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Former Firestone Employees Testify on Company Practices

By James V. Grimaldi and Caroline Mayer
THE WASHINGTON POST -- DECATUR, Ill.

Four former Firestone employees testified Wednesday that outdated material was used to make tires, supervisors encouraged shoddy practices and inspectors emphasized production over quality at the plant where the company made many of the tires recalled earlier this month.

Wednesday’s testimony, planned before the recall of 6.5 million Firestone ATX and Wilderness tires was announced Aug. 9, comes as officials of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. are attempting to reassure the public about the quality of Firestone tires.

The former employees, who all worked for more than three decades at the Firestone plant here and retired after a bitter strike in the mid-1990s, delivered the testimony for more than a half-dozen wrongful death lawsuits filed against the tire maker.

Just miles from the tire factory, the ex-workers appeared before plaintiff’s lawyers and Firestone defense attorneys in back-to-back depositions in their union lawyer’s office. One of the employees, Joe Roundtree, previously had testified in an earlier case against the tire maker. But the other three were providing sworn testimony for the first time, in some cases, quite reluctantly.

“It is nothing I want to talk about,” ex-employee Richard Tucker said after his testimony. “It is past now. I’ve done what I can do. And I don’t discuss it.”

Federal safety officials are investigating whether 62 deaths and 100 injuries were caused by crashes, most of them rollovers, that occurred after the treads separated from Firestone tires on Ford Explorers.

Firestone strongly disputes the allegation, contained in many of the wrongful death lawsuits, that the company has a quality-control problem in the Decatur plant and that manufacturing flaws contributed to the tread separations. Spokesmen for the company say the testimony is coming from workers who are disgruntled and embittered from a strike at the plant in 1994-96.

“The comments of these former employees should be evaluated with a critical eye given that they were carefully selected -- out of thousands of current and former employees of the Decatur plant -- by plaintiffs’ personal-injury lawyers,” Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. said in a written statement. Officials added that other employees at the plant have positive things to say about quality and management.

The mood at the Decatur plant has been grim since the company singled out the plant for problems and teams from Ford and Firestone have arrived to review manufacturing processes.

In the days since the recall was announced, attention has become focused on the more than 100 lawsuits that have been filed against Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford after Ford Explorers with Firestone tires crashed.