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It was 26 years ago that Mike Eidson first took on Ford Motor Co. A green 29-year-old associate at Colson Hicks in Miami, Eidson was assigned to work with senior partners Bill Colson and Bill Hicks on the case of a 17-year-old girl whose Ford Pinto was rear-ended. The gas tank had exploded and the car had burst into flames, badly burning the girl. She eventually had to undergo 27 operations. Colson Hicks won a $3 million verdict for the girl in 1975, believed to be the largest in Florida’s history at the time. About a year later, in a watershed moment for the consumer protection movement, Ford issued a recall of the Pinto due to the model’s gas tank problems. Now a name partner at the firm, now located in Coral Gables, Fla., and one of the leading product liability plaintiffs’ attorneys in the country, Eidson finds himself pitted once more against the huge automaker, along with tire manufacturer Bridgestone/Firestone. He and Victor Diaz, a partner at Podhurst, Orseck, Josefsberg, Eaton, Meadow, Olin & Perwin in Miami, are lead counsel for all personal injury and wrongful death cases in the federal consolidated class action lawsuit against Ford and Firestone. That case is being heard in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis. Eidson, 54, is scathing on the subject of Ford. “Their corporate culture is to put profits over people,” he says. “They haven’t changed at all.” Going after corporations for allegedly unsafe products and services has been Eidson’s specialty in his 100 jury trials. In 1998, he won a nearly $100 million settlement against AeroPeru and Boeing on behalf of 40 families that lost relatives when an AeroPeru airliner crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 1996. In 1986, he won an $8 million settlement against Florida’s Hialeah Hospital in the case of a missionary doctor who experienced an allergic reaction to the dye from a CT scan and became brain damaged. But mostly he has done battle with the automobile industry. He has sued Mazda for an allegedly dangerous fuel system, Isuzu for allegedly excessive rollovers, and Ford for its passive seat belt system. In all his product liability cases, Eidson says, his main concern is getting the largest possible verdict or settlement for the victim or the family of the deceased. But if his cases force corporations to make safer products or recall defective ones, “that brings me tremendous satisfaction,” he says. Eidson helped found the Institute for Injury Reduction in 1985. The group successfully lobbied the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to require back seat shoulder belts on all U.S.-made cars. Eidson is so respected in the tort field that when the daughter of renowned Chicago tort lawyer Phillip Corboy was killed last year in a freak accident — she was crushed by the gate of a gated community in Naples, Fla. — Corboy asked Eidson to represent the family. “You don’t get a call like that unless you’re the best in the field,” says Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group. David Markarian, a partner at Heise Markarian Foreman in Miami, went up against Eidson on a highly contentious car crash case several years ago. Eidson represented the families of the two dead victims and one injured victim. Markarian represented the defendant’s insurance company. Eidson won. Markarian says he was tremendously impressed by Eidson’s performance. “What can I say? I never lose cases,” he marvels. “He’s a helluva guy.” HISTORY OVER LAW Becoming a lawyer wasn’t Eidson’s original goal. Raised in the small farming town of Decatur, Ga., by blue-collar parents, he excelled in basketball and track in high school and won a full athletic scholarship to the University of South Carolina, where he was named Atlantic Coast Conference Student-Athlete of the Year. It was there that he met his wife, Margaret, a nursing student whom he later encouraged to attend medical school. She’s now a pediatric endocrinologist and a professor the University of Miami medical school. The couple have three children in their 20s. In college, Eidson developed a passion for European history, art and culture. He was one of six students at the school chosen to study in England, where he focused on the Renaissance period. After graduating, Eidson wanted to become a history professor, but the job market for historians was dicey. So he applied to law school at Emory University and won a full scholarship. After graduation, Eidson went to work for Southern Bell (now BellSouth) as its in-house counsel and was transferred to Miami. He loved the city but found corporate counsel work “really boring.” Well-known Miami trial lawyer Larry Stewart encouraged him to become a litigator, so he applied to Colson Hicks and was hired. Looking back, Eidson says it’s no great surprise that he wound up as a plaintiffs’ lawyer. Growing up in the South in the 1960s, Eidson says, he always felt guilty about the way blacks and women were treated, and he developed a strong desire to help the underdog. “He gets very involved in some of his cases,” says his wife. A case he’s currently handling has really gotten under his skin. It involves a boy named Jorge Cabrera who was electrocuted at a Miami bus shelter two years ago, allegedly due to faulty wiring. That suit, against Eller Media, is scheduled for trial this fall. “He always says, ‘How can these companies let these things happen?’ ” Dr. Eidson says. In March, a Miami-Dade jury found the company not guilty of manslaughter in the boy’s death. FOES DOING HIS WORK Eidson’s long experience battling the automakers made him a natural for the role of co-lead counsel in the Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone class action. The job takes up the bulk of his time. Not only must he and Diaz keep the dozens of lawyers with cases in the consolidated action informed of developments, but they must make sure one of them or one of five other lawyers attends every deposition in Detroit. Plus, he and Diaz frequently have to fly to Indianapolis for hearings. He also has to keep his own clients up to speed. Eidson personally has four Ford cases left in the U.S. and 59 in Venezuela, which are being litigated in the U.S. He has already settled eight cases and is in the process of settling four more. The terms are confidential. The lawsuits have been consolidated in the Indianapolis court for discovery purposes. Trials will be held in individual cases around the country once the discovery is complete, which Eidson expects to happen by March. In recent weeks, Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone have begun battling, with each trying to shift blame to the other. That’s just fine by Eidson. “What they are doing highlights that both of [their] products are defective,” he says. “They’re doing the work for us.” Meanwhile, the two defendants continue to settle cases. Eidson predicts that only about 10 percent of the cases involving tread separation will ever go to trial. Eidson also is deeply involved in politics. A staunch Democrat, he says he was “heartbroken” on election night last year after he had begged his friend and collaborator Ralph Nader not to run for president and risk taking precious votes away from Al Gore. “It was his ego,” Eidson says. “It really hurt me.” Later on, Eidson helped Gore’s team in the ballot recount legal battle. Across the hall at his law firm, partner Robert Martinez lent a hand to the George W. Bush team. “We built a Chinese wall in the office,” he says. Friends say that ability to remain friendly and collegial with those on the opposite side of a case or issue is characteristic of Eidson. As an officer of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers and the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, he frequently flies to Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., to lobby. On Tuesday, he was in Washington to meet his latest hero, Vermont’s newly independent Sen. James Jeffords, and to discuss possible candidates to run for the seat of Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., when the 98-year-old dies or steps down. DANCE MAVEN Eidson’s other great passion is the Miami City Ballet. Eidson hasn’t missed a performance since the company was founded in 1985. When the company discovered that they had such a prominent devotee, the ballet company’s leaders asked Eidson to join the board of directors. Last year, he was chosen president. He spends lots of time on fund raising and helping the financially ailing dance troupe devise a long-term business plan. Edward Villella, CEO and founding art director of the ballet, says Eidson is a rarity in South Florida — a person with business leadership skills who is genuinely interested in art and culture. “He is a true leader, and the quickest brain you could imagine,” he says. Eidson and Diaz’s shared love of ballet has helped the two lawyers pass many hours in dance talk while waiting at the airport for delayed flights. Diaz recalls sitting in a Denver hotel recently, waiting anxiously for Eidson to return as their flight time drew near. It turned out that his colleague was late because he had been buying a ballerina statue. On their frantic cab ride to the airport, Eidson busied himself repacking his suitcase to fit the statue. Does Eidson ever wish he had chosen the life of a history professor, spending his days pondering the glories of Michelangelo, rather than trying to get corporate executives to admit their supposed greed and villainy? “I think that would have been a little too passive for me,” he says. “Once you’ve been in the rough and tumble of the world, I can’t imagine that.”

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