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The firestone tire recall and the rancorous debate over who knew what — and when — may have lingering effects on products liability defendants beyond Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Ford Motor Co., according to several top products defense counsel. The biggest burden will be on attorneys for Bridgestone/ Firestone and Ford. But Scott Lassetter of the Houston office of Weil, Gotshal & Manges said, “While this issue is hot, all automakers, all manufacturers of products will be affected.” “It’s a real problem for cases on trial right now,” said Warren Platt of Phoenix’s Snell & Wilmer. “People on jury panels are being affected by the Firestone issues.” During the jury selection process, he said, some prospective jurors “won’t even realize how much this has colored” their opinions. “Some will deliberately lie to get off or stay on the panel. They’ll conceal their feelings because they want to send a message.” POISONED MINDS “There is no question that this poisons the public mind,” said Pierce O’Donnell of Los Angeles’ O’Donnell & Shaefer. “This creates further antipathy for large corporations. Every time there’s an Exxon Valdez or a Bridgestone, this feeds those people who want to believe that large corporations put profits over people.” In a recent mock trial he conducted, “the jurors knew all about Bridgestone,” he said, and had become more “pro-plaintiff” than usual. “Large corporations are now right down there with lawyers” in terms of public perception, he said. To counter the backlash, defense attorneys will have to confront prejudice during voir dire, said Frank J. Daily of Milwaukee’s Quarles & Brady. “You have to determine the jurors’ attitudes and weed out jurors who are biased,” he said. “You have to be very careful that the jurors will not take that situation and apply it to every company and every case.” The plaintiffs’ lawyers in the Firestone tire cases will be pushing to try them in state court because evidentiary rules are more lenient in these venues, he said. This may be better for the defendants as well, Daily added, because defense counsel will be able to conduct a more extensive voir dire to determine juror bias. Juries are just one concern. Lawyers representing Firestone and Ford must urge their clients to be “completely honest,” said Lassetter. “Piecemeal revelations of the truth are like slow death. You can’t consider the costs” of paying off claims, he said. “You have to have a complete disclosure of everything you know. These Clintonesque half-truths will bury you.” The apology by Bridgestone President Matatoshi Ono, he said, will serve the company well in the coming years of litigation. “You’re not going to defend on whether there is a defect,” Lassetter said. “You have to turn that anger around.” AN EXTRA (BIG) WORRY Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford have an extra worry, however, which may affect how forthcoming the companies should be, said O’Donnell: “They have to be worried about criminal prosecutions.” But if a company refuses to produce a document, citing the Fifth Amendment, he said, this can harm any defense in the civil actions: “Adverse inferences can be taken.” O’Donnell said there is “a tension” between the companies’ public relations needs and defense requirements. “The companies have to survive. But statements by company officials will be considered as admissions to be used in court against the company.” During the congressional hearings and through the public relations statements made by the companies, “privilege can very easily be waived or lost,” Daily said. “You will provide evidence that shouldn’t or wouldn’t be otherwise available,” he said. “It’s important to be forthcoming, but don’t put yourself in the position of waiving or destroying a privilege.”

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