LINCOLN, Neb. (Aug. 29, 2003) — Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford Motor Co. can't be held liable for the murder of a woman who was left stranded by a blown Firestone Wilderness AT tire, the Nebraska Supreme Court unanimously ruled Aug. 8.
While the court held in dismissing the case that the tire maker and car company could not anticipate criminal acts by a third party, the attorney representing the victim's family said the companies' duty was to inform consumers of the trouble with the tires on Explorers.
In the summer of 2000, Bridgestone/Firestone recalled 6.5 million Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires—many of them original equipment on Ford Explorers—and another 13 million tires were replaced in 2001 as part of Ford's replacement program.
Amy Stahlecker, a 19-year-old college freshman, was stranded in a remote area of Nebraska in the early morning hours of April 29, 2000, when a tire blew on her 1997 Ford Explorer, said attorney Richard Rensch in Omaha.
In his arguments, he said Richard Cook—who since has been convicted of her murder and is serving a life sentence—“found Amy alone and stranded as a direct result of the failure of the…tire and proceeded to abduct, terrorize, rape and murder” her.
The Nebraska court said while the plaintiff's attorney's argument alleges that Ford and Firestone were negligent in putting defective products on the market, it “alleges no facts upon which either Ford or Firestone would have a legal duty to anticipate and guard against the criminal acts which were committed at that location by another party.”
“Our sympathies go out to the Stahlecker family,” a Bridge-stone/Firestone spokesman said. “They suffered a tragic loss. Anytime you lose a child it's so painful, but under these circumstances it's devastating.
“…At the same time, though, we think this was a very good decision by the court because the only person responsible for this senseless loss of life is Richard Cook,” the BFS spokesman continued. “He's the person convicted of her murder, and we believe it would have been a very bad precedent to try to hold Firestone responsible for something that we could not reasonably foresee and we would have no way to protect against.”
But Mr. Rensch told Tire Business the crux of the case is that Ford and Firestone were actively negligent in keeping information out of the hands of motorists.
He claimed that since 1992 the companies have known about the problems associated with the tires on Explorers. By keeping that information out of consumers' hands, the companies limited motorists' choices, he argued.
“She's on her way home, the tire blows and she's stranded,” he said of the victim. “Now, would she have made the decision to drive had she known what Firestone knew?”
He said the first wave of the recall was announced about 90 days after her death and since the case was dismissed with no discovery or trial, there was no opportunity to explore these arguments, he said.
The Stahlecker family still is considering whether to pursue a civil wrongful death suit against Mr. Cook, but the options against BFS and Ford appear over.
Mr. Rensch said since the case was not a federal issue, the U.S. Supreme Court is not an option, and the only avenue left is to ask the state supreme court to reconsider its opinion—but it is unlikely the court will agree.
The BFS spokesman said the Nashville, Tenn.-based tire maker is not facing any similar cases, and he doubts others will come to light because of the dismissal of this case and of similar ones for other products.
For example, a Michigan appeals court recently threw out lawsuits by the City of Detroit and Wayne County, Mich., trying to sue more than 30 gun manufacturers, according to media reports.
Also, the Nebraska Supreme Court itself cited in its Stahlecker opinion a wrongful death case that was thrown out because a court rejected the notion that a faulty lock on a gun safe contributed to a person's suicide.
Mr. Rensch said another similar case is unlikely since the Stahlecker case would act as the precedent, but he believes it was built on a valid argument.
“I don't think any parent I know will think it's too far-fetched,” he said.