WITNESS in federal court trial describes tire blowout and rollover that injured family of four

Tuesday, August 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

McALLEN, Texas (AP) _ A witness testified Tuesday that he was driving his brother's Ford Explorer when it blew a tire and rolled over on a Mexican highway, and recalled seeing his relatives bloodied and bruised.

``I felt my eyes rolling and I felt blood on my face,'' Dr. Hoel Rodriguez testified.

Hoel Rodriguez, 35, his brothers Dr. Joel Rodriguez and Jorge Rodriguez, and Joel Rodriguez's wife, Marisa, were injured in the accident as they returned to Texas from Monterrey, Mexico.

Marisa Rodriguez, 39, was paralyzed in the accident and needs a wheelchair.

``I thought she was dead at the time,'' Hoel Rodriguez testified.

The Rodriguez family is suing the maker of the tire, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., for $1 billion in the first tire-defect case against the company to go to trial.

The company's lawyers say Bridgestone/Firestone is blameless.

``While Firestone is responsible for the tire, Ford is responsible for the safety of the entire vehicle,'' Firestone attorney Knox Nunnally said in Monday's opening statements.

Bridgestone/Firestone tires have been linked to 203 U.S. traffic deaths and more than 700 injuries. Last summer, Firestone recalled 6.5 million tires, many of which came on Fords. In May, Ford Motor Co. said it would replace 13 million Firestone tires.

Family attorneys told jurors the case is about getting the tire company to stop blaming Ford, broaden its recall and take responsibility for marketing faulty products.

``The recall's limited, and Firestone still doesn't accept responsibility,'' said Rodriguez family attorney Ricardo Garcia.

The family previously settled with Ford and the dealership where they bought the Explorer. Ford spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes would not disclose the amount.

Nunnally said he will show that the tires were not defective when they left the factory and that tread separation does not cause the type of rollover the Rodriguezes suffered.

Firestone has settled more than 150 cases, mostly involving tires on Explorers, for undisclosed sums. Company spokeswoman Jill Bratina said Sunday that a settlement was not likely in the Rodriguez case.

In videotaped depositions shown in court Tuesday, quality control engineers from Bridgestone/Firestone described how stresses cause cracks that spread until tires fell apart.

That does not mean the tires were defective or responsible for accidents such as the Rodriguezes', said Harry McMillan, former manager of the Decatur, Ill., plant named in the recall.

``I think that regretfully there is a combination of factors here _ vehicle, usage, air pressure load, heat,'' he said. The majority of the accidents have happened in the South, and high temperatures are considered another factor in the tire failures.