SETTLEMENT reached in high-profile tire trial that played out in the likeliest of places

Saturday, August 25th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

McALLEN, Texas (AP) _ In many ways it makes sense that the first trial against Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. since last year's recall played out in south Texas.

Heat is the enemy of tires, and all day long here, the asphalt absorbs the hot sun. The cities are spread out, making long road trips a part of life. There are off-road treks through sand and mesquite; in the west it turns to brush. Pieces of tread are common sights along the highways.

But the high-profile trial and its bigwig lawyers often stood out against the isolated and largely barren region where Marisa Rodriguez was left brain-damaged and paralyzed after a rollover in a Ford Explorer with Firestone tires. Her family reached a reported $7.5 million settlement with Bridgestone/Firestone on Friday.

The Rodriguez family's lawyers, culled from three firms, flew in on private jets bought by settlements in other Firestone-Explorer cases. During deliberations, they ribbed one another about who had the faster plane. Little Rock attorney Tab Turner flew home to attend a PTA meeting and ``sleep in his own bed.''

The defense attorneys came in knowing they had a tough job ahead. South Texas, a region isolated from the north by seemingly endless badlands of brush and cattle, is known for softhearted juries.

``You recognize that plaintiffs like to try lawsuits in South Texas,'' lead defense attorney Knox Nunnally said before federal Judge Filemon Vela issued a gag order. ``It's just the history of what we have seen in jury verdicts.''

So why take the case?

``I'm a lawyer,'' Nunnally said.

That was outside court. In the courtroom, all joking was off.

Press and attorneys quickly learned to fear the orders of Vela, whose courtroom prohibitions included gum chewing, mint sucking, slouching and having sunglasses on one's head. More than one national news reporter was locked out of already-started proceedings and pleas to bring cell phones were denied. Vela chewed out Turner for walking toward the back of the courtroom during testimony.

Then there was the family at the plaintiffs' table: Dr. Joel Rodriguez, a gentle-mannered Mexican-American doctor, his young children and his 39-year-old wife.

The family had already settled with Ford for $6 million, but Rodriguez wanted Bridgestone/Firestone to take responsibility for marketing tires that federal officials have linked to more than 200 deaths.

In Friday's settlement, the tire company did not admit liability, but Rodriguez said afterward that the case had accomplished something.

``The facts are out,'' he said. ``That was one of our main concerns.''

The Rodriguez case was the first Firestone lawsuit to go to trial since the recall last summer of 6.5 million tires. On a family trip last year in an Explorer, the steel belt and tread on the right rear tire tore apart, and the vehicle overturned three times, crushing the roof.

Rodriguez testified that his once-vibrant wife now spends her days sitting at a table or watching television, a frightening sight to the youngest of their three children.

Rodriguez didn't say why the family took the settlement, but observers said it likely was to avoid years of appeals.

``If it was a substantial verdict against Firestone, it was likely it would be appealed and embroiled in the court system for years,'' said Robert Ammons, a liability lawyer from Houston. ``A family has to live with the effects of such a tragedy and sometimes it's better to resolve the matter and put it behind them.''

Some legal experts said the settlement was a victory for Firestone, which may have succeeded in major damage control. Others said Firestone missed its opportunity to shift the blame to Ford.

Firestone, which has settled about 200 cases and has some 300 pending, also had costs to consider. It has been bleeding money defending itself.

A $450-an-hour tire expert testified midweek he'd billed more than $10,000 for the case and the tab was still open. The company paid $10.5 million for a report to bolster an Explorer defect argument. Firestone had internal as well as hired public relations people, as did Nunnally's firm and the three-firm plaintiffs' team.

Analysts around the country commented to the media on Firestone's risk. If the jury had decided to give the family all they asked for, Firestone could, on paper, suffer a loss of $1 billion of its professed $1.3 billion net worth.

As the jury continued to deliberate Friday, Turner approached Nunnally and said 'maybe it's time we talked again.''' The two met in a witness room.

It was not known which way the jury was leaning. Its members were escorted from the courtroom and their names were sealed. The judge recommended they not talk about the case because it could affect other lawsuits.

Texas isn't done with Ford-Firestone cases yet. Two lawsuits challenging Ford and Firestone are already scheduled for state court on Sept. 10 in Brownsville and Laredo.

``There's going to be trials and there's going to be verdicts,'' Turner said.