By KARIN MILLER
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The top executive of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. stepped down today after a 40-year career that ended with his company mired in controversy over the huge Firestone tire recall.
Chairman and CEO Masatoshi Ono said his retirement was not linked to the recall of 6.5 million tires because of safety concerns. The 63-year-old Ono cited health problems and his age.
His successor, executive vice president John Lampe, takes over the embattled company immediately.
Yoichiro Kaizaki, president of the Tokyo-based parent Bridgestone Corp., said Lampe "enjoys the trust of the 35,000 employees at Firestone."
"Rebuilding the Bridgestone/Firestone name will require a huge commitment from everyone," Kaizaki said in a video conference call from Japan. "John Lampe is the right person to lead the rebuilding effort."
Ono joined Bridgestone in 1959 and headed the U.S. operations based in Nashville for seven years.
Reports of his departure have circulated since the August recall of Firestone’s ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires, which have been linked to 101 deaths in the United States and more than 50 overseas. The company has come under heavy criticism for its handling of the recall.
During a daylong deposition Monday — part of several consumer lawsuits filed against Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford Motor Co. — Ono said he told Kaizaki in September that he would like to retire "because I will be turning 64 next year and I didn’t feel I was in particularly good health either."
Among his statements, Ono said 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 admission of corporate liability.
"At present, we have not concluded whether or not there was a defect," Ono said. "However, we have to acknowledge there may have been safety related problems — there were safety related problems."
Gordon Ball of Knoxville and Mary Pat Viles of Fort Myers, Fla., represent consumers seeking class action status for lawsuits claiming Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford, which used the tires as standard equipment on the Explorer and other vehicles, breached their warranties and provided products that were not fit for their intended use.
None of those lawsuits involved injury accidents; however the information gained from the deposition will be shared with attorneys representing victims and families of people killed or hurt in accidents linked to Firestone tires.
Ball and Viles are trying to convince the courts to expand the tire maker’s recall to include 24 other models of the company’s tires and be overseen by a judge, rather than the tire maker.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued a consumer advisory on 1.4 million more Firestone tires considered potentially unsafe, and opened an investigation into the Steeltex brand.
Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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