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The situation for Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone continues to deteriorate as officials in the United States and Venezuela are now considering charging the companies with crimes. On Aug. 29, Venezuela’s consumer protection agency, Indecu, recommended that the country’s attorney general investigate the companies for criminal negligence in the crash deaths of 46 Venezuelans. And on Sept. 7, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno said the Department of Justice is reviewing the situation for possible federal criminal violations. In hearings held last week, U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, R-Pa., even mused darkly about a possible murder prosecution. Still, lawyers say that although companies and their officials are sometimes prosecuted for products that kill and injure, making criminal charges stick could be difficult. In Venezuela, the attorney general is investigating Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone at the urging of Samuel Ruh, head of Indecu. But lawyers say Venezuela may have a hard time if it tries to prosecute company officials living in the United States. A 1922 extradition treaty includes murder and voluntary manslaughter among the crimes for which the United States may extradite a person to Venezuela. Treaties written today usually permit extradition for any crime punishable by more than one year in prison in the United States and the second country, says a U.S. State Department lawyer who is familiar with the subject. It can be harder to extradite criminal suspects under treaties, like Venezuela’s, that list some offenses and leave others out. The company officials might have to be accused of murder or voluntary manslaughter — crimes harder to prove than criminally negligent homicide. Extradition can be tricky. After the 1984 poison gas disaster in Bhopal, India, an Indian court called for the extradition of Warren Anderson, then the CEO of Union Carbide. An old extradition treaty, which predated Indian independence from Great Britain, plus the reluctance of the Indian government to formally request extradition, allowed Anderson to avoid prosecution in India. Paul Minor, a Biloxi, Miss., lawyer, has been in contact with Venezuelan authorities on the tire controversy and attended the press conference in Caracas. Although he says the case for criminal liability is “very close” to a case of criminal homicide, he is less equivocal about his civil case, filed in Miami federal court on behalf of a Venezuelan family injured in a 1998 crash of their Ford Explorer. Urdaneta v. Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., No. 00-3256 (S.D. Fla.). SPECTER OF CRIME The most alarming analysis of the situation, from Ford’s and Firestone’s perspectives, came from Specter, who noted, “[W]hen corporate officials know there is a danger which might cause the loss of life or serious bodily injury and they permit that situation to continue, that is a reckless disregard for the life of another.” That, he said, “rises to the level of second-degree murder.” The next day, Specter introduced a bill that would authorize federal prosecution “for knowingly exposing another to a risk of death or serious bodily injury.” Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who had urged the Justice Department to investigate Ford and Firestone, introduced a bill that would provide criminal penalties for tire and automobile manufacturers that fail to notify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of product recalls in other countries. The bill is a response to the news that Ford voluntarily replaced Bridgestone/ Firestone tires on some of its vehicles in Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Thailand and other countries without notifying U.S. authorities. In the Senate hearings, Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook called for Congress to strengthen the civil enforcement powers of the highway safety agency and to enact criminal penalties for withholding information that leads to death and injury or for refusing to recall defective vehicles. Claybrook was administrator of the safety agency under President Carter. According to Claybrook, other federal agencies — including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Food and Drug Administration — all have criminal sanctions available to back up their regulatory authority. State attorneys general have discussed the Bridgestone/Firestone situation, with an eye toward civil litigation. Florida’s attorney general has subpoenaed records from Ford and Firestone. According to white-collar defense lawyer Jan L. Handzlik, corporate officials are often prosecuted for environmental and workplace violations that result in death, but homicide prosecutions in products liability cases are rare. Handzlik is a partner in the Los Angeles office of Chicago’s Kirkland & Ellis and chairs the American Bar Association committee on white-collar crime. There are also examples of companies and corporate decision-makers being prosecuted locally under state criminal codes, although prosecutors say the difficulty and expense can be daunting. Michael Cosentino, the prosecutor in Elkhart County, Ind., says companies have a difficult choice in cases like the Firestone recall. “I think they’re caught between a rock and a hard place,” he says. “If they admit they did something wrong, they paint a big bull’s-eye on themselves for all the civil cases.” But in the most egregious cases, Cosentino says, companies that stonewall and leave victims without any realistic hope of civil recovery invite criminal prosecution. In 1980, Cosentino made legal history by trying Ford over a faulty product. He charged the company with reckless homicide in the deaths of three teen-age girls killed when their Pinto was rear-ended and burst into flames. However, the company was acquitted.

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