A California jury has ruled that Ford Motor Co.'s Explorer is defective by design, dealing a potentially severe blow to the image of the world's No. 2 automaker and America's best-selling sport utility vehicle.

But the jury in Barstow, California, that ruled against Ford late on Thursday also found that the company was not liable for injuries and damages suffered by Agop and Catherine Gozukara, whose four-door 1994 Ford Explorer rolled over on a California highway three months after theynd his wife was paralyzed for life, their attorneys said.

The jury found that the Explorer was defective due to a high center of gravity, narrow width and faulty suspension that allegedly combine to make it vulnerable to rollover problems, according to Garo Mardirossian, attorney for the plaintiffs.

"This is the first time in history that a jury has found this vehicle to be defective in design, in that it has a propensity to roll over," he said.

"The jury found that the vehicle was not fit for transportation," Mardirossian added in a telephone interview. "They're not off the hook at all."

But Ford stressed in its statement issued on Friday that the jury found that faulty repair work by an auto shop caused the Gozukara's accident, and not any problem with the design of the vehicle itself. Ford also said the Gozukaras were not wearing seat belts when the accident occurred.

"The jurors ruled that the Explorer did not cause plaintiff's injuries or damages," Ford's statement said. "The jury found instead that the vehicle had no role whatsoever in the accident or injuries."

Ford has struggled with safety issues related to the Explorer since August 2000, when Japanese tire maker Bridgestone Corp. said it would recall 6.5 million Firestone tires fitted mainly on Explorer vehicles. Ford later said it would replace all 13 million Firestone Wilderness AT tires on its vehicles because of "substantial failure risk."

HUNDREDS OF DEATHS

The U.S. government has said more than 200 people died from accidents linked to the tires, mostly involving Ford vehicles. Ford claimed the safety problems at issue were caused by Firestone tires, while Firestone blamed the accidents on the Explorer.

The California jury ruled not only that the used Ford Explorer model involved in the Gozukara accident was defective, but that it was faulty when Ford shipped it, according to a statement issued by the plaintiffs' attorneys.

Ford's redesigned 2002 four-door Explorer posted rollover ratings comparable with other sport utilities, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported last fall.

A separate NHTSA investigation found the rollover risk for Explorers was no greater than other sport utility vehicles during incidents of tire tread separations or blowouts.

Ford's shares were down 40 cents at $14.90 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange on Friday, well off their 52-week high of $31.42. Auto industry analysts attributed the stock's slump to the Gozukara case, although some said it was unlikely to have a long-lasting impact.

But Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA chief who heads the Washington-based consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said the ruling against Ford could be very damaging going forward.

"I think it reinforces the correct public assumption that these vehicles do have a susceptibility to rolling over by the way they're designed, and that is very clear," Claybrook said.

"And it's clear that Ford knew that, from all the documents that came out during the course of litigation and the congressional investigation into the Ford-Firestone problem ... They knew it was highly susceptible to rolling over."