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Feds Will Consider Criminal Case in Firestone Tire Deaths

By Davan Maharaj
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- As the number of deaths linked to defective Firestone tires piles up, pressure is mounting for government prosecutors to open criminal investigations against both Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and the Ford Motor Co. for not warning consumers earlier about the potential hazards.

Already several state attorneys general have asked Firestone and Ford to turn over documents showing what executives of both companies knew and when they knew it.

An official with the Florida Attorney General’s office, which is investigating both Firestone and Ford under the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law, said the matter could be referred to criminal investigators, depending on what information is unearthed.

Attorneys general of several other states, including Tennessee, Georgia and Connecticut, have filed similar subpoenas and requests for information.

Legal experts say potential criminal charges could range from negligence to homicide.

“Consumers are anxious and outraged at the apparent early knowledge of these companies as to the defects of the tires,” said Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who said he could not comment about whether he would seek criminal charges against Ford and Firestone.

The investigation by the state attorneys general comes as bipartisan support builds in Congress for criminal penalties against tire and auto manufacturers that fail to notify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about recalls in other countries.

A bill that seeks to impose jail sentences of up to five years and fines of up to $250,000 is being promoted by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., has gone even further, introducing a separate bill authorizing federal prosecution of any manufacturer that knowingly exposes consumers to risky products that cause death or serious injury.

Specter has said that corporate officers could be prosecuted for second-degree murder if they show reckless disregard for consumers by leaving life-threatening products on the market.

“If I were a state DA and had a case like this (where someone died as a result of a defective Firestone tire) there would be a prosecution at the snap of the finger,” Specter said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

Especially galling to Specter, Leahy and other lawmakers is evidence that Ford and Firestone were replacing tires in Venezuela and Saudi Arabia long before NHTSA’s Aug. 9 recall of some 6.5 million Firestone AT, ATX, and Wilderness II tires.

“It’s an atrocious situation,” said Specter. “They took care of the Saudis and the people in Venezuela before [U.S. consumers].”