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A Texas case involving the hottest tort issue going — allegedly defective tires — came as close to trial as any of the more than 100 such personal-injury suits across the nation. Plaintiffs had dropped Ford Motor Co. as a defendant in the case — apparently to get to trial quicker, according to lawyers familiar with Guillen v. Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. — and 381st District Judge John A. Pope had set a firm Nov. 13 trial date. Pope even took the unusual step of issuing a gag order to lawyers in an attempt, he says, to keep jury-influencing news stories to a minimum. But instead of turning Guillen into one of the country’s most watched civil trials, lawyers decided that the Starr County, Texas, courthouse wasn’t the place for the first legal showdown since Bridgestone/Firestone announced the recall of 6.5 million tires in August. Many of those tires were used on the popular Ford Explorer. Both sides reached an undisclosed settlement in Guillen on Oct. 20, avoiding a jury trial in traditionally plaintiff-friendly South Texas. Lawyers involved in the case — Robert J. Patterson and Ray Alexander, who represent the plaintiffs, and Patrick Zummo, who represents Bridgestone/Firestone — did not return repeated phone calls. Meanwhile, on Oct. 25 a panel of 11 federal jurists assigned an Indiana judge to handle consolidated discovery for all federal personal-injury and class-action cases filed — now and in the future — against Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford. However, other lawyers involved in the tire litigation that was born in Texas, believe a case will soon reach a jury — most likely in Texas. Nearly half of all the individual personal-injury cases against Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford are filed in Texas. “There will be a case in Firestone where the plaintiff ” refuses settlement, says J. Hampton Skelton, an Austin attorney who is preparing Firestone cases for plaintiffs. The settlement of Guillen, involving a Rio Grande Valley couple killed when their Ford Explorer allegedly blew a tire, didn’t come as much of a surprise to Texas plaintiffs’ lawyers handling tire suits. At least four other cases in Texas have settled confidentially for millions, they say. The value of a tire case in the eyes of a jury — post recall — remains a mystery. And defense lawyers probably want to keep it that way as long as possible, Skelton says. “It would seem to me that the longer you hold off a trial with a headline-grabbing verdict, the more time you will be able to prepare a case for litigation,” says Skelton, of Skelton, Woody & Arnold. For now, lawyers handling tire cases will have to wait to see how the strengths of design defect arguments vs. allegations of driver negligence play to a jury — and what price, if any, may be placed on damages. “I think it’s in everybody’s best interest to have a jury trial and figure out what the price of these cases are,” says plaintiffs’ lawyer Mikal Watts. THE CORPUS CONNECTION A group of Corpus Christi, Texas lawyers, including Patterson, the lead plaintiffs’ attorney in Guillen, and Watts, filed tire cases last year, long before the recall and alleged defects became an international issue. (Many of the reported accidents involving the tires have occurred in hot-weather states such as Texas.) Because their cases have already completed the discovery process, Watts believes South Texas will be the location of the first Firestone trial. He has one case set for trial in March in Corpus Christi’s 28th District Court. “We were on the ball before the press got involved,” says Watts, who handles 28 PI cases and a class action related to the tires. “After the recall, there have been a lot of people on the ball.” On Oct. 25, an 11-judge panel in Washington, D.C., decided that federal personal-injury cases and class actions related to the tires would be consolidated for discovery purposes. Sarah Evans Barker, a U.S. District judge for the Southern District of Indiana, was assigned to hear pretrial motions. There were 115 lawyers at the panel hearings two weeks ago, according to Watts. The 11 judges on the panel are federal district judges from all over the United States. Although Barker will have authority over discovery for all federal PI cases and class actions, she won’t control individual cases filed in state court. However, defense attorneys can argue that state cases are duplicitous and ask Barker to take over that discovery process as well. The federal consolidation could mean a slowdown for tire cases that haven’t advanced far enough in the discovery process, Watts says, if defense attorneys with personal-injury cases in state court request that they be handled by Barker. “For those of us who don’t need discovery, we’re set for trial,” says Watts, of Harris & Watts. “Most people that are just entering it are going to find themselves bottled up in the [consolidated] discovery. For us, there’s plenty of light at the end of the tunnel.” A representative from Ford says the discovery consolidation would be helpful to all parties. “Certainly we think the consolidation will prove beneficial to all parties involved concerning the expenses and resources involved to conduct the discovery,” says Ford’s Susan Krusel. “The consolidation only affects cases that were filed or removed to federal court. They don’t affect state court cases, although we would encourage discovery coordination for the state court cases.” A Firestone representative could not be reached for comment. SETTING THE PACE In fen-phen litigation — the diet drug combo allegedly linked to heart valve damage — Texas lawyers scored one of the first big jury verdicts — a $23.4 million damage award in Canton — which set the pace for settlements. Whether a similar huge jury verdict in a tire case comes to pass will largely depend on how the defense handles settlement talks, says Kip Petroff, one of the two Dallas fen-phen plaintiffs’ lawyers who prevailed in Canton last year. Debbie Lovett v. American Home Products Co. later settled for an amount much less than the jury verdict, according to an American Home spokesperson. “The defendant is the one that holds the key to that. They offer enough money, and the client will take it,” says Petroff, of Petroff & Kisselburgh. The lawyers want to settle, he says. “But you have unusual situations where the client doesn’t realize the value of the case where it could go to trial and win a big verdict.” Issues in a tire trial may be less complicated than the medical testimony in fen-phen cases, says Bill Sims, a partner in the Dallas office of Vinson & Elkins who defended American Home Products, one of fen-phen’s manufacturers, in the diet drug cases. “I bought a tire, and it blew up,” he says, summarizing the cases. But bringing two defendants to trial on such a hot issue could put a kink in the litigation, Sims says. “By naming both Ford and Firestone — you never like to see a bunch of pointing fingers at the defense table. Plaintiffs love that,” he says. There are a myriad of causation issues that could be hashed out at trial. Improper tire pressure, erratic driving and bald tires are all issues that company lawyers can and have suggested as defenses. However, other defense attorneys expect settlement as the best option for the corporations, especially given the publicity the issue has received. “Under the current publicity that’s out about this particular issue, I’m not sure I’d be comfortable trying that case anywhere,” says Burgain Hayes, a defense attorney with Austin’s Clark, Thomas & Winters. Hayes is not involved in tire litigation. Notes Hayes, “The effect of the recall influences the jury’s ability to weigh causation in any givenaccident.”

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