McALLEN, Texas-Jurors hearing a $1 billion lawsuit against Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. for an accident involving a Ford Explorer equipped with Firestone tires are deliberating after hearing closing arguments in the week-long trial on Aug. 21.
Dr. Joel Rodriguez filed the suit in federal district court in McAllen, alleging that faulty Firestone Wilderness AT tires caused his 1998 Ford Explorer to roll over on a Mexican highway. Four members of the Rodriguez family-including Dr. Rodriguez, his wife Marisa, his son Joelito and brother Jorge-were injured in the March 2000 accident. Marisa Rodriguez suffered permanent brain damage that has left her paralyzed for life.
During the trial, witnesses for the plaintiffs testified that BFS knew tread separation was a problem long before last year's recall of 6.5 million tires. The plaintiffs also claimed that Bridgestone/Firestone could have reduced tread separation rates on Firestone tires if it had built nylon caps into the tires.
Robert Ochs, a former engineer for Michelin North America Inc., testified that the Firestone tires manufactured by Nashville, Tenn.-based Bridgestone/Firestone were faulty because their treads failed and they lacked nylon cap plies. Defense attorney Scott Edwards, however, presented testimony from Mr. Ochs in previous trials in which he said tread failures and the absence of cap plies don't make for defective tires, according to an Associated Press report.
Appealing to the emotional side of the case during closing arguments, plaintiffs attorney Tab Turner wielded the broken axle from the family's Explorer as he accused BFS of withholding information on tire failures from the public. He told the nine-member jury that he wished the law would allow him ``to take this axle and beat'' the tire maker's officials, according to a BFS spokeswoman.
In testimony via videotape Aug. 15 and in person Aug. 17, Bridgestone/Firestone Chairman John T. Lampe said that if the tire maker had analyzed earlier the claims data on Firestone ATX and Wilderness AT tires on Explorers, it would have acted sooner to correct the situation.
Mr. Lampe also blamed the Ford Explorer's design for giving the sport-utility vehicle a propensity to roll over. He said Bridgestone/Firestone's claims data showed eight times as many claims for tires on Explorers than the same tires on Ford Rangers. He noted that most tread separations occurred on rear tires, which may indicate a problem with the vehicle.
Another defense witness was James Gardner, a former BFS employee who is now an independent tire investigator contracted with the company. Mr. Gardner, who helped probe the Oklahoma City and World Trade Center bombings, testified that the Wilderness AT tire involved in the crash had been punctured by some object some 4,000 miles before the tread separated, according to Associated Press reports.
Before the Rodriguez lawsuit went to trial, the family settled with Ford Motor Co. and a local Ford dealer for $6 million, the AP reported.