WASHINGTON-As Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. awaits the government's decision on further recalls of Firestone tires, it continues to face massive financial claims based on tires already recalled.
Jury selection began Aug. 7 in a suit in McAllen, Texas, federal court filed by Joel Rodriguez, whose wife was left brain-damaged and wheelchair-bound in the rollover accident of the family's Ford Explorer equipped with Firestone tires. A day earlier, Judge Filemon Vela of the federal court blocked a motion by Mr. Rodriguez's attorneys to remand the case to a Texas state court.
Meanwhile, State Farm Insurance and Allstate Insurance Co. confirmed a news report that they seek reimbursement of claims paid to BFS and Ford Motor Co. in connection with accidents involving the Ford Explorer and recalled Firestone tires. A State Farm spokesman, however, said his company's seeking repayment of those claims is nothing new, and in fact long predates the August 2000 recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires.
Joel Rodriguez, his wife Marisa and their two children, all of Pharr, Texas, were driving in Mexico in March 2000 when one of their tires failed. The vehicle rolled over, and all four Rodriguezes were injured. Mrs. Rodriguez, according to the suit, can no longer walk or feed herself and has difficulty speaking.
Mr. Rodriguez filed suit against Bridgestone/Firestone, Ford and the Ford dealer from whom he purchased the Explorer. He settled with Ford and the Ford dealer in July.
The trial had already been scheduled to begin in state court Aug. 13 when Judge Vela issued his ruling Aug. 6 asserting the federal court's jurisdiction. Mr. Rodriguez's attorneys could not be reached for comment, but they told Bloomberg News and other news sources that they were ready for trial despite the judge's surprise ruling.
BFS praised Judge Vela's decision in an Aug. 6 press release. The ruling ``affirms the longstanding constitutional principle that parties from different states have the right to have their case heard in federal court,'' the tire maker said.
Ironically, BFS originally tried to get Judge Vela to recuse himself from the Rodriguez case, on the grounds that his son, Filemon Vela Jr., represents a plaintiff in another Firestone trial. The judge declined saying, according to news reports, that if a personal relationship with a plaintiff's attorney in a Firestone trial were grounds for recusal, there would be no judges left to try the cases.
Judge Vela told the Associated Press that the trial would begin Aug. 13 and last two weeks. A BFS spokesman, meanwhile, confirmed that the tire maker has settled more than 150 cases to date involving the recalled tires. Both sides were quoted as saying that a settlement was still possible.
Both State Farm and Allstate, meanwhile, said they want to get back some of the money they've paid out to finance those settlements and jury awards.
``Allstate's aggressively attempting to recover the costs of claims from both companies,'' said a spokeswoman for the Northbrook, Ill.-based insurer. ``We have not filed any litigation to date, but we have submitted claims to both companies.'' She said she did not know how many claims or how much money was involved, or whether Allstate had set a deadline for Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford to repay the claims.
A spokesman for State Farm at its Bloomington, Ill., headquarters also declined to give the number of claims and amount of money involved, saying that information was proprietary.
``We've made claims against Firestone for more than three years,'' the spokesman said. ``With Ford, we've made claims probably just within the last year.'' State Farm plans no general litigation against either company, because every claim is handled on an individual basis and only in a few cases has a lawsuit been necessary, he added.
A Ford spokesman said he knew little about claims filed by State Farm or Allstate involving the Ford Explorer.
``In any insurance company, that's subrogation,'' he said. ``I'm sure that if they had any claims related to the vehicle, they'd file a claim with us. But up to this point, that's been very rare. All we can say at this point is that we'll deal with them on a case-by-case basis.''
State Farm already had submitted claims to Bridgestone/Firestone in July 1998, when it sent information on 25 claims against Firestone tires to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration via e-mail. These claims were a major issue during the congressional hearings on the Ford-Firestone controversy in September 2000, when lawmakers demanded to know why NHTSA didn't start investigating the tires then.
The agency started investigating Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires in May 2000, and BFS recalled 14.4 million of the tires-an estimated 6.5 million of which were still on the road-three months later.
NHTSA told the tire maker in July 2001 that it would recommend the recall of more Firestone tires. Bridgestone/Firestone CEO John T. Lampe, however, vowed to fight a further recall-in court if need be.