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In an apparent shift, Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford Motor Co. are moving to settle with foreign nationals who sued the two companies in the United States for alleged tire and design failures that led to Ford Explorer rollover accidents, two Miami attorneys who represent dozens of plaintiffs said Monday. Up to now, both companies have moved aggressively to settle cases with U.S. plaintiffs but not with foreigners, said Victor M. Diaz, a partner at Podhurst, Orseck, Josefsburg, Eaton, Meadow, Olin & Perwin in Miami who is representing 98 foreign plaintiffs. “This is a significant breakthrough,” Diaz said. “The defendants resisted very strongly our efforts to obtain jurisdiction in the U.S. and have denied liability throughout. It has been a long, difficult process.” Diaz previously estimated foreign claims at $750 million in damages against Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford and Nashville, Tenn.-based Bridgestone/Firestone. He and Mike Eidson, a partner with Colson Hicks Eidson in Coral Gables, Fla., have filed dozens of cases against the tire maker and Ford. A Bridgestone/Firestone representative declined to comment on whether the tire company has started to offer settlement deals. “There has been, and will continue to be, ongoing communications with plaintiff lawyers,” said Bridgestone/Firestone spokesman Dan MacDonald. “We have always taken the position that when we can reach an agreement that is acceptable to both sides and avoid a long, protracted legal process, we will try to do that.” Ford could not be reached for comment by deadline. Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford’s lawyers have argued that foreign nationals who experienced rollover accidents in their home countries should file suit there, not in the United States. “We believe these disputes should be resolved in the countries where the accidents occurred, where the plaintiffs and their families live, and where the witnesses and investigating officers are located,” Bridgestone/Firestone said in a written statement last year. But in March 2002, U.S. District Judge Sarah Barker in Indianapolis, who is handling the consolidation of federal litigation against Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford, gave foreign plaintiffs a boost when she rejected a motion by the defendants to dismiss the cases by foreign plaintiffs on grounds of forum non conveniens. The tire manufacturer and car maker had argued that U.S. courts would be an inconvenient forum to try a rollover accident that happened in a foreign country since all of the witnesses and the crash site are in that country rather than in the United States. Yet, while acknowledging that trying the cases in the United States may not be a particularly convenient forum, Barker ruled that holding the cases in the same forum — in other words, in the United States — “will be more efficient and will lessen the risk of inconsistent results.” Eidson said the offers from Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford, which came in the past two weeks, appear promising. He said that in many cases he is recommending that his clients accept. Diaz declined to say whether he is recommending that clients accept. “These are the first settlement offers that I am aware of for any of the cases from South America,” Eidson said. Both Diaz and Eidson declined to comment on why Bridgestone/Firestone, which is owned by Tokyo-based Bridgestone Corp., and Ford are now offering to settle claims by foreigners. These plaintiffs are primarily from Venezuela, Colombia, Costa Rica and Argentina. In the late 1990s, numerous Ford Explorer rollover accidents were reported in the United States, South America and elsewhere around the world. It was alleged that they were caused by tread separation on Bridgestone/Firestone tires and by design defects in the SUVs. Public anger over the injuries and deaths led Bridgestone/Firestone to recall its tires in August 2000. It was the second-largest tire recall in U.S. history. The tire maker has maintained that its tires were not defective and that the 2000 recall was for public confidence purposes because there had been so many accidents. The company blamed the rollover accidents on the design of the Ford Explorer SUV, an allegation Ford denied. The foreign plaintiffs alleging injuries from rollover incidents have sued both Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford. CONSOLIDATION Following the spate of reports of rollover accidents, so many lawsuits were filed in federal courts around the country that the cases were consolidated through multidistrict litigation. Those cases were assigned to Judge Barker in Indianapolis, who was given responsibility for ruling on all of the pretrial matters before sending the cases back to their original jurisdictions for trial. There have been as many as 1,000 cases pending in the multidistrict litigation. Eidson, who serves as co-chair with Diaz for the plaintiffs in the consolidated federal lawsuits, said there are about 300 cases still unresolved. Eidson has 35 cases pending against the two manufacturers. It’s expected that by the end of 2003, cases filed in the Southern District of Florida will be sent back and that trials will begin. U.S. District Judge Paul Huck has been assigned to hear these cases. The bulk of the South American cases were originally filed by Diaz and Eidson. There also have been some cases filed in state courts around the country. In February, a Broward Circuit Court jury handed down the first verdict finding that the Bridgestone/Firestone tires were defective and the company was liable for an accident. But the jury found the tire maker only 20 percent liable, and awarded only $55,400 in damages. Ford was not part of the trial. 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. Diaz and Eidson said they currently are in the process of presenting the settlement offers to their clients. Eidson said he plans to visit clients in Caracas this week. Diaz said he began client discussions last week. “If these cases settle,” Eidson said, “it would mean that 99 percent of the rollover cases in the Southern District would be settled.”

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