WASHINGTON—Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Ford Motor Co. have settled, for an undisclosed amount, what was to be the first product liability lawsuit to come to trial since announcing the recall of 6.5 million Firestone light truck tires Aug. 9.
Meanwhile, two Philadelphia law firms have filed separate class-action suits in Nashville, Tenn., federal district court on behalf of all people who bought shares in Bridgestone Corp., Bridgestone/Firestone's parent firm, between March 31, 1998, and Aug. 31, 2000.
Those lawsuits claim the Japanese tire maker committed fraud against shareholders by deliberately withholding information about the product liability claims against its U.S. subsidiary.
In the lawsuit settled just hours before a jury was to be chosen, attorneys for plaintiff Donna Bailey, a 43-year-old Portland, Texas, woman, said she was riding in a friend's Ford Explorer on March 10, 2000, when the tread separated from the right rear tire, causing the vehicle to roll over. Ms. Bailey's injuries left her a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic, according to a press release issued by Safetyforum.com, a safety watchdog group funded by plaintiffs' attorneys.
Tab Turner, a Little Rock, Ark., plaintiffs' attorney who advises Safetyforum.com on tire litigation, was one of two lawyers representing Ms. Bailey. The other was Mikal Watts of of the Corpus Christi, Texas, firm of Harris & Watts.
Ms. Bailey and her family sued Ford and Nashville-based Bridgestone/Firestone for $100 million. Jury selection in the trial was to begin Jan. 9 in Corpus Christi, Safetyforum.com said.
"The lawsuit was being closely watched because it was one of the first court cases where the role of Ford's Explorer SUV was the focus of attention as a cause of the deaths and injuries associated with tread separation rollover events involving Firestone tires," the release stated.
Although the amount of the settlement was not disclosed, various news outlets quoted sources as saying it was worth somewhere between $20 million and $35 million. Attorneys Turner and Watts had estimated the cost of Ms. Bailey's lifetime care at about $30 million.
In addition to the monetary settlement, Ford agreed to make public all previously confidential Ford and BFS documents submitted to Congress and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"The terms of this settlement are unprecedented in American history for a case of this type—not merely monetarily, but more importantly by virtue of what these companies agreed to do with respect to safety," Mr. Watts said in a prepared statement on the Harris & Watts Web site.
"We are pleased that our efforts caused Ford and Firestone to take actions both to provide enough money to care for Donna Bailey for the rest of her life," it continued, "but also to fully compensate her for what occurred here."
Also unprecedented was the extent to which Ford and BFS went to apologize personally to Ms. Bailey and her family. The Harris & Watts Web site carries a video of three Ford lawyers visiting Ms. Bailey in her hospital room, and also has a copy of a handwritten letter from BFS Chairman and CEO John T. Lampe.
"To be sure, this has been a tragedy," Mr. Lampe wrote. "Yet your valiant resolve, your spirit and your quiet dignity are an inspiration to us all. Please know that I carry you and your family with me in my thoughts, and that you have my best regards and my respect."
Ford settled with Ms. Bailey Jan. 6 and BFS settled with her a day or two later, according to a Ford spokeswoman.
Bridgestone/Firestone, in a prepared statement, said: "Our hearts go out to Ms. Bailey. Her accident was tragic, yet her dignity and her determination to carry on are inspiring.
"Every accident is the result of a unique combination of circumstances and factors. This makes every case arising from an accident different. Thus, it is a mistake to try to draw broad conclusions about public safety from an individual case...."
"...Nonetheless, we can reassure our customers there have been no unusual problems with Wilderness AT tires outside of those involved in our recall of Aug. 9, 2000. All tires, regardless of manufacturer, have some rate of failure. It is unfortunate that occasionally someone will manipulate data about such failures to claim it shows something it doesn't. The reality is, the data show our Aug. 9 recall more than covered the number of tires that needed to be recalled."
The company said it has "a commitment to doing everything we can to restore confidence in our products. And it means we take full responsibility for each and every tire we make."
It is because of the accidents involving Firestone tires—and the lawsuits, complaints and consumer adjustments arising from them—that the law firms of Spector Roseman and Barrack, Rodos & Bacine filed their class-action suits.
According to a release from Barrack Rodos, its complaint charges Bridgestone made "a series of material misrepresentations" to shareholders involving the company's fiscal health. The company failed to mention the "thousands of claims for and complaints concerning ATX tire failures" in its prospectuses.
"Bridgestone made false and misleading statements about the effectiveness and integrity of its product design, testing and manufacturing processes and the quality and safety of its products," the release alleged. The Japanese tire maker also failed to disclose the prospective cost of its product failures, it added.
While the two suits eventually will be consolidated, both Barrack Rodos and Spector Roseman seek to become the lead firm in the class-action, according to Maxine Goldman, shareholder relations manager at Barrack Rodos.
Barrack Rodos filed its complaint Jan. 4. Ms. Goldman wasn't sure when Spector Roseman filed its complaint, or how many potential parties there would be to the class-action. Both firms have until March 6 to find a lead plaintiff in the case, she said.
A BFS spokesman said he would look into these latest suits, but did not respond by Tire Business' press deadline.
So far, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has linked failures in Firestone tires to 148 deaths and more than 500 injuries. Public Citizen has said Ford and BFS underestimated the tires which should be recalled by at least 5.6 million, but both companies deny this.