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A Broward County, Fla., Circuit Court jury Monday became the first jury in the United States to rule that the infamous recalled Bridgestone/Firestone tires put on Ford Explorers were defective. But the six-person panel awarded just $55,400 in damages to Carolyn Holmes, whose Ford Explorer rolled over on I-75 in 1999 after an ATX tire suffered a tread separation. Steven K. Hunter, who served as co-counsel for the plaintiff, Carolyn Holmes, said he knew going in that his client’s minor hand injury would not result in a large economic award. But he said he hoped that the plaintiff’s trauma experiencing a rollover accident with her two young children in the vehicle would move the jury to award a large pain and suffering award. Instead the jurors not only awarded a small amount, but they undercut the award by finding that Firestone was only 20 percent liable. They pinned the bulk of responsibility on Olson Tire Total Car Care in Pembroke Pines, Fla., which had serviced Holmes’ vehicle and rotated her tires 18 days before the incident. It was found 80 percent liable for failing to spot and remove the defective tire. But because the plaintiff already had reached a confidential settlement with Olson Tire, it is not liable for any part of the judgment. Despite the low damage award, the tire manufacturer was nonetheless disappointed with the jury’s finding that the tire was defective. “We are disappointed in the jury’s verdict. We believe the tires showed classic signs of underinflation and that the tire’s failure was due to long-term underinflation,” said Lee P. Teichner, who represented Bridgestone/Firestone. “Tires are not indestructible and if misused all tires can fail.” Victor Diaz, who co-chairs the federal multidistrict litigation on rollover accidents involving Firestone tires in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis, said the Broward verdict was important despite its small size because the jury rejected Firestone’s often-repeated argument that its tires were not defective. “What is significant is that the tire company has defended itself in many cases by trying to blame the defect on the plaintiff — the tire was in an underinflated condition or it was something else the consumer did,” Diaz said. “So to have plaintiff lawyers with a small case prove the tire was defective and that plaintiff was not at fault is significant.” Last year, a Bridgestone/Firestone case went to a jury in a Texas state court but the case settled before it returned a verdict. In the only other case to be decided by a jury, an Arizona state jury found for the defense. Holmes, a flight attendant who lives in Pembroke Pines, was driving in October 1999 on I-75 in Miami-Dade County when the treads on the left rear tire of her 1995 Explorer separated. Her car rolled over twice before coming to rest upside down. Holmes was in the car with her two small children, who were strapped into car seats and were not injured; Holmes suffered a scar on her left hand but had no other injuries. In 2000, she sued Firestone on strict liability and negligence grounds for manufacturing a defective tire. The trial started on Feb. 3 and lasted one week. The jury began deliberating Friday afternoon before coming to its verdict late Monday morning. Broward Circuit Judge Miette K. Burnstein presided over the trial. In the 1990s there were numerous rollover incidents involving three types of Firestone tires — the Wilderness AT, ATX and ATX2 — on Ford Explorers. The rollover accidents, which resulted in death and severe injuries in some cases, sparked a public outrage that resulted in Firestone recalling the tires in August 2000. It was the second-largest tire recall in U.S. history. Firestone has steadfastly argued that its tires are not defective and that the recall in 2000 was for public safety purposes because there had been so many accidents. Firestone has attributed the rollovers to the design of the Ford Explorer sport utility vehicle rather than its tires. Firestone was represented by Teichner and Marie Lefere, partners at Holland & Knight in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Holmes was represented in the case by Hunter and Stewart D. Williams, partners at Angones, Hunter, McClure, Lynch, Williams & Garcia in Miami. “I am very happy that the jury found the tires defective,” Hunter said. “Firestone argued before the jury that the tires were not defective. But it was the easiest case I ever tried to prove something defective.” The vast majority of cases against Firestone have been combined in multidistrict litigation in the Southern District of Indiana. The co-chairs for all of the plaintiffs in the multidistrict litigation are Diaz, a partner at Podhurst Orseck Josefsberg Eaton Meadow, Olin & Perwin in Miami, and Mike Eidson, a partner at Colson Hicks Eidson in Coral Gables, Fla. The cases in federal court are all personal injury cases. According to Diaz, there are about 500 cases pending in federal court. Of those cases, there are about 150 tire-tread rollover cases that were filed in the Southern District of Florida. Those cases are expected to begin going to trial before U.S. District Judge Paul Huck before the end of the year. But, like the Holmes case, there are also many cases around the country being litigated in state courts. Diaz said there are more cases in federal than state court. According to Diaz, Bridgestone/Firestone has moved aggressively to settle many of the cases in the United States. There also are many lawsuits arising from rollover accidents in foreign countries that will be tried in the United States. But Diaz said Bridgestone/Firestone has not been eager to settle those cases.

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