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Firestone Settles Suit, Pays Texas Family $7.5 Million

By Caroline E. Mayer and Frank Swoboda

Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. agreed Friday to pay $7.5 million to settle a lawsuit by the family of a Texas woman left paralyzed and brain damaged when a tread separated on a tire of her Ford Explorer, causing it to roll over.

The settlement was worked out in a brief morning meeting as a nine-member federal jury in McAllen, Texas, was entering its fourth day of deliberations. It avoided the first jury verdict against the tiremaker since the start of a massive recall of Firestone tires a year ago.

Attorneys for both sides met with the jury after the settlement was announced and said its members were not close to reaching a verdict. “They told us they still had a lot of work to do,” one of the lawyers said.

Lead Firestone counsel Knox Nunnally said that as a result of this case he expected the majority of the remaining lawsuits against the tiremaker to be settled on an “amicable basis.” The Rodriquez case was one of more than 200 cases that Firestone has settled. In addition, there is a major class-action lawsuit in Indianapolis, which is still far from going to trial.

While both sides claimed victory, the stakes were much higher for Firestone. The company had gambled its future during the two-week trial by trying to persuade the jury to assess at least part of the blame on Ford Motor Co. for the more than 200 deaths and 700 injuries attributed to the tire failures.

Most of the Firestone tires at issue were used as original equipment on the Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicle. Ford settled with the Rodriquez family for $6 million before the trial started.

Firestone said it was glad it was able to reach agreement with the family of the injured woman, Marisa Rodriquez, a 39-year-old mother of three young children. “Since the outset, when we provided financial assistance to help with the family’s medical bills, we have been hopeful that we could reach a fair settlement that would also bring closure to them following the accident,” the company said in a prepared statement.

Sources said the $7.5 million settlement was in addition to $350,000 in expenses Firestone already has paid for Rodriquez’s medical care.

As the jury deliberations wore on, sources said each side became worried about the possible verdict -- particularly after the jury asked for the maintenance records for the Rodriquez’s 1998 Explorer. The records hadn’t been entered into evidence, but each side interpreted the request as a sign of just how serious the jury was about assessing blame.

Firestone has been trying to convince federal safety regulators and the public that the tread-related accidents are at least partly due to the design of the Explorer. The automaker has consistently denied any blame, insisting the accidents were strictly the result of a tire problem.

U.S. District Court Judge Filemon Vela had instructed the jury that if it found Firestone at fault, it also had to determine how much blame, if any, was attributable to Ford.