INDIANAPOLIS-An Indianapolis federal judge has affirmed her earlier decision to certify a class-action lawsuit involving potentially hundreds of thousands of product liability plaintiffs against Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford Motor Co.
Meanwhile, Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone settled for an undisclosed amount a rollover case filed by a paralyzed Michigan man.
Judge Sarah Evans Barker of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana defended her Nov. 28 decision in a 67-page brief issued Dec. 31. In that decision, she had ruled that anyone who had owned or leased a 1991-2001 Ford Explorer equipped with Firestone tires on or before Aug. 9, 2000-the day Firestone announced the recall of 6.5 million tires-was a potential plaintiff in the class action.
In the Dec. 31 brief, Ms. Barker refuted all the arguments made by Ford and Firestone in trying to prevent the class action certification. For example, she quarreled with Firestone's claim that ``over 280 distinct tire populations (are) at issue,'' making the class action unsuitable for certification.
``Plaintiffs point to persuasive evidence that Firestone has significantly exaggerated distinctions among the tires,'' Ms. Barker wrote. ``For example, Robert Martin, a retired Firestone vice president of corporate quality assurance, testified that differences between 15-inch and 16-inch tires likely are negligible.''
Ms. Barker also rejected Ford and Firestone's argument that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's procedures for dealing with product liability is superior to those of the courts.
``While we recognize the role that NHTSA plays in promoting highway safety, we also are aware that the remedies available to NHTSA are not the same as those available through the judicial process,'' she wrote. ``Courts should not cede their proper role to an administrative agency.''
A Ford spokeswoman said her company still disagrees with the ruling as much as it did when Ms. Barker first made it, and plans to petition the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals to review the decision.
BFS also plans to appeal, a spokeswoman for the Nashville, Tenn.-based tire maker said. ``Class action procedures were conceived as a way of streamlining the legal process by combining common issues,'' she said. ``The elements in these lawsuits are far too varied. Certification will make the process unmanageable.''
Tab Turner, the Little Rock, Ark., plaintiffs' attorney who plays a leading role in the class action, said he expected the appeals court to reaffirm Ms. Barker's ruling.
``This is one of the largest auto safety problems that has ever occurred in this country,'' Mr. Turner said. ``It's important to keep in mind that the people who seek protection under this class action are a significant group of people who haven't been injured yet, but have been economically impaired because of this product defect. We forget about this huge segment of the population.''
Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone also confirmed the Dec. 21 settlement made with Chuck Burt, a 26-year-old White Lake, Mich., man whose case against the two companies was scheduled to go to trial Jan. 7 in Livingston County Circuit Court, Brighton, Mich.
Mr. Burt was paralyzed in June 2000 when a Firestone tire on his Ford Explorer suffered a tread separation, causing the vehicle to roll over. Mr. Burt's wife, who was driving, was not seriously injured nor was his daughter, who was with Mr. Burt in the back seat.
In a prepared statement, Bob Tyler, Mr. Burt's attorney, called the settlement ``a bittersweet end to the case'' and ``a practical decision...made to provide security to the Burts.''
The Ford spokeswoman noted that Mr. Burt wasn't wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident, whereas his wife and daughter were. ``Seat belts prevent injury only if you wear them,'' she said.