Bridgestone/Firestone saw two long-standing class-action lawsuit dramas come to court conclusions in less than a week-both favorable to the company but both virtually certain to be challenged.
On March 12, Judge Donald Floyd of the Beaumont, Texas, state district court approved an approximately $149 million agreement settling 30 class-action suits against the Nashville, Tenn.-based tire maker over economic claims from plaintiffs who owned recalled Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT P-metric light truck tires.
More than 100 plaintiffs filed objections, however, and attorneys representing them have vowed to appeal on the grounds that the agreement benefits BFS and trial lawyers at the expense of tire owners.
On March 17 a California Superior Court judge denied certification of a nationwide class-action lawsuit by a Pasadena, Calif., plaintiffs' attorney who sought a court-ordered recall of at least 30 million Firestone Steeltex light truck tires. The attorney, Joseph L. Lisoni, also said he would appeal.
The Beaumont case was an offshoot of a class action in Indianapolis federal district court, in which plaintiffs' attorneys sought financial compensation for alleged economic losses of Ford Explorers equipped with the 6.5 million Firestone tires recalled in 2000-2001.
While the Indianapolis court certified the action, the federal appeals court in Chicago overturned that decision, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case. Plaintiffs' attorneys involved with the case reacted by filing as many state class actions as possible. BFS decided to settle rather than face multi-state protracted litigation.
The settlement includes more than $70 million for replacement tires for plaintiffs; $41 million to put nylon cap plies on various Firestone tire models, including many Wilderness and Destination P-metric light truck tires; $19 million in attorneys' fees; $15.5 million for a three-year consumer education program; and $2,500 to each of 45 named plaintiffs.
News reports claimed the settlement could affect as many as 15 million people. Mitchell Toups, a Beaumont attorney who opposes the settlement, said that number was based on the approximate number of people involved in the original recall, but there was no way to know the exact number.
``We've said all along that we believe this settlement to be fair and beneficial to all parties,'' a BFS spokesman said. ``This is part of our past that we'd prefer to see in our rear-view mirrors.''
The spokesman acknowledged, however, that an appeal was likely. Mr. Toups confirmed this, saying he planned to file an appeal with the Texas Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Beaumont in early April.
``This order does not change the fact that there's just no settlement here,'' he said. ``Look at what it offers. They already replaced the tires, or offered to, three years ago; they already have a duty to make their tires stronger and to notify consumers of any defects; they already have a consumer education program up and running. Bridgestone/Firestone isn't paying $149 million to anybody, and there should be no attorneys' fees because there's no deal.''
The Steeltex ruling is the latest development in one of the most contentious chapters in BFS's history. Mr. Lisoni filed suit in August 2002, claiming Steeltex tires are inherently prone to tread separation. However, two investigations by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)-the second instigated by Mr. Lisoni's own petition-found no defect trend.
Despite winning the support of such consumer groups as Public Citizen and Center for Auto Safety, Mr. Lisoni failed to persuade Judge Christopher J. Sheldon of the California Superior Court in Indio, Calif., to certify the class action.
``The judge essentially ruled that in every aspect of law pertaining to class actions, Lisoni failed to prove his case,'' the BFS spokesman said.
In addition to his petition for reconsideration of the national class action, Mr. Lisoni said he also would begin immediately to file class-action lawsuits in individual states and localities, including California, Colorado, Arizona, Florida, Texas, New Mexico and the District of Columbia.
An agreement with Bridgestone Corp. of Japan, BFS' parent company, not to include it in the class action only covered the original case, Mr. Lisoni said, adding that he would file a national class action against Bridgestone shortly.
On April 2 he also will refile his petition with NHTSA for a Steeltex defect investigation-this time concentrating on alleged ambulance tire failures in 33 states.