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A few days after Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. recalled 6.5 million of its tires, lawyer Michael Burk of Austin, Tex., bought up the Internet address “firestonelitigation.com” — and 40 other variations on the same theme. Despite his 41 soapboxes, Burk has yet to actually file a suit. He says he is in contact with other plaintiffs’ lawyers across the U.S. who are planning to file a consumer class action against Ford Motor Co. and Firestone “in the near future.” The Internet addresses will all funnel back to a single Web page containing as-yet-undetermined information about the lawsuit. Lawyers all over the country see opportunity in the escalating legal, commercial and public relations disaster for Ford and Firestone. Plaintiffs’ lawyers report scores of contacts from nervous consumers and from accident victims who think their crashes are worth a look. Class action lawyers have filed at least 20 cases across the country. They cover more or less similar legal terrain, although the specific allegations seem to change with each day’s newspapers. In New Orleans, lawyer Stephen Rue expects to file a class action soon, based on information from recently launched federal and state investigations of Firestone and Ford. “We’re letting the government do the discovery for us,” says Rue, who has bought rights to the name firestoneattorney.com. While there is no telling which of the overlapping class actions — if any — will eventually hit pay dirt, Rue says he hopes the consumer litigation will be consolidated into a multi-district litigation in federal court. A FEDERAL CASE At first, the government lagged behind the plaintiffs’ bar on the Firestone problem. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration pressed Firestone and Ford to recall the tires only after approximately 75 individual death and injury cases had been filed, according to Tab Turner, a Little Rock, Ark., lawyer who has networked with other lawyers suing the companies. Turner believes that as many as 20 individuals have filed suits since the recall, based on deaths and injuries allegedly caused by defective Firestone tires. Now the government is catching up — with a vengeance. Federal regulators are investigating, and on Aug. 31 they raised their tally of U.S. deaths allegedly caused by faulty Firestone tires to 88. The Senate and House are holding hearings. State attorneys general have begun to sue. And Venezuela has urged prosecutors to pursue criminal charges against Ford and Firestone. “Everyone on the defense side is so busy with the government and the media, the litigation has been slowed substantially,” says Turner. Longtime accident victims’ lawyers such as Tom Dasse of Scottsdale, Ariz., previously armed with the best data, are hustling to keep up with the fresh statistics the companies are releasing — in between potential clients calling, other lawyers calling to offer cases if you give them a cut, and then the lawyers calling again to take back their cases. There’s also the need to update open files. “I had a case I had filed before all this broke” involving a tire blowout on a Ford sport utility vehicle that tipped, killing one teen-ager and injuring another, says Dasse. He sued only Firestone. “Traditionally, you sued Ford if it was a handling and stability case — you know, if the vehicle began to tip while it was on pavement,” he says. “This case is not a good handling and stability case because [the SUV] didn’t start to tip until it went way out into the desert. But I am going to amend to bring in Ford on the basis that Ford had knowledge it concealed concerning these overseas accidents and then failed to recall or warn.” Despite Ford’s attempts to distance itself from Firestone, Turner says, the carmaker provided Firestone with the specifications for the faulty tires. Ford also recommended that drivers inflate the tires at a low pressure, which helps to stabilize the vehicle but adds to the risk of a tire blowout, he says. “Ford and Firestone are both up to their eyeballs in this problem,” he says. To make matters worse for Ford, it may have a second recall to organize. On Aug. 30, an Oakland, Calif., state court judge said in a preliminary order that he intends to order the recall of up to 2 million Fords with ignitions that allegedly cause them to stall unexpectedly. Howard v. Ford Motor Co., 7637852-2 (Cal. Super. Ct. Alameda Co.). Ford says that it plans to oppose the order in a hearing set for Sept. 28. NO CLASS Some lawyers representing plaintiffs in personal injury cases are rolling their eyes at the sudden interest of other lawyers — particularly class action lawyers — in joining a battle they have been fighting for years. “They’ve been such tough cases, nobody wants them. I was the only lawyer in Phoenix who did these cases,” says Dasse. “Now a thousand lawyers in Phoenix do tire cases.” Class action lawyers, unlike Dasse, will seek to recover the costs to consumers forced to replace their tires. Damages for each person would be low but could be multiplied by millions of class members. Lawyers for people injured and killed in crashes will likely go it alone, pursuing individual cases in hopes of getting big awards, possibly including punitive damages. Typically, these cases will be brought in state court, to avoid the delay of federal multi-district litigation. For their part, Ford lawyers are a little jumpy. “I got a call from a guy who does Ford work here in town who wanted information about other accidents,” says Dasse. “There was a report of a lady in the paper who was in an accident but wasn’t hurt, and he wanted information on the tire.” The Ford lawyer, from Phoenix’s Snell & Wilmer, didn’t state his purpose. At press time, he was on vacation.

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