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In 2000, C. Tab Turner sowed. In 2001 he reaped. After a year in which he helped ensure that rollover accidents involving Ford Explorers and Firestone tires grabbed headlines across the United States, Turner in 2001 battled the two companies in court while he settled cases for tens of millions outside court. As a result, Turner, a North Little Rock, Ark., lawyer who has made a career of rollover crashes involving sport-utility vehicles, or SUVs, became the most visible trial lawyer on what may be the biggest automotive liability story ever. RECALL How did the Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone problems become so firmly lodged in the public consciousness? According to Turner, 42, demographics had a lot to do with it. So did Turner. “This was the first time that people who were middle-class and up were the victims,” said Turner, “from congressmen to senators to lawyers, doctors and judges.” In August 2000, responding to reports of catastrophic rollover crashes caused by the failure of Firestone tires sold as original equipment on Ford Explorers, Firestone recalled 6.5 million Wilderness AT, ATX and ATX II tires. A 2001 recall by Ford would later raise the number of recalled tires to nearly 20 million. The recalls touched off a firestorm of lawsuits, in addition to congressional hearings and press reports detailing safety problems with Firestone tires and Ford Explorers, many of them based on Turner’s knowledge and vast collection of industry documents. According to federal safety regulators, as of Sept. 5, the tires were implicated in 271 traffic deaths. The year 2001 began with Tab Turner preparing for the first rollover trial against Ford and Firestone since the recall, which had been set to open Jan. 8. On the eve of trial, Turner and his co-counsel settled on behalf of Donna Bailey, a 43-year-old physical trainer paralyzed from the neck down in an Explorer rollover, for an amount that has been reported to be at least $25 million. As part of the settlement, Ford lawyers traveled to Bailey’s bedside in Houston to apologize. The rest of 2001 brought more litigation for Turner, including a reported $7.5 million settlement with Firestone in August that came during jury deliberations in a second trial. In all, Turner settled between 100 and 120 cases with Ford and Firestone in 2001 for confidential amounts. In total, the two companies reached settlements worth hundreds of millions with Turner and other lawyers. While representing individual clients, Turner is helping to coordinate discovery for the plaintiffs in a federal multidistrict litigation in Indianapolis involving Ford and Firestone. And he argued successfully for class certification of consumer claims in a case seeking billions of dollars for owners of Ford Explorers and Firestone tires who were not injured. Automotive products liability litigation has often been characterized by scorched-earth tactics and rancorous relations among adversaries. Lawyers say that Turner’s cordial, businesslike manner of dealing with defense lawyers and other plaintiffs’ lawyers stands out. Turner says he takes his approach from his father, a lawyer who served on the Arkansas Supreme Court. “Some people think of this as being all-out war. He taught me that you can have a difference of opinion without hating each other.” How does Turner keep on top of cases scattered around the country? “Tab wouldn’t be Tab without a cell phone, laptop and an airplane” — referring to Turner’s private jet — said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen and former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Turner expects 2002 will see the resolution of most litigation against Ford and Firestone over the recalled tires. “I think when we get to December 2002, you will have seen some litigation. It’s just inevitable. But I think 99.99 percent of these cases will be settled.”

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