FIRESTONE settles tire liability lawsuit with Texas family for reported $7.5 million

Friday, August 24th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

McALLEN, Texas (AP) _ Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. reached a reported $7.5 million settlement Friday in a closely watched liability lawsuit filed by a Texas family after an accident left a woman paralyzed.

The agreement was announced shortly after the federal court jury began a fourth day of deliberations in the $1 billion lawsuit, the first to go to trial since Firestone's massive tire recall last summer.

The amount was not disclosed, but two sources familiar with the settlement told The Associated Press that it was worth $7.5 million.

``Our mission here, for our family, was to make sure no other person suffered like our family did,'' said Dr. Joel Rodriguez, whose 39-year-old wife, Marisa, was paralyzed and brain damaged when the family's Ford Explorer with Firestones crashed on a Mexican road last year.

``We feel that our objective has been met,'' he said. ``Marisa is the important thing. We think that now we can get our lives back together.''

Federal officials have linked more than 200 deaths to accidents involving Firestones on Explorers, and both companies have settled scores of lawsuits with accident victims.

With more pending, the Texas case had drawn intense scrutiny as Bridgestone/Firestone attorneys sought to assign at least some of the blame for the accident to Ford. The trial had threatened the automaker's largely effective efforts so far to blame Bridgestone/Firestone for accidents in which Explorers rolled when tire treads peeled away.

``This could be read by consumers that Bridgestone/Firestone had the chance to prove it wasn't all their fault, and they blinked,'' said Michael Flynn, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan.

Bridgestone/Firestone admitted no liability in the settlement.

``We are glad we were able to reach a resolution with the Rodriguez family,'' the company said in a statement. ``Since the outset, when we provided financial assistance to help with the family's medical bills, we have been hopeful that we could reach a fair settlement that would also bring closure to them following this accident.''

Rodriguez's brother, Jorge Rodriguez, was driving the Explorer on a family trip when the steel belt and tread on the right rear tire tore apart. The vehicle overturned three times, crushing the roof above the back seat.

Rodriguez delivered some of the trial's most emotional testimony, describing how his once-vibrant wife now spends her days sitting at a table or watching television, a frightening sight to her 4-year-old son, Joel Jr.

``He wouldn't even climb up to the bed or be near her because he was scared. He would tell me that 'My mama is dead,''' Rodriguez said.

His lawyers argued that Firestone officials knew the tread on the Wilderness AT tire was more likely to separate than on other tires but rejected inexpensive changes to fix the problem _ including using 90-cent nylon strips to reduce the risk of tread separation.

``This tire has killed more people than Timothy McVeigh. That is the awesome nature of the tragedy,'' said Mikal Watts, a lawyer for the victim's family.

Firestone lawyers and executives blamed the accident on the Explorer, saying design flaws made it prone to rolling over. They said the tire was fine when it left the factory but began to tear apart after the Explorer ran over a baseball-sized object.

Bridgestone/Firestone chief executive John Lampe testified that tread separation is not uncommon and that other vehicles could have pulled over safely after a tire failure.

Firestone, a subsidiary of Japan's Bridgestone Corp., agreed last summer to recall 6.5 million tires. Earlier this year, Ford and Firestone severed a 95-year relationship, and Ford said it would replace an additional 13 million Firestones sold with its vehicles.

Rodriguez had earlier reached a $6 million settlement with Ford, and that amount would have been taken into account if the jury had completed its deliberations and decided to award damages.

Had the jury decided Firestone was no more than 50 percent responsible for the crash, the tire maker would have paid that percentage of the total damages, minus $6 million. But had it ruled Firestone was 51 percent or more to blame for the accident, the company would have been responsible for all damages, again minus the $6 million the family already received.

Tab Turner, one of Rodriguez's lawyers, predicted more litigation.

``There's going to be trials and there's going to be verdicts,'' he said. ``We've got Marisa Rodriguezes all over the country.''

Plaintiffs' attorneys said they had not discussed a settlement for about three days until Friday morning, when Turner approached Firestone attorney Knox Nunnally.

After announcing the settlement, the judge recommended that jurors not speak to the press about the case, saying it would affect pending lawsuits.