Our firm just settled a lawsuit that had been filed against Ford Motor Company and Firestone Tire Company. One of our clients, John Means, was driving his 1997 Ford Explorer on I-65 going north from Greenville to Montgomery. The Explorer suffered a tread separation on the driver’s side rear tire. When the Firestone tire detreaded, Mr. Means lost control of the Explorer and it rolled over five times. Mr. Means, April Powell, the front seat passenger, and Natasha Womack, one of the rear seat passengers, were severely injured and incurred substantial medical costs. Antoine Thagard, another rear seat passenger, was injured and eventually died from her injuries about one month after the accident. Mr. Means was airlifted to University Hospital, where he remained in intensive care for about a month with a traumatic brain injury. Ms. Womack suffered permanent memory loss and had to undergo extensive plastic surgery, including skin grafts, to repair the compound fractures she suffered to both legs. Ms. Powell underwent reconstructive surgery on her arm. All the plaintiffs are extremely grateful for the excellent medical care they received at Baptist Medical Center South in Montgomery and at University Hospital in Birmingham. Ms. Thagard’s injuries were irreversible and her death couldn’t have been prevented.
The evidence was clear that Mr. Means was traveling well within the posted speed limit and was operating the vehicle properly in every respect. Through discovery we learned that the 1997 Ford Explorer (UPN 105 code name) is susceptible to oversteer when there is a rear tire detread situation. The Explorer is basically uncontrollable when there is a detread for two reasons:
• First, when the tire detreads it has a tendency to pull the vehicle in the direction of the detread. The driver has to counter-steer, and when the tread comes off, the Explorer will suddenly go into an oversteer situation.
• The rear of the vehicle has a tendency to skate when a tire is detreading. Actually, Ford’s own testing displayed the skate phenomena. Skate occurs when the rear end bounces up and down at a certain frequency. Ford internal testing found that when the skate phenomena appears, the vehicle will slide in one direction or the other without the necessity of moving the steering wheel.
Firestone commissioned its own study of the Explorer which confirmed the oversteer problem before the U.S. recall campaign. John Lampe, the CEO of Firestone, ordered that Firestone employees park their company-owned Explorers, which was most significant. The Firestone FR 480 tire, although not one of the tires recalled by Firestone, was the same size, had many of the same design features, and was manufactured in the same plant where the recalled tires were manufactured. In addition, the tire had undergone an extensive cost reduction program that resulted in design changes that made it much more susceptible to detread events. From its outward appearance, the tire looked to be in good shape at the time of the detread. The tire had plenty of tread, was properly inflated and was being properly used at the time.
This case points out graphically how defective products can cause serious injury or death to people without any warning. Defects such as the tire detread and the Explorer’s handling capability defect are not discoverable or observable by the average person. The tragedy is that an accident like this can happen to anybody because of the defects. That’s the reason the public has to rely on the manufacturers to design and test their products to provide safety when the product is being used reasonably by folks like our clients in this case.
Greg Allen, Graham Esdale, and Ben Baker from our firm handled this most important case. Ted Bozeman, Russ Bozeman, John Gibbs, and Stuart Vance assisted with trial preparation, and Richard Hartley would have been active at trial had the case not settled. We were glad that we could work out a satisfactory settlement with both defendants. At the defendants’ request the amount of the settlement is confidential.
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