Ford-Firestone Breakup to Help Suits

Hundreds of plaintiffs against Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Ford Motor Co. should welcome the business breakup of the two companies, attorneys say.

Some anticipate handsome verdicts over accidents presumably caused by faulty vehicles and tires.

"This is nothing but positive news for the consumer," said Tab Turner, an Arkansas attorney with some 175 cases pending against Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone.

The Nashville-based tire maker severed its 95-year-old relationship with the Michigan automaker Monday, saying it would no longer sell tires to its No. 1 customer. Ford struck back Tuesday with an announcement that it will replace all the Firestone Wilderness AT tires on its vehicles — some 13 million.

Bruce Kaster, a Florida attorney who had made a specialty of the tire litigation, said the Ford-Firestone split means the companies will have to reach settlements sooner.

"Because now if they go to court, Ford has plenty of ammunition against Firestone and Firestone has plenty of ammunition against Ford. And that means there's a potential for astronomical verdicts," Kaster said.

The bitter battle began last summer when Bridgestone/Firestone recalled 6.5 million tires the government has linked to at least 174 U.S. deaths and more than 700 injuries.

Many of those tires were installed as original equipment on Ford Explorer sport utility vehicles, which at times rolled over after the treads separated from the tires.

Ford accuses Firestone of making faulty tires. Firestone says its tires perform fine on other SUVs, so the problem is with the Explorer.

Hundreds of people have sued both companies over the accidents.

Turner said the companies have tried to settle cases quickly. He thinks the main benefit will be for victims of accidents involving tires not included in the Firestone recall.

"Ford is agreeing that ... that all the tires are bad," he said.

Bridgestone/Firestone recalled ATX, ATXII tires, and the Wilderness AT tires made at a Decatur, Ill., plant. Both Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford then said they believed the recall was sufficient.

But Ford now says it has data showing that Wilderness AT tires made at other plants have a high failure rate and need to be replaced. Bridgestone/Firestone says Ford is trying to distract attention from its data proving the Explorer's tendency to roll over.

"What these companies are doing instead of caring about consumers and that the tires and vehicles on the road are safe, they're trying to blame each other to save their own skin. That is about as sad of an effort as I can think of,'' said Indianapolis attorney Irwin Levin, the liaison for plaintiffs' lawyers in more than 200 federal personal injury lawsuits and class action cases consolidated for discovery before U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker.

But Levin isn't ready to predict the effect of the breakup.

"We need to let the dust settle. I doubt the volleys from one to the other are over yet. Let's see what happens over the next week or two,'' Levin said.