Ford Motor Co. won one tire-related rollover lawsuit and settled another in different federal courts within a week of each other.
On Aug. 18, Ford settled in a case in the Fort Myers, Fla., federal district court in which it had been found 50-percent liable for the March 2001 death of Robert H. Miller, a 57-year-old construction worker.
Mr. Miller's employers had replaced three of four Cooper tires on a company Ford Explorer, but the worn, remaining old tire failed while Mr. Miller was driving the vehicle, causing a rollover.
Besides finding Ford 50-percent responsible for the crash, the jury also found the construction company 30-percent liable and Mr. Miller himself 20-percent liable. It awarded the Miller family $5.3 million in compensatory damages but had yet to rule on punitive damages when Ford settled with the Millers.
Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. was held blameless in the crash. Ford did not disclose the terms of the settlement with the Millers.
Six days later, on Aug. 24, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upheld a lower court's dismissal of a class-action lawsuit by Ford shareholders, claiming the company had lied to them about the safety of Firestone tires that were original equipment on Ford Explorers.
The plaintiffs-acting on behalf of all who bought Ford stock between March 31, 1998 and Aug. 31, 2000-claimed the company misled shareholders by using such slogans as ``Quality Comes First'' while failing to warn them of possible lawsuits and recalls.
In its defense, Ford cited a 1999 Securities and Exchange Commission filing in which the company said it faced 28 ongoing federal investigations of alleged safety defects. The SEC document also warned of possible, substantial recall expenses.
Writing for the three-judge panel, Judge Cornelia G. Kennedy rejected the argument that Ford misled its shareholders. Phrases such as ``Quality Comes First'' are merely ``corporate puffery'' that no serious investor would take as substantive information, she ruled.
A Ford spokeswoman said her company was pleased at the Sixth Circuit ruling. As for the Florida case, ``Our hearts go out to the Millers, and we appreciate the empathy the jury felt for them. But liability cases should be decided by facts, not empathy.''
Thirteen of 15 Ford rollover cases that have gone before juries have been decided in Ford's favor, she noted.
Bridgestone/Firestone (BFS) recalled 6.5 million Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires-most of which were original equipment on Ford Explorers-in August 2000. In May 2001, Ford unilaterally decided to replace another 13 million Firestone tires. This move so incensed then-BFS Chairman John Lampe that he publicly severed the tire maker's decades-old ties with the auto maker the day before the tire replacement campaign was announced.