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Law school never prepared them for this. As the three Ford Motor Company attorneys trudged through the hallway of a Houston rehabilitation center, their dark suits and ties starkly out of place in the medical surroundings, they paused outside one of the doors. Then they entered the room containing Donna Bailey and the machines that keep her alive. The lawyers stood briefly at the foot of the bed in which she is confined, shifting uncomfortably from side to side, searching for something appropriate to say. But circumstances made that impossible. What can you say to an active, athletic woman who has been reduced to a quadriplegic, dependent on a ventilator to breathe? Even Bailey’s attorneys had to empathize with the lawyers from Ford. “They didn’t make this mess, they’re just trying to clean it up,” says Tab Turner of Turner & Associates in Little Rock, Ark. Still, “the meeting was very important to Donna,” says co-counsel Mikal Watts. This unique and uniquely uncomfortable scene occurred on the eve of trial, and marked the end of Bailey’s suit against Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. More than 200 suits alleging design and manufacturing flaws in Ford Explorers and Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc. tires have been brought. Those products are blamed for 148 deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In Bailey’s case, she was on her way to a rock-climbing trip when the Explorer in which she was riding overturned. Part of the deal which concluded the case called for the Ford attorneys to visit Bailey’s bedside and have the encounter videotaped. The attorneys selected for the field trip were John Mellen, assistant general counsel, and Peter Tassie and Jonas Saunders, both counsel in the products liability litigation division. The video can be viewed online at www.harris-watts.com. There’s a bit of “he said, she said” between the parties about the visit. Ford execs say it was their idea, and Ford’s outside counsel, Warren Platt of Snell & Wilmer in Phoenix, agrees. “I thought the videotaping was pretty tacky,” Platt says, “but the plaintiff’s attorneys wanted media exposure.” Turner, who has brought as many as 300 rollover suits against auto manufacturers, laughed when told that Ford claims it initiated the meeting. “I’ve been in this business for a long time, and they’ve never offered to apologize to any of my clients,” he says. Both he and co-counsel Watts of Harris & Watts in Corpus Christi, Tex. say that they initially proposed that Ford representatives meet Bailey face-to-face, that it be videotaped, and that it be a term of the settlement agreement. Ford agreed to do it and to be videotaped, but asked Watts to take the condition out of the agreement, and tape the meeting without sound. Turner and Watts agreed. The two sides also disagree about what was said during the visit. Although all parties agreed not to disclose the contents of the discussion, Ford insists that its attorneys did not offer an apology. “Ford asked if they could meet with the plaintiff out of personal respect to express their condolences,” says the Ford spokeswoman. But in an ABC News interview on Jan. 9, the following morning, Bailey described what took place as an apology. In addition to the appearance and video, Ford and Firestone paid Bailey an undisclosed amount, estimated to be $25-35 million. They also agreed to publicly disclose any information about the rollovers not already given to the government, and to inspect all vehicles and tires in the possession of Turner and Watts that had been involved in rollover accidents. Despite the different takes on the visit, relations between the parties are outwardly warm. Watts says that Ford and Firestone were “very conciliatory and acted in good faith throughout the litigation. This settlement had lots of details, and they worked hard to get it done.” The meeting, he adds, “was a class move.” The Ford attorneys refused to comment for this story. Their reticence is somewhat surprising, given the aggressive public relations stance Ford has taken with regard to its SUVs. The company has acknowledged that these vehicles have safety and environmental problems, and has pledged to improve them, although the company continues to sell them in their present form. Ford recently announced a long-planned update to the Explorer, which the company Web site says will have “rollover protection sensors.”

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