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Over the last two years, Bridgestone/Firestone has paid millions of dollars to settle about 700 civil lawsuits that alleged defective Firestone tires caused deaths and injury. Now, in a move that promises to cost Bridgestone/Firestone millions more, a subsidiary that operates Firestone’s nationwide chain of stores has agreed to settle a disability rights lawsuit brought by a small group of activists from Pompano Beach, Fla. U.S. District Judge Paul C. Huck in Miami approved the deal last week in a 26-page ruling that certified a class of “hundreds of thousands, if not millions” of Firestone customers and potential customers. The settlement “represents a comprehensive program by which approximately 2,200 of [Bridgestone/Firestone's] stores will be inspected and enhanced as may be necessary (or verified as already in compliance) to be accessible to persons with mobility and dexterity disabilities,” says Huck’s order. Bridgestone/Firestone has five years to comply. The settlement doesn’t commit Bridgestone/Firestone to pay any specific amount or establish a minimum payout, to fix existing barriers to access at its stores. Rather, it requires the company to hire experts to identify access problems at each of its stores and then fix those problems. Boca Raton, Fla., plaintiffs’ attorneys Donald Feldman and William M. Franz, who represent American Disability Association Inc., said the number would be well in excess of $10 million. Feldman and Franz are senior associates at Boca Raton’s Weiss & Handler. The consent decree provides for them to be paid $165,000 in legal fees. “We are very happy with the way this turned out,” says Franz. “This will provide access to all Bridgestone/Firestone stores in America.” “This case sets a precedent for other judges who are interested in seeing a great deal of compliance with the [Americans with Disabilities Act] within the lifetime of today’s disabled persons,” says Feldman. The key to settlement was the novel use of objective measuring standards to access known as “tolerances.” Tolerances allow for slightly different dimensional standards than the law provides for, so long as access is achieved. The settlement forecloses for both sides the uncertainty and cost of litigation. Huck’s order says litigating individual claims for each of the company’s stores would have taken years. Bridgestone/Firestone denies, in pleadings and the consent decree approved by the court, that its stores violate any laws that regulate access to public places of business. “This is a very structured and practical resolution to this case and provides that within five years that all of Bridgestone/Firestone’s retail stores will provide access to the disabled, to the extent that they did not already,” says attorney Thomas H. Loffredo, who represents plaintiff BFS Retail & Commercial Operations LLC. Loffredo is a partner in Holland & Knight’s Fort Lauderdale, Fla., office. Bridgestone/Firestone Americas Holding Inc. is the Nashville, Tenn.-based principal U.S. subsidiary of Bridgestone Corp., headquartered in Tokyo. The nonprofit American Disability Association used the Americans with Disabilities Act to file suit against BFS Retail & Commercial Operations LLC in April 2001. The suit accused Firestone of presenting an array of impediments to handicapped customers at its stores. The alleged deficiencies — identified by association testers in visits to stores in Florida and six other states across the country — include narrow doorways, high counters, a lack of ramps, poor door handles, inaccessible bathrooms and inadequate parking. Association founder Raymond Cessna is a partial quadriplegic who has been confined to a wheelchair since he fell from a roof and fractured his neck in 1993. Court filings show Cessna funded the group in 2000 with a $10,000 loan. Cessna and the lawyers say that money came from a multimillion-dollar settlement he received from a suit related to his injury. His case was not related to the Firestone litigation. To date, says Huck’s order, Cessna’s group has obtained settlements against more than 50 places of public accommodation in South Florida. The group is also litigating in federal court against Washington Mutual Bank, Goodyear and Enterprise Rent-a-Car. In the Enterprise case, Huck has given preliminary approval to class certification and a proposed consent decree similar to the one in the Bridgestone/Firestone settlement. Some other ADA plaintiffs’ groups have been accused of suing without giving targets a chance to fix problems. Cessna says he takes the opposite approach, but finds his group’s legitimate concerns are often ignored. “One of the things that the general public should know is that I’m not just out to hurt [companies] financially,” says Cessna. “All I ask is that if they receive a letter that they are not in compliance, that they take it seriously and live a day in my shoes.” Huck’s order calls the lawsuit a “paradigmatic case” for certification as a class action because the plaintiff was seeking purely injunctive relief as a remedy for alleged civil rights violations. Two days of fairness hearings were held before Huck adopted the negotiated settlement. During that period, and after initial objections, the settlement was approved by the Justice Department and the Florida attorney general’s office. Huck’s order dismisses what had been the lone remaining challenge from a group of 11 state protection and advocacy agencies that argued the settlement unacceptably watered down the legal standards for compliance. Those agencies are from Florida, Arizona, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Utah, Texas and Wisconsin. In particular, those agencies took issue with the use of tolerances drawn up by experts and agreed upon by both sides that allow for slightly different dimensional standards than the minimum requirements written into federal law. Tolerances, for example, might allow a ramp to be an inch narrower than the minimum width provided for in the law if the ramp provides de facto access. The agencies argued instead that each store should be subject to intensive, individual scrutiny. But Huck held that such a scenario would require years of litigation “with the inevitable result” of lengthy delays in getting problems fixed. The use of tolerances “helps accelerate the process of providing access by defining, at the onset, what is and what is not an acceptable condition,” the order says. Huck also chastises those state agencies as needlessly obstructionist. “This court finds the objector’s rigid view that all … tolerances must be rejected, to be incompatible, and in some cases antagonistic, to the class action vehicle and the best interests of the class,” the order says.

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