- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 23, 2001

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. has taken a big gamble in allowing a lawsuit by a paralyzed and brain-damaged Texas woman to go to trial, but the bet will pay off if jurors find Ford Motor Co. shares much of the blame.

If not, the Nashville tire maker will find itself in even deeper financial and legal trouble, say lawyers and industry analysts.

The company's survival ultimately may hinge on what the U.S. district court jury in McAllen, Texas, decides. Jurors began deliberations Tuesday after more than a week of testimony. Those deliberations continued yesterday.

Bridgestone/Firestone had settled more than 200 similar lawsuits and not gone to trial in any case before that of Marisa Rodriguez, who was put in a wheelchair for life by a rollover accident that her family blamed on a defective tire.

"It was an enormous gamble and I'm not sure the conclusion will be what Bridgestone wants to hear," said Art Spinella, an analyst with CNW Marketing Research of Bandon, Ore. "But their backs were against the wall and it was something they had to do."

The company may have wanted to show attorneys for accident victims in some 300 cases still pending that it wasn't going to settle every time.

Asked if the company had assessed the risk of going to trial, Jill Bratina, a Firestone spokeswoman at the trial, said: "We are always interested in trying to reach reasonable settlements. If one can't be reached out of court, we are willing to take a case to trial."

A trial also presented a new opportunity and venue to put Ford on the spot.

Firestone contends that the design of the Ford Explorer is responsible for rollover accidents that occur when tires come apart. However, Ford has been more effective in convincing the public that Firestone alone should be blamed, if anyone should, for crashes on U.S. roads that have left at least 200 dead and 800 injured.

"Firestone could never win a PR battle with Ford, and this became the only way to air the entire issue," Mr. Spinella said.

Since Ford had settled with the Rodriguez family for $6 million, Firestone essentially could put Ford on trial, too, without the automaker's attorneys being present to offer a defense.

"Firestone had the case half-won when Ford settled. They could say, 'Ford was obviously at fault, they paid to get out of it. We're here because we're innocent, we're protecting our name,' " said Bob Fisher, a crisis communications specialist in Los Angeles.

"The only way Firestone could lose is if the jury has the mind-set to hang everyone in sight."

During the trial, Bridgestone/ Firestone attorneys tried to convince jurors that Ford's design of the Explorer sport utility vehicle contributed to the peeling of the tire treads. They also argued that other vehicles don't roll over if the tread comes off a tire.

After closing arguments, Judge Filemon Vela ordered jurors to decide whether Ford was partly responsible for the accident, and if so, how much.

Bridgestone/Firestone will have to pay the entire judgment only if jurors find that the company is at least 51 percent to blame for the accident. Otherwise, the company will pay only a share.

Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, called the tire maker's strategy "Russian roulette."

"Even if Ford is found culpable, Firestone is too. It's the lethal combination of the two," she said.

Earlier this month, Bridgestone Corp. reported a $251 million loss for the first six months of the year, including a one-time charge of $564.3 million because of the tire recall and restructuring. The company had earned a profit of $155.2 million during the first half of 2000.

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