In first trial, Firestone settles lawsuit
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McALLEN, Texas -- The first trial to come out of the Firestone tire debacle ended abruptly in a settlement Friday, with Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. agreeing to pay a reported $7.5-million to the family of a woman paralyzed in the rollover crash of a Ford Explorer.
The settlement was announced shortly after the jury began a fourth day of deliberations in the closely watched $1-billion federal lawsuit.
The amount was not disclosed, but the Associated Press, citing two sources familiar with the settlement, reported 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 Explorer crashed on a Mexican road last year. "We feel that our objective has been met."
Bridgestone/Firestone had blamed the accident on the Explorer, saying design flaws made it prone to rolling over.
In settling the case, it admitted no liability.
It was not known which way the jurors were leaning before deliberations were cut short. They were escorted out of the courtroom and their names were sealed by U.S. District Judge Filemon Vela, who recommended they not talk about the case because it could affect other lawsuits.
The case was the first Firestone lawsuit to go to trial since the recall last summer of 6.5-million of the tires. Federal officials have linked more than 200 deaths to accidents involving Firestones on Explorers.
Bridgestone/Firestone has settled about 200 cases and has some 300 still pending. Ford settled with the Rodriguezes for $6-million before trial. With more cases pending, the Texas trial had drawn scrutiny as the industry and personal-injury lawyers watched to see whether Bridgestone/Firestone could persuade a jury to assign at least some of the blame for the accident to Ford.
Rodriguez's brother, Jorge Rodriguez, was driving the Explorer on a family trip in March 2000 when the steel belt and tread on the right rear tire tore apart. The vehicle rolled 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 her three children, including 4-year-old Joel Jr.
"He wouldn't even climb up to the bed or be near her because he was scared. He would tell me, "My mama is dead,"' Rodriguez said.
Firestone lawyer Knox Nunnally said he thinks the company illustrated that Ford was to blame.
"The message anyone I believe would get out of this trial if they sat through all of the evidence is that (the Rodriguezes') Firestone tire was not the problem," he said.
A Ford spokeswoman declined comment, but analysts didn't completely agree with Nunnally's assessment.
"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.
Rodriguez's lawyers argued that Firestone officials knew the tread on the Wilderness AT tire was more likely to separate but rejected inexpensive changes to fix the problem, including 90-cent nylon strips.
"This tire has killed more people than Timothy McVeigh. That is the awesome nature of the tragedy," said Mikal Watts, a lawyer for the family.
Bridgestone/Firestone said the tire was fine when it left the factory but began to tear apart after the Explorer ran over a baseball-size object. Chief executive John Lampe testified that tread separation is not uncommon and that other vehicles could have pulled over safely after a tire failure.
"We are glad we were able to reach a resolution with the Rodriguez family," the tire 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."
In addition to the $7.5-million agreed upon Friday, Bridgestone/Firestone gave the family $350,000 upfront to help pay medical expenses.
Tab Turner, one of Rodriguez's lawyers, predicted more contentious litigation. Two suits that challenge Ford and Firestone are scheduled for state court on Sept. 10.
"These cases are not all identical," Turner said. "Some of these cases are more Ford cases than they are Firestone cases. There's going to be trials and there's going to be verdicts."
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