- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 22, 2001

McALLEN, Texas (AP) Jurors began deliberating yesterday in a $1 billion lawsuit against Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. regarding a case that left a Texas woman paralyzed after her family's sport utility vehicle rolled over.
Firestone attorneys blamed the crash on Ford Motor Co., which made the Explorer SUV in which Marisa Rodriguez, a 39-year-old mother of three, was riding.
U.S. District Court Judge Filemon Vela gave the nine-member jury a 20-count charge to guide its deliberations, which lasted less than two hours yesterday and were scheduled to resume today. The judge asked jurors to determine whether the Firestone Wilderness AT tire had a manufacturing defect because of poor design and negligence.
"This tire has killed more people than Timothy McVeigh. That is the awesome nature of the tragedy," Mikal Watts, an attorney for Joel Rodriguez, said in a closing argument.
Mr. Rodriguez, a doctor from the South Texas town of Pharr, sued the tire manufacturer after his wife was left brain-damaged and paralyzed following the crash. His attorneys were trying to prove that Bridgestone/Firestone knew tire tread separation was a problem before it recalled 6.5 million tires last summer.
More than 200 deaths and 800 injuries in the United States have been blamed on Explorers rolling over after the tread on a Firestone peeled away. This is the first such lawsuit to go trial.
Attorneys for Mr. Rodriguez told the jury that Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. lied about the safety of its tires and should pay a heavy financial penalty.
"They don't have any morality. They have no shame," attorney Tab Turner said in closing arguments. "This is the day the American people can stand up and tell Firestone we're not going to take it."
The federal jury must decide if the tires, the vehicle or both caused the accident.
Firestone attorneys closed their case by arguing that the faulty design of the Ford Explorer made tires lose their tread. They said any other vehicle wouldn't have rolled over after a similar tire failure.
Firestone attorney Knox Nunnally used the last minutes of the trial to present internal Ford correspondence from 1988 that he said showed the automaker knew early on about faulty design of the Explorer.
Mr. Nunnally said the correspondence showed high fatality rates in rollover crashes involving its Bronco II, the forerunner to the Explorer. The documents showed that even company test drivers had difficulty handling the Explorer, he said.
"It is their job," he said, referring to the injured woman's family, "to prove with a preponderance of evidence that the tire was defective. We believe they have not yet done that."
The Rodriguez family has settled with Ford for $6 million, but so far has rejected all offers from Bridgestone/Firestone. The tire maker has settled more than 150 cases.

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