A federal judge in Cleveland has ordered Secretary of Transportation Brock Adams, National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Joan Claybrook and one of her aides to appear in court tomorrow to show cause why they should not be held in contempt after publication of a study that Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. had successfully sued to suppress.
U.S. District Court Judge John M. Manos issued the order over the weekend on a motion from Firestone lawyers. Their motion was filed after the controversial report was made public on Friday by a consumer group. The study alleges that Firestone steel-belted radial tires have higher failure rates than those of five other tire makers.
Secretary Adams said yesterday he will not attend the court session. Instead, DOT attorney will present Adams' affidavit which states "that I had absolutely no knowledge of this matter," and that the study was launched without his knowledge or approval. Adams added that many department studies, including this one, are conducted and released without his personal involvement.
It is unknown if Claybrook, who heads DOT's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration which produced the report, will attend the hearing. She could not be reached for comment yesterday.
DOT attorney's would not comment on whether Lynn Bradford, the NHTSA staffer who reportedly supervised the report, would attend the hearing.
The controversy began in early March when Firestone learned of the existence of the study, which had not been released publicly.
Firestone went to court to prevent circulation of the report, claiming that the company had learned that 48 percent of the 41,441 survey cards sent to consumers went to owners of Firestone "500" radials, tires that have been out of production for 18 months.
On March 6 Judge Manos granted a temporary restraining order halting release of the survey until a hearing could be held on the matter.
After hearings last week, Manos extended the order.
But late Friday the Center for Auto Safety, a Ralph Nader organization, issued a press release and what it described as an internal, handwritten DOT memorandum outlining the results of the survey.
The CAS release showed that 48 percent of the Firestone tire owners responding said they had problems with their tires, while consumers using tires made by five other companies had considerably better results.
About one-third of the Goodyear, Goodrich and Uniroyal tire owners reporting complained about their tires, while one-fourth of the General Tire owners had problems.
The best record, according to the survey, belonged to Michelin, which had a complaint record of less than two percent.
The CAS news release said the group had informed Firestone in late November that a CAS study showed "disturbing consumer problems" and poor quality control with Firestone tires.
"When it became apparent to Firestone that the NHTSA survey confirmed the center's finding that Firestone Steel-Belted Radials were more defective than other brands, Firestone went into court to obtain order to suppress release of this information to consumers," said CAS official Clarence M. Ditlow when he relerased the report.
Although Adams said yesterday he has ordered his legal staff to look into how the report was leaked, Ditlow said that by early last nigh he still had not been contacted by any DOT officials.
"I've been sitting here waiting for someone to call, but no one has," he said.