September 11, 2002 - Ford, Firestone Hid Problems, LA Jury Told

Lawyers for a college student injured in a 1999 rollover accident on Wednesday opened a lawsuit against Ford Motor Co. and tiremaker Firestone by charging the companies deliberately hid mounting problems with tire tread separation from consumers and the government.Cristina Hernandez, now 21, suffered brain injuries that probably ended her dream of becoming a surgeon when a rear tire on her 1997 Ford Explorer lost its tread and the vehicle rolled over, killing one of her passengers, attorney John Denove said in an opening statement before a Los Angeles jury. "This is a case about two companies who literally put profits over people's lives," Denove said.

If the jury renders a verdict, it would mark the first time a court in the United States has ruled on the question of whether the two companies are liable for tire-related accidents with the Explorer. Only one such case has gone to a jury trial, and Firestone settled before a verdict was returned.

Hernandez, a student at University of Southern California who still suffers cognitive problems, is seeking compensation for her lost medical career and punitive damages from the two companies. During his two-hour opening statement, Denove argued that Ford and Firestone, a division of Japan's Bridgestone Corp., equally share blame in the case because they jointly designed the tire for the Explorer.

Specifically, Firestone was compelled by Ford to create lighter tires that looked rugged to match the image of the Explorer, Denove said. To accomplish this, Firestone allegedly decreased the thickness of a key rubber wedge between the steel belts in the tire and also cut the thickness of the belts themselves.

The resulting product, Denove said, did not tolerate the heat resulting from road friction, allowing air pockets to build up and causing the tire to lose its tread more easily. In a computerized presentation, Denove showed jurors correspondence between Ford and dealerships in the Middle East and Venezuela dating from mid-1997, he said showed dealers were concerned about the rollover and tread separation problems. A 1999 Ford memo shown to jurors said in part: "We have so far been able to control this issue and managed not to have any kind of rumors spread around the region. Make sure that we do not alert the suspicions of the police/insurance in Oman that we might have a problem with our tires." A Ford dealer in Saudi Arabia also wrote in 1999, "It is very pathetic that our Explorer customers are losing their lives because of the Firestone tires," according to the memo shown in court.

By late 1999, Ford's own internal analysts had compiled graphs showing that some 1,200 Firestone tire failure claims had been filed, against just two failures for a more expensive Goodyear tire, Denove said. Lawyers for Ford and Firestone were scheduled to respond separately in court later on Wednesday. Federal regulators have linked defective Firestone tires to crashes that killed 271 people and injured hundreds more. Many of those tires were installed as standard equipment on Ford Explorers.

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