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Ford, Bridgestone Settle Case Just Before Trial

Courts: The lawsuit, brought by the family of two people killed when their Explorer rolled over, would have been the first tried against the firms.

July 17, 2002|MYRON LEVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A closely watched case that would have been the first tried against Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone instead ended in an out-of-court settlement in Los Angeles on Tuesday, just before the trial was to begin.

Ford and Firestone have reached undisclosed settlements in more than 600 cases nationwide, without one being tried to a verdict. On Tuesday morning, when Randy Barnhart, a Denver plaintiffs' lawyer, announced that the Los Angeles case had been settled, keeping the record intact, Superior Court Judge Anthony J. Mohr quipped, "Why am I not surprised?"

The case was filed by the family of Garry Meek, 56, and his granddaughter Amy Meek, 13, of Visalia, Calif., who died in August 2000 on their way home from a camping trip when a tire blew and their Ford Explorer flipped over in Wyoming.

Jeanette Meek, wife and grandmother of the victims, and four other members of the family were in court Tuesday but left without speaking to the media. Citing the confidentiality agreement, Barnhart would say only they settled for a substantial sum.

Unlike most of the other cases, the Meek suit went to the brink of a trial. The lawyers had spent 3 1/2 days picking 12 jurors and, to ensure completion of a two-month trial, a large panel of eight alternates. The lawyers were to begin their opening statements Tuesday afternoon.

Mohr also was told Tuesday that the next case scheduled for trial, Logan vs. Ford, had been settled too.

About 270 people reportedly died and an additional 800 were injured when Explorers rolled over after the treads separated on their Firestone tires. There were about 75 more deaths reported abroad, including in Venezuela, Colombia and Saudi Arabia. Beginning in August 2000, about 20 million tires were recalled, making it one of the largest defective-product scandals.

Altogether, more than 1,000 death and injury claims were filed, which the companies are busy settling. Among them were more than 150 California suits and about 200 involving foreign victims of rollover wrecks.

If the companies were going to make a stand in court, some observers thought they might make it in the Meek case because of what they considered to be favorable facts.

According to the defense, the tire that came apart on the Meeks' Explorer had 68,000 miles on it and had been patched three times for punctures. Poor repairs, not a defect, caused it to fail, they said.

"We're very pleased we were able to settle the case," said Warren E. Platt, a lawyer for Ford. "We try to resolve as many of the cases as we can, because it's in the best interests of the customer and the company."

The deal was announced as Mohr was preparing to rule on whether jurors would be allowed to see internal memos suggesting that Firestone and Ford deliberately withheld information from U.S. safety regulators about fatal accidents in the Middle East.

Firestone had sought to exclude the March 1999 memos in which Ford and Firestone executives discussed whether to offer replacement tires to Saudi owners of Explorers outfitted with Firestones after several reports of tire failures and rollover wrecks.

In one of the memos, Ford executive Charles Seilnacht said Firestone had "major reservations about the plan to notify customers.... First, they feel that the U.S. D.O.T. [Department of Transportation] will have to be notified of the program since the same product is sold in the U.S."

Seilnacht added that a lawyer in Ford's office of general counsel also "was concerned about the implications of the owner letter," similar to the Firestone concerns.

Ford eventually offered replacement tires to Saudi customers, but without notifying U.S. traffic safety officials. Amid mounting reports of similar wrecks in the U.S., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation in May 2000 that led to the tire recall.

In fighting to admit the evidence, the Meeks' lawyers described the memos as a "smoking gun" and direct evidence that the companies concealed the failures from NHTSA to avoid a recall in the United States at an additional cost in lives.

Although vehicle and tire makers are required to report safety-related problems, the companies later said at congressional hearings that they did not believe a tire problem in the Middle East indicated a safety problem in the U.S.

Legislation passed in the wake of the recall requires companies to report safety-related incidents that occur outside the U.S.

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