WASHINGTON—A Texas state district court jury has handed down a $29.5 million judgment against Ford Motor Co. and Mazda North American Operations in what plaintiffs´ attorneys said was the first ever to be decided on tire aging issues.
Plaintiffs´ attorneys and their supporters said the verdict established an important precedent and paved the way not only for more litigation involving tire aging issues, but also for possible government regulation of tires beyond a certain age.
"There´s now a great body of evidence that age causes the degradation of a tire," said Sean Kane, president of Safety Research and Strategies Inc., a Rehoboth, Mass.-based safety watchdog group with close ties to plaintiffs´ attorneys.
"They (the tire and auto manufacturers) have known that for decades," he said.
Kane has petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to set expiration dates for tires.
A spokesman for the Rubber Manufacturers Association, however, said the meaning of the verdict has yet to be determined. He said there already have been many cases filed against tire and auto makers, accusing them of failing to warn consumers about the alleged dangers of older tires.
A Florida bar magazine, the RMA spokesman noted, has carried an advertisement for months touting tire aging as the next big issue for product liability litigation.
"Whether this verdict stands or is reversed on appeal, this is an ongoing issue," he said. "It won´t encourage or hinder activity in this area, because the activity´s already going on."
Rose Marie Munoz was rendered quadriplegic on April 12, 2002, when the 1992 Mazda Navajo in which she was riding suffered a tread separation of a Firestone ATX tire and overturned.
The vehicle, though bearing the Mazda nameplate, was built by Ford and was identical in design to a Ford Explorer, said Roger S. Braugh Jr., the Corpus Christi, Texas, attorney who represented Munoz.
The ATX tire was one of the 6.5 million that should have been recalled in the massive Bridgestone/Firestone recall of August 2000. However, it was overlooked, and was being used on the vehicle as a spare tire, Braugh said.
In its Jan. 27, 2006, decision, the jury before the 117th Judicial District Court in Nueces County, Texas, found Ford and Mazda liable, among other points, for a "marketing defect." This meant the jury found that Ford and Mazda failed to warn Munoz of the dangers of using an older tire.
The jury found Ford 75-percent liable for the accident, Mazda 10 percent and BFS 15 percent. BFS settled with Munoz before the case came to trial, and does not have to pay any further monetary damages.
"Ford Motor Co. should no longer hide its role in the design of the Firestone tires sold as original equipment on Ford Explorers and Mazda Navajos," Braugh said in a news release.
In their prepared statements, both Ford and Mazda noted that Munoz wasn´t wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident. Mazda also said that the tire, in addition to being part of the August 2000 recall, wasn´t original equipment on the Navajo. The vehicle was traveling at nearly 75 mph when it rolled over, Mazda said, and Munoz was ejected from it.
Ford said it was confident the verdict would be overturned on appeal.
"Our concern goes out to Ms. Munoz, but this accident was caused by driver error," the auto maker said. "The Mazda Navajo is a safe, reliable vehicle and not the cause of either the accident or Ms. Munoz´s injuries. This is another tragic reminder that seat belts can help protect passengers only when they are worn."
Mazda said it is extremely disappointed in the jury verdict, and added it was currently evaluating its options regarding an appeal.
A BFS spokeswoman noted that because her company had settled with Munoz, no BFS representatives were in court for the trial. "It´s not unexpected that a jury would determine we bore a small percentage of the liability, since we weren´t there to defend ourselves," she said.
Ironically, although the RMA and the bulk of the tire industry have always insisted there is no accurate way to predict an aged tire´s performance, both Ford and BFS recommend to customers that they remove tires after a certain period of service, no matter their condition. Ford recommends replacement of tires after six years; BFS, after 10.