‘Odyssey’ of Litigation Sparks Lawyer’s Popular Tire Safety Project

L-R Matt Wetherington and Michael Werner, The Werner Firm, Atlanta.

Greg Land, Daily Report

A final, confidential settlement with Ford Motor Co. has ended a multidefendant suit involving a woman injured when a tire that was supposed to have been recalled nearly 12 years earlier blew out, sending the Ford Explorer she was driving tumbling on I-85.

Over the course of the litigation, other defendants including the tire’s manufacturer, Bridgestone, settled with the plaintiff. All but one of the settlements was confidential; late last year, McDonough’s Spartan Lincoln Mercury paid $3 million to resolve the claims against it.

The suit is one of many involving the tires, which have been blamed for thousands of accidents and spurred myriad lawsuits nationwide.

It also helped catapult plaintiffs lawyer Matthew Wetherington’s Tire Safety Group—a project that tracks tire recalls back to 2001 and allows anyone to inquire about a tire’s status by entering its Department of Transportation code, free of charge—from a small community service endeavor to a resource that he said draws more than 50,000 visitors a month.

“This was probably the greatest settlement odyssey I can think of,” said Wetherington of the Werner Law Group, who handled the case with partner Michael Werner.

The case involved an accident in October 2012 after Kristen Rose, then 26, was driving a 1998 Explorer on I-85 in Coweta County when one of the tires had a “sudden and catastrophic tread separation,” causing her to lose control and roll over.

Rose suffered several injuries, including an 8-inch gash from the top of her eye to the back of her head and an acetabular fracture, or break in the socket of the hip joint.

“She still has a scar and walks with a limp,” said Wetherington. “She was a model at the time; that’s over as well.”

According to the lawyers and court filings, Bridgestone in 2000 recalled more than 14 million tires at the urging of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration after more than 120 fatalities were linked to its ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires.

The tire on the SUV Rose was driving was not included in that initial recall but was among a later Bridgestone recall and was among about 13 million tires Ford recalled in 2001.

According to the complaint, more than 23 million tires were ordered recalled by Bridgestone and Ford.

As part of the recall, Ford called upon dealerships to replace the tires subject to recall, and in 2001 the Explorer was taken to Spartan, where four of its tires were exchanged. But the fifth, spare tire was allowed to remain.

“We discovered through Ford’s filings with NHTSA that Ford had a systematic practice of allowing its dealers to replace four of the five tires on these vehicles,” Werner said.

The lawyers said Bridgestone and Ford have claimed that the recall effort recovered 95 percent of the subject tires but that reports to NHTSA indicated that the actual figure is about 50 percent.

A large portion of the accidents attributed to failure of the Wilderness tires involved spare tires that were allowed to remain on vehicles, Wetherington said.

In 2014 Rose filed a 10-defendant suit in Fulton County State Court.

There were complications, the lawyers said. For one, there were indications that the vehicle may have been stolen at some point and had a fraudulent title. Defense lawyers also raised the issue of Rose having been ejected from the rear of the vehicle to suggest that “maybe she wasn’t wearing a seatbelt,” he said.

“They also went back and got her pharmacy records and found out she had prescriptions for a lot of painkillers,” said Werner, the result of extensive injuries from a prior incident.

Bridgestone was among the first to settle, they said, and on March 24, Ford–the “last one standing”—was dismissed with prejudice. Wetherington said some difficulties ironing out liens and disbursements for the settlement kept them from discussing it until now.

A Ford spokesman said in an email, “We take the safety of our customers very seriously and this was certainly a tragic situation. We have no further comment on the case.”

Bridgestone spokesman Paul Oakley said the company had worked to recall the tires and that any sale of them was illegal.

“Those programs have been widely recognized to be among the most effective major tire replacement programs in history,” Oakley said.

The company launched another campaign to recover the subject tires in 2006, he said, “and has reached out to drivers through its stores, dealers and media campaigns, as well as tiresafety.com to raise awareness and educate consumers on how to get their tires replaced free of charge.”

Werner and Wetherington said Bridgestone’s campaign was not as successful as it claimed.

“As part of the suit, we asserted punitive damages claims against Ford and Bridgestone for allegedly misleading federal and state agencies about the efficacy of the Firestone Wilderness Recall program,” Wetherington said.

The duo are preparing two more suits against Bridgestone and Ford related to the recalled tires.

Wetherington’s Tire Safety Group project has drawn the attention of NHTSA, he said, and he is in discussions with the agency about launching its own similar project or possibly adopting his lookup tool.

Wetherington said he has a “fairly large team” tasked with inputting data for the website, but he is its public face.

“My phone rings constantly,” he said. “I have personally been involved in hundreds of calls from people asking about recalled tires. That’s accidents we’re preventing—it’s fantastic.”

There is no attorney advertising on the website, he noted.

“This is not a play for cases.”

Wetherington said the public is underserved by the present regime for tire recalls.

“As it currently stands, around 20 percent of recalled tires are removed from service,” he said. “That has to change.”

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