A Nasty Turn For Ford?

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One beautiful Saturday last march, Donna Bailey and two friends were headed for an outing at Enchanted Rock, a favorite climbing location north of Austin, Texas. Suddenly the Ford Explorer in which they were riding took a nasty swerve. "The tire just started separating, and my friend lost control," Bailey recalls. Although the pavement was dry, the Explorer skidded and rolled. Bailey's friends walked away. But the 43-year-old mother of two was left suspended by her seat belt, paralyzed from the neck down.

Today Bailey is a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic confined to a room at the Institute for Rehabilitation and Research in Houston. In December she turned 44, struggling to learn how to navigate a wheelchair she directs via a breathing tube. Though not a bitter person by nature, she wants justice for missing out on her kids' lives, not to mention her own. So this week, in a Corpus Christi courtroom, Bailey's lawyers will take on Ford Motor Co. and its tire supplier, Bridgestone/Firestone. The charge: that a defective tire--and more important, a defective car--took her livelihood. The principal defendant: the top-selling SUV of the decade, the Ford Explorer. Says lead attorney Tab Turner: "You can't divorce the two. It's a bad tire on a bad car."

The tire's flaws have been widely publicized since the recall that began last August. So far, tread separations involving Firestone tires have resulted in 148 deaths in the U.S., some 500 injuries and 275 other lawsuits. The recall stretches beyond the 6.5 million ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires, most of which were made at Firestone's Decatur, Ill., plant. Last week the company called in 8,000 tires made in Mexico.

But until the Donna Bailey case came to light, Firestone drew the lion's share of the blame. Ford executives had hoped their efficient, well-publicized recall efforts and contrite approach to customers would enable them to put the tire crisis behind them, particularly as they prepare to introduce the new, redesigned 2002 Explorer next month. Now it looks very much as if the nation's second largest automaker is about to enter an intense public interrogation over the extent to which flaws in the Explorer's design contributed to deaths and injuries like Bailey's.

The Bailey case is important because of the circumstances--a dry road, nobody in the car had been drinking, Bailey was wearing her seat belt, and the vehicle's Firestone tires were not involved in the original recall. Bailey, whose annual medical costs will reach $600,000, is seeking millions in damages from Ford, Firestone and the car dealer for gross negligence and malice. Ford has already settled 25 tire-related injury and death claims. But a flurry of last-minute negotiations last week failed to produce a settlement in the Bailey case. A Ford spokesman says they will go to trial if no agreement is reached.

Remarkably, all the bad headlines have yet to do real damage to Explorer sales. Ford sold a record 445,157 Explorers last year, up 3.8% from 1999. And while the sagging economy and dim outlook for auto sales will force the company to trim production of many vehicles, the Explorer isn't one of them.

The 2002 Explorer, which automotive critics acclaim, is Ford's bid to compete against the barrage of new SUV entries hitting the market this year. But as regards the rollover issue, the new model also represents a paradoxical gamble. The company is touting the 2002's safety and environmental enhancements, such as an elaborate air-bag system, wider base and lower center of gravity. Yet the question remains: Why weren't these changes made earlier?

That is certainly a focal point of Tab Turner's case. The Little Rock, Ark., lawyer has spent a decade investigating SUV rollovers, and has beaten Ford three times in court. He won a $25 million verdict in 1995 that involved the Bronco II, forerunner of the 1990s Explorers. Over the past eight years, he has taken more than 30 depositions from Ford and Firestone employees on the engineering and development history of the Explorer and the tires that were designed for it. A top Ford official, on videotape, admitted to Turner that Wilderness AT tires were susceptible to failure depending on inflation pressure and operating conditions.

Ford officials continue to deny vehemently any safety problems with the Explorer. "The Explorer has a phenomenal safety record and the lowest fatality rate in rollovers," says spokesman Jason Vines. The question now is whether that record will be enough to keep Ford above the assault of allegations that are likely to come as Donna Bailey's case goes public.