talking like Ralph Nader — Billy Tauzin, Thomas Bliley, John Dingle — people who were involved in preventing criminal sanctions from applying to the National Safety Act, they introduced legislation, but not a word about criminal sanctions, not a word about Specter’s proposal. And I think it’s important, given the fact that legislation’s going to be passed, that citizens contact their members and demand that there be criminal sanctions for this kind of behavior.

AMY GOODMAN: You write in your piece, in the column, "Ford/Firestone: Homicide?" these reforms are being pushed, talking about what is being put forward by federal enforcement officials, of increasing penalties, of requiring auto companies to report overseas recalls to federal authorities in the United States, being pushed by the "liberal corporate elite" to put out a very hot fire that threatens not the reputations of not just Ford and Firestone, but that also may plant the seed of doubt in the American mind, in an election year nonetheless, about the ethical foundation of corporate America. What do you think of that, Milwaukee District Attorney Michael McCann? Are you still with us?

MICHAEL McCANN: It’s a clarion call for action, and we certainly need that. It’s by no accident that there are no criminal statutes on the federal code. I’m sure that the lobbyists of those years fought aggressively against it. We definitely need it.

The difficulty is if these happen — I’ve never been in Laredo, Texas, but if it’s a small town, or relatively small, the district attorney may have very few resources to apply to a major investigation. These are time-consuming, and you can expect with a major corporation you’re going to fight it right to the teeth. And in our prosecution of the S.A. Healy Company, they engaged one of the best firms in Milwaukee County, and we went to the mat, went to a jury trial. So you can expect aggressive resistance.

And obviously the federal government, with its massive resources across the whole country, is in much better position if the will is there, is in a much better position. The reason that we got into prosecution of these cases was in part because OSHA up to that point was not aggressively addressing the problem. That has changed, I believe. I believe it’s improved since that time. There have been more criminal prosecutions under OSHA, but we definitely need it. We need the law, but without the will to enforce it, the law itself will lay moribund. So there needs to be both the law and the will to enforce.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to give Vicki Hendricks the last word. As you saw the companies begin the recall — I mean, they recalled the tires in other countries like Venezuela long before the US. Apparently not until the USA Today story in August did they begin the recall of tires here. How did you find out about it, and what was your response?

VICKI HENDRICKS: How did I find out?

AMY GOODMAN: Yeah, about the recall. Just reading in the paper?

VICKI HENDRICKS: No. No. Through my attorney. And at that point, you know, I felt that I had accomplished what I had set out to do as far as the recalls, because that was the main drive of the civil action with us, that we felt that other people didn’t need to be put in the same position that we were put in, because when this happens to a family, people don’t really understand the effect and how far down the line it goes, as far as affecting the lives, of trying to put yourselves back together after such a devastating blow. You’ve got — you know, everyone that has interacted with this one person, who has touched so many lives. And my husband and I always said that it was not an issue of money, because money could never bring back our son. It was the issue of the recall.

I felt real good about the recalls, but now that I’m watching, the recalls aren’t really working as much as they should be. They’re — you know, they’re putting people on waiting lists. It’s continuing to happen. They should immediately remove those tires from everybody’s vehicles that have the ones that are being recalled in order to stop this, because now they know, and it still continues. Why are they putting people on waiting lists? And it’s going on. You know, this is, as far as I’m concerned, criminal.

AMY GOODMAN: Vicki Hendricks, Michael McCann, Russell Mokhiber, and Rob Weissman, I want to thank you all for being with us. Milwaukee County District Attorney Michael McCann; Vicki Hendricks, her eighteen-year-old son died in an accident involving a Ford Explorer with a tire exploding; Russell Mokhiber, editor of Corporate Crime Reporter; and Rob Weissman, editor of Multinational Monitor. If people want to get more information, Rob Weissman, where can they call or go on the web?

ROB WEISSMAN: On the web, they can go to www.corporatepredators.org/focus, and they can get access to the weekly column that Russell and I do, or essential.org/monitor to get information on Multinational Monitor magazine.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you all for being with us.

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