Trial tests Firestone's resolve to fight suits

First case against tire maker is under way in Texas, in wake of tire recall on Explorers.

The first trial against Bridgestone/Firestone, now under way in the town of McAllen, Texas, is expected to do much more than determine if the tire maker is liable in an auto accident last year that injured Joel Rodriguez and three family members.

At the very least, the trial will set a precedent for hundreds of cases pending across the US that involve Ford Explorers and Firestone tires. Depending on the outcome, it could also portend whether Bridgestone/Firestone will even be able to survive.

These profound ramifications aside, the Rodriguez case is also rich in intrigue, ranging from international business (Firestone is owned by Japanese-based Bridgestone) to company catfighting to trial strategy in individual states.

"You can't perfume this pig. This one is a dandy," says Gerald Meyers, former CEO of American Motors Corp. and now a business professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The trial began this week, a year after 20 million tires were recalled and a bitter fight erupted between Bridgestone/Firestone and its business partner for a full century, Ford Motor Co.

Tire maker's risk

While sales of the Ford Explorer - the automaker's top-selling model - continue to slump as doubts about safety rise, it's Bridgestone/Firestone that could be hit hardest by the lawsuits - especially since its pockets are not nearly as deep as Ford's.

"It's interesting to see just how much Bridgestone/Firestone has lost as a result of this whole mess: the value of their company, the value of their brand name, their long-term relationship with Ford," says Keith Hylton, a law professor at Boston University who specializes in product liability. "This is just one striking example of how destructive some of these accidents can be."

In fact, Professor Hylton believes the company faces the real possibility of financial ruin, in much the same way asbestos and silicon breast-implant manufacturers were driven out of business after trials resulted in huge damage awards.

Some speculate that Bridgestone/Firestone won't settle this case, seeing it as an opportunity to pin the blame on Ford. Others say the case will be settled before the end of the trial. Either way, it will be closely watched.

"The first one always sets a precedent. But I think it's important that our concerns focus beyond this individual courtroom in McAllen, Texas," says Ralph Hoar, director of Safetyforum.com, a safety research firm in Washington. "The fact is there are two branches of government charged with creating laws and regulations to protect us, and they have failed to do their job." He says safety standards for autos, such as tires and roof strength, are outdated. In some cases, such as vehicle stability, no standards exist.

But in this particular case, each company says it is not to blame. Firestone claims its tire does just fine on other Ford vehicles, and Ford claims its Explorer does not have the same problems with a different brand of tire. And so, 96 years after Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone joined forces, the two firms heatedly parted ways in June - leaving them pitted against each other in court.

The trouble arose in May 2000, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began investigating accidents related to the Firestone tire on Ford Explorers. The agency eventually linked 203 deaths and hundreds of injuries to the tires.

Four of those injuries occurred in March of that same year, when Mr. Rodriguez, his wife, and two other family members blew a tire in their Ford Explorer while traveling in Mexico. The vehicle rolled over. All four were injured. One is now confined to a wheelchair.

In opening statements Monday, Tab Turner, the family's lawyer, said Bridgestone/Firestone knew its tires were defective and did nothing to correct the problem. The tire manufacturer's lawyer placed the blame on Ford.

"While Firestone is responsible for the tire, Ford is responsible for the safety of the entire vehicle," said Knox Nunnally, who claims the Explorer is uncontrollable at highway speeds.

Court of public opinion

Ford has been quietly settling individual cases, as it did with the Rodriguezes in July, leaving the tire maker to stand trial alone. But while Texas jurors listen to facts, many believe the case against the tire manufacturer has already been lost in the court of public opinion.

What matters, say experts, is not the number of people whose tires fail (about 15 Firestone tires per million). Rather, it's the number of people who fear failure - "and that's a great number of people," says Mr. Meyers.

Yet, consumers are known to forgive and forget. Take the Suzuki Samurai: Sales in the late 1980s were not affected, even after studies showed that the vehicle was prone to rolling over.

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