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Lawyers Try To Keep Cases Separate

October 17, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Lawyers suing Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. over tires involved in 101 U.S. traffic deaths are fighting about how best to proceed with a glut of cases in which millions of dollars in judgments may be at stake.

The first issue to be decided is whether to combine in one federal court the evidence-gathering process for hundreds of lawsuits already filed. Some attorneys for victims injured in accidents involving recalled Firestone tires want to keep their cases separate, arguing a resolution could be held up for years if their lawsuits are lumped in with others.

Defense attorneys from Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford Motor Co. and some plaintiffs’ attorneys say it would be more efficient to combine the cases during the discovery phase, when evidence is collected to be used during trials.

A panel of federal district judges heard about 90 minutes worth of arguments from about two dozen lawyers Tuesday morning and took the case under advisement. It will be at least several weeks before a decision is rendered.

Hal Kleinman, a senior associate at a Chicago law firm that has filed class-action suits on behalf of victims in the United States and overseas, said combining the cases would benefit all involved.

He said about 200 cases have been filed on Firestone tires nationwide, and all of the attorneys were going to need the documents and depositions of engineers and managers from Bridgestone/Firestone, which recalled 6.5 million ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires on Aug. 9 after widespread complaints of tread separation, blowouts and other problems.

``If they have to be produced in over 200 cases for depositions, it would be impossible,″ Kleinman said. ``Why have attorneys duplicating efforts?″

The government is investigating at least 101 deaths and more than 250 injuries linked to Firestone tires, many used on the Ford Explorer, the world’s top-selling sport utility vehicle. There also have been deaths in Venezuela and the Middle East, although the total death toll is unclear.

Each of the deaths and injuries had a different circumstance that should be considered separately, said Roger Braugh, a lawyer from Corpus Christi, Texas, who opposed combining the suits.

Braugh said many cases already had been through pretrial discovery and should not be held up waiting for other cases to go through that phase. He said Tuesday’s hearing on whether to adopt a combined, or ``multidistrict litigation,″ approach was a kind of power struggle between attorneys who want to control the case.

``The purpose of the MDL (multidistrict litigation) is to consolidate and let Ford and Firestone have some breathing room and to let a few select lawyers in control of the situation,″ he said. ``And that isn’t necessarily good for everyone.″

Both sides said they expected the panel of judges would decide to combine the cases for discovery. Braugh said the important issue would be which judge would get the case.

Ford, Bridgestone/Firestone and some attorneys argued for the case to be heard in Chicago. Other attorneys would like to move it to Tennessee, while Braugh and others were fighting for a courtroom in southern Texas.

``Everybody wants a certain judge or judicial district that they will think will be beneficial to their position,″ Braugh said. ``What happens to the personal injury cases that get sucked up is that they might not have the same interests as the companies and the class action attorneys.″

___

On the Net:

Bridgestone/Firestone: http://www.bridgestone-firestone.com

Ford Motor Co.: http://www.ford.com

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: http://www.nhtsa.gov

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