INDIANAPOLIS (March 29, 2002)—Both Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford Motor Co. say they will appeal an Indianapolis federal judge's decision to keep 121 Ford-Firestone lawsuits involving Venezuelan and Colombian defendants in U.S. courts.
The U.S. is the appropriate place for the lawsuits to be heard involving rollovers of Ford Explorers and tread separations on the vehicles' Firestone tires, ruled Judge Sarah Evans Barker of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana in a March 25 decision.
Ms. Barker is the judge in charge of the consolidated litigation against Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone for the personal injury and wrongful death cases arising from Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires that were original equipment on Ford Explorers.
Of about 700 cases involving Ford and Firestone in U.S. courts, some 200 were filed by foreign plaintiffs. Most come from Venezuela and Colombia, but some also have been filed on behalf of plaintiffs from Ecuador, Mexico, Argentina, Panama, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Thailand and the United Kingdom.
Ford and Firestone argue that those cases can be fairly adjudicated only in the countries where the accidents occurred, particularly since the vehicles and tires often were manufactured in those countries.
Plaintiffs' attorneys, however, argue that the products were designed in the U.S., and thus subject to U.S. law. They also claim the companies deliberately hid from U.S. regulators information on defects in the Venezuelan vehicles and tires—a charge the companies deny.
Indeed, a consumer satisfaction campaign in Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador played a key role in the events leading up to the recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires and the passage of the Transportation Recall Efficiency, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act.
In August 1999, Ford replaced the Firestone Wilderness OE tires on 40,000 Ford Explorers and other Ford sport-utility vehicles in the three South American countries. The replacement tires were Goodyear Wranglers with a higher temperature resistance rating than the Wilderness tires.
Later, Ford also discovered that many of the Wilderness tires did not have nylon cap plies, although they were marked as having them.
At the time, no U.S. auto or tire maker was legally bound to report a foreign recall or consumer satisfaction program to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The Venezuelan action, plus a similar one in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf, led Congress to make the reporting of foreign recalls and adjustments a key part of the TREAD Act.
Ms. Barker's decision has significant future precedental value, according to Tab Turner, a Little Rock, Ark., plaintiffs' attorney involved in the Ford-Firestone cases.
This marks the first time a U.S. judge has recognized the right of foreign nationals to sue in U.S. courts for products designed in or imported from the U.S., he said.
The decision also has a significant direct impact on Ford and Firestone, according to Mr. Turner.
“In Venezuela or Colombia, Ford and Firestone would pay 5 or 10 cents on the dollar on those cases,” he said. “But in the U.S., they become just as much a subject for settlement as any other cases. That means they must come up with the extra revenue to settle more than 100 cases they weren't planning to settle—and when you settle that many cases, you're not talking nickels and dimes.”
“It's not a ruling that makes sense,” said a Ford spokeswoman, affirming her company's decision to appeal. “You're allowing individuals from other countries to sue in U.S. courts without giving the companies access for discovery or witnesses.”
In a prepared statement, Bridgestone/Firestone said it was disappointed with the judge's ruling.
“We believe these disputes should be resolved in the countries where the accidents occurred, where the plaintiffs and their families live, and where the witnesses and investigating officers are located,” the company said. “Further, the majority of these accidents involved Venezuelan-made Explorers with Venezuelan-made tires.”
This is the second decision by Ms. Barker since the New Year that Ford and Firestone have resolved to appeal.
On Feb. 12, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to hear the firms' appeal of Ms. Barker's certification of a product liability class-action lawsuit against them.