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It has been about a year since Rowe Brogdon’s Statesboro, Ga., firm quietly settled litigation over the death of rising football star Daniel Van Etten. But last week Brogdon and a key witness in that case found themselves at the center of the firestorm surrounding Bridgestone/Firestone and its national tire recall. Van Etten, a 19-year-old freshman scholarship player on the University of West Virginia football team, was returning to school from Florida in a Ford Explorer with four college friends on March 9, 1997. The tread on the vehicle’s left rear Firestone radial ATX tire separated from the rest of the tire. As Van Etten struggled to control the vehicle, the Explorer rolled over. The young football player was thrown from the car, landed on the pavement of the northbound lane of I-95, and died of blunt head trauma. Brogdon and two other partners at Franklin, Taulbee, Rushing, Brogdon, Snipes & Marsh — James B. Franklin and Daniel B. Snipes — brought suit in 1998 against Ford and Firestone. They alleged negligent design, manufacturing, and inspection of the Explorer and the tires. Franklin headed up work on the Ford part of the claim, while Brogdon took the Firestone work. Van Etten v. Bridgestone/Firestone, No. CV298-069 (S. D. Ga. April 2, 1998). The case settled last year, a week before a scheduled trial. KEY WITNESS The settlement, Brogdon says, was due in no small part to a key witness he located: a former Firestone employee at the Wilson, N.C., plant where the tires on the Explorer were made. Last week that whistleblower became Brogdon’s newest client. And the lawyer’s telephone began to ring. And ring. The Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, the New York Post, CBS, “60 Minutes II” — Brogdon ticks off a list of the callers. “It was quite overwhelming. That’s not the usual people I talk to in a week.” It consumed the better part of his time, he says. “More time than I would want to tell my partners,” he adds. Alan Hogan, a 33-year-old co-owner of a body shop, had appeared on “CBS Evening News” a week ago Monday night. He offered details of what he said were shoddy quality control practices he had seen at the Wilson Firestone plant during 1990-1997. The Aug. 14 broadcast followed Firestone’s Aug. 9 national recall of 6.5 million tires, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s announcement of an investigation into whether the scope of the recall was sufficient. By Aug. 15, NHTSA reported receiving more than 750 complaints about the tires and said it knew of at least 62 fatalities and 100 injuries allegedly related to a tire failure. BOYCOTT FOLLOWS Hogan’s charges didn’t sit well with some at the North Carolina plant. When he returned to town after his television appearance, he found an anonymous leaflet had been faxed to the auto dealership that rents space to his body shop. The flyer urged Firestone employees to boycott anyone associated with Hogan and called his remarks on the nightly news “vicious, malicious allegations.” The text of the leaflet, Hogan and Brogdon say, also appeared on television monitors in break rooms at the plant. Brogdon wrote a letter to Firestone last Thursday, accusing the company of interfering with Hogan’s contract and business relationship with the dealership. He demanded that Firestone issue an apology to Hogan on the national news within 24 hours and admit what the ex-employee had said was true. Brogdon hasn’t received a response and he doesn’t expect one, he says. He’s exploring all available options for Hogan, he adds. Hogan, he says, has “done nothing but tell the truth” and now Firestone is trying to ruin him. “It’s not right, whether it’s in Georgia, North Carolina or Timbuktu.” Firestone spokesman Walt Sharp says he understands an individual employee sent out the fax, and management had no involvement. As for Hogan’s allegations, Sharp says Hogan is one of a number of employees who have “a history of issues.” Firestone, he adds, “stands by its quality control at all plants.” WORKED AS TIRE BUILDER Hogan, who first worked for Firestone as a contract engineering technician, then as a tire builder, says he didn’t hesitate about getting involved in the Van Etten litigation against Firestone when Brogdon tracked him down in 1998. “Not when he said somebody’d been hurt. That pretty much did it for me,” says Hogan. And, he adds, “I knew right off Rowe was dead serious.” Hogan’s deposition in the Van Etten case, filed in the Southern District of Georgia, is sealed. But the ex-Firestone worker agreed earlier this year to repeat much of that testimony to a television reporter from Houston’s KHOU-TV. Brogdon says the Houston reporter asked if he would relay a request for an interview to Hogan. Brogdon did, and Hogan was interviewed in February by KHOU-TV’s Anna Werner. PRESSSURE TO MEET QUOTAS According to a transcript, Hogan said workers at the plant were pressured to meet production quotas and frequently used bad materials — rubber stock that was too old. KHOU-TV’s broadcast, according to one Associated Press account, prompted a jump in complaints about Firestone’s ATX tires. Since the Texas broadcast, Hogan says CBS repeatedly approached him about another interview, but he declined. It wasn’t until he heard reports singling out the Decatur, Ill., plant as the source of most of the problem tires, that he agreed to an interview. “It ain’t a Decatur problem, and I know it,” he says. Hogan says as a Firestone consultant for five years, he visited all the other plants, helped modify machinery, and participated in management meetings. Quality control, he says, “leaves a lot to be desired. They’re putting bad tires together and they know it.” Inadequate air conditioning in the plants, he says, causes humidity and condensation that reduces the adhesion of rubber to steel. And too often, he says, tires are made with old, defective material. Brogdon says he learned from CBS that his former witness had agreed to appear on the nightly news. “Next thing I knew he was on TV,” Brogdon says. His next call from Hogan, Brogdon says, was last Wednesday morning. Hogan had returned to Wilson, discovered the faxed flyer, and already decided to resign his position as manager of the body shop in hopes that the business would survive if he stopped working there. Hogan says friends tell him, “There’s a group of people who want to see you hung, but a bigger one behind you” in the Wilson plant, and he believes that he has more supporters there than detractors. Still, he says, “I’m staying as far away from Wilson as I can.” CONSUMER ADVOCATES In the meantime, consumer advocates are coming to Hogan’s defense. On the consumer Web site safetyforum.com, a “Tire Action Group” has urged the public to call and fax support for Hogan to the Wilson auto dealership and to Firestone. The group calls Hogan “an American hero.” Brogdon says Hogan is another Jeffrey Wigand, referring to the former Brown & Williamson tobacco executive who turned whistleblower. Brogdon says the analogy is a good one. In both cases, he says, “You’ve got this man that’s wanting to do, and is doing, the right thing, for all the right reasons,” and, in the process, puts himself in jeopardy. Brogdon says he intends to see his client through this. “I got him into this. I found him. Depending on which way you look at it, but for Rowe Brogdon he wouldn’t be in this.”

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